Three Keys to Composite Images

I’m sure if you’ve spent much time at all in photography and Photoshop groups online you’ve seen both good and bad examples of composite photos…but what are the KEY elements that help push your work into that good or great category?

Fantasy Steampunk-Steve vs Blue_V3_Sources

I’ve spent a good deal of time doing these and reviewing them with other Photoshop wizards, and ultimately the three things that almost always MUST be done effectively in order to create a convincing composite image are:

1.       Lighting

2.       Perspective

3.       Clean cut-out of elements.

If any one of these elements is off, the viewer may not know exactly what is wrong but they will just have a feeling that something isn’t right with the image. Even without extensive knowledge of Photoshop and photography, people are just used to seeing the world in a way that conforms to natural laws…how light works, how distance is perceived and how objects fit into a scene.

With photos, and 2-dimensional art forms, you are representing a 3-dimensional world in a flat plane. That creates some challenges in perception for creators and viewers alike, but with movies and TV all being a regular part of our lives, we are accustomed to seeing things this way. How you fit elements into an image in Photoshop should come as close as possible to matching up with this standard, if your aim is to represent your art in a realistic way.

For example – one of my pet peeves is moon composites. Tell me, how many times have you looked up at the moon and seen it floating IN FRONT of the clouds??

Think about that. IT IS PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE. Yet I constantly see composite images, many times played off as real in-camera captures, where the moon is right there, front and center…and the clouds are floating by behind it.

OK, so let’s dig into these elements a bit further. What do you need to know to make them work for you, rather than against you?


There are a few components of this that come into play with composite imagery. The color, saturation, direction and “softness” of the light in your image should all be consistent. When you are combining images from multiple sources it is nearly guaranteed that there will be variations in the color temperature of the source files. Photoshop can adjust that easily, with hue and saturation or photo filter adjustment layers. Making effective use of these can bring the separate elements together as a cohesive image.

Shadows and shading around your objects needs to match the scene. If you have your main light source coming in from the right of the frame, the shadows should fall off to the left, and highlights on the subject should be toward the light. Sometimes simply flipping an element horizontally is all that is needed to make this work…other time careful hand-shading is needed to get it perfected.


If you haven’t had any background in art classes, perspective in a 2-dimensional image may be a new concept to you, but our brains are really good at telling us when something is out of perspective. Think about the view down a path. The lines of the edges all converge to a point, the line between the ground and the sky is called the horizon line, and these converging “vanishing lines” meet at that point.

People and other objects placed into the scene need to adhere to that overall perspective, both in their physical lines, and overall size and position relative to the horizon.

Clean Cut-outs:

Nothing shouts composite louder than blurry discolored edges around the outside of a subject. Especially with wispy flowing hair…if it is noticeably cut short or has a halo effect to it, your viewer is going to pick up on that and know something isn’t right.

So taking the time to master extractions is critical to crafting a believable composite photo. Luckily, Photoshop has a slew of tools dedicated to this task, and techniques like shooting on a green screen can greatly speed up the process of cutting out your subjects and other elements.


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Lastly – we offer hands-on classes that take you through the entire process, from shoot to finished edit.

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Behind the scenes of our last compositing class

Madi Sources


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