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Use Layer Masks to Create Unique and Fun Composite Images

In the old days (not that long ago!) creative photographers used unconventional darkroom techniques to create composite images. The results were not always consistent – sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. Today with a bit of planning, a tripod and Photoshop, you can reliably create interesting and unique composites images. In this quick guide, I walk you through the basic steps of bringing together several digital photographs to create a composite image. This technique can extend well beyond creating silly shots of your kids by allowing you to combine elements together in a single photograph that wouldn’t normally be present at the same time. Let’s get started!

Learn How to Create Composite Images in Photoshop

I am going to use an example of my son climbing onto an old pickup truck (click the image above to take a better look). Just to be clear, I have one son! This is simply a string of digital photographs of my son climbing onto a truck that have been brought together in Photoshop as a single composite image. To create this composite, I secured my camera onto a tripod. I also connected a shutter release cord so that I could fire off the images without bumping the camera. Next I composed the image and manually set the aperture, shutter speed and white balance so that they didn’t change automatically from frame-to-frame. Although it can be a little tedious, setting your camera manually can help make the processing the final composite easier later on in Photoshop. If your exposure, color balance or depth of field vary from one image to the next, it can be tough to match things up later on.

Once you are setup, it is time to begin shooting. For this portrait shoot (yes, I am calling it a portrait shoot!), I had my two year old son climb onto the side footboard of the truck and work his way up to the front fender. As he climbed onto the truck, I began taking multiple exposures with my camera. Many of the shots were throwaways as he moved very slowly and even fell off a few times. Anytime you are shooting movement (even slow movement) make sure you have the shutter speed dialed up a bit. In this image, I set my shutter speed to 1/100 of a second with the aperture at f/5.6. This was plenty of speed to capture my son as he climbed along the truck in this sequence. Once you think you have enough shots, it’s time to take the images into Photoshop for processing.

Having shot this sequence with a tripod made creating the composite a cinch! I always pick a base photograph to serve as the main background. In this case, I used one of the first images of my son standing on the footboard of the truck. I then brought in the remaining two images and placed them on top of the base photograph. One showed my son half way up the fender and the other showed him sitting on the fender. All three positions of my son on the truck were far enough apart to make the sequence interesting.

Base Photograph
Learn How to Create Composites with Photographs in Photoshop

Composite Image #2
Learn How to Create Composites with Photographs in Photoshop

Composite Image #3
Learn How to Create Composites with Photographs in Photoshop

After picking the images I wanted to combine into the composite (you can literally use as many as you wish), I cropped the two composite images down to help reduce the overall file size of the final composite. Be sure to leave plenty of space around the area of the image you are cropping so that you have enough visual cues to easily line it up within the base photograph. Once the second image was cropped, I used the Move tool (“V” key) to drag it onto the main background image. With the second version of my son moved on top of the base photograph, I eased him into place climbing onto the fender. You can turn the layer’s visibility off and on to confirm that the composite image is in the right place by clicking the little eye ball in the layers pallette. It can also help to turn the opacity of the composite image down to 50-60%. By doing this, you can see through the composite image to the main base photograph. This can be a big help when you are trying to line things up.

Cropping the Second Image
Inserting a Photograph Into a Composite Image Project

Moving the Second Image Into Place
How to Insert Multiple Photographs Into a Composite Image

Next it is time to create a layer mask. Adding a layer mask will help you fine tune your final composite image. Make sure the second image is selected in the layers palette. With the second image selected, click the “Add Layer Mask” icon at the bottom of the layers palette. Now go up to the main menu and select Edit and then Fill. Fill the layer with black. You should notice the second composite layer disappear. It’s not gone – it’s just hidden by the layer mask you created.

Create a Layer Mask
Using Layer Masks in Photoshop to Create Composite Images

Now grab the paint brush and go back to where you left the second image and begin carefully painting the area with white. Make sure that you have the mask selected and that you are not painting directly onto the composite layer. You should start to see the second image reveal itself as you paint. Using a soft paint brush will help you create a natural transition between the composite image and the background. Right click anywhere in the main photograph with the paint brush tool to adjust the softness of the brush. You can switch back to black to paint over any areas that you didn’t mean to reveal with the white brush.

Note: Press the “D” key to set your foreground and background colors to black and white. Then use the “X” key to switch back and forth between the two colors as you paint.

You did it! Now repeat this process with any additional images you wish to include in the main photograph. For this composite of my son climbing onto the truck, I brought in several other images including one of a properly exposed sky. I have added birds, the moon and other elements to digital photographs just to jazz them up a bit (in this shot I brought in the moon from a different photograph to add some interest to the sky). Just remember – crop, move, add a layer mask, and paint! It’s just that easy!

Guide to Creating Composite Photographs in Photoshop

About the Author
Steve Paxton lives with his wife and two children in the Seattle area. Steve has been a photographer for nearly 20 years. His experience ranges from wedding and portrait work to landscape photography.

Steve owns and manages the F/Stop Spot; a website dedicated to supporting photographers of all skill levels. You can find more of Steve’s work at Paxton Prints and Paxton Portraits.

One Comment

  1. This is great, helped loads with my college project 🙂 Thanks!


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