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Beyond photography: creating digital composites

Photography becomes the raw material in a creative process of extraordinary potential. Thinking about the final creation with precious ingredients such as photography, post-production and the creativity that inspires every digital artist.

Digital Compositing: photography feeds ideas

Back in the early analogue age, we saw the creative phenomenon of the first rudimentary photo montages; images created using a technique cleverly combining intimately interrelated subjects (people, backgrounds, objects) in such a way as to convey the illusion of a photograph captured in one single shot.

The devilish combination of ‘1’ and ‘0’ that identifies the digital age has enhanced the technology of photo montages (known as Digital Composites), transforming them into a powerful tools of visual communication, free from technical constraints and open to every possible artistic interpretation, as is clear from many advertising productions of recent years.

Personal project created using two superimposed images and Chroma Key cut-out. Sportsman: Maestro Alessandro Aguzzi.
Personal project created using two superimposed images and Chroma Key cut-out.
Sportsman: Maestro Alessandro Aguzzi.

In this article, we will summarize the creative process behind a composite image, detailing the three essential stages: photographing subjects and backgrounds, cutting out subjects and creating the perfect illusion!

Stage 1: Photographing subjects and backgrounds

The Digital Composition process can be likened to work in the kitchen: You consider the final dish (concept), you identify the stages of preparation and cooking (creative process) and you gather the necessary ingredients (photographs of the subjects). Thus the photograph becomes the source from which to obtain the basic elements to blend together, including people, objects, surrounding elements and, of course, the backgrounds (natural or artificial, often created using 3D modelling and rendering techniques).

The first stage consists of photographing the subjects that are to be placed in the backgrounds, taking care to follow certain basic rules such as focal length, perspectives, camera position and light sources, so that the results obtained are realistic and natural.

One technology that is much sought after for its precision and, above all, for its rapid cut-out speed, is known as Chroma Key, developed in cinematography for use in special effects and virtual settings; the subject is photographed on a specific Green or Blue background and then a particular software separates the subject from this background, leaving one which is transparent and easily interchangeable.

Original image taken using Chroma Key and compatible green background. Sportsman: Maestro Alessandro Aguzzi.
Original image taken using Chroma Key and compatible green background.
Sportsman: Maestro Alessandro Aguzzi.

The backgrounds on which to position your subject can be photographed directly, taken from the many sites offering stock images or modelled using 3D applications such as 3D Studio and Cinema 4D. In general, the preferred backgrounds are created by taking pictures of selected, natural backgrounds from different angles and with different camera positions and ideal light conditions.

Original urban background, captured in an Italian city underpass.
Original urban background, captured in an Italian city underpass.
Image of the background developed using HDR technology with 5 different exposures.
Image of the background developed using HDR technology with 5 different exposures.

Stage 2: Cutting out the subject

In the professional field, the software that I believe is the most loved and used, for its superb Chroma Key cut-out and compositing tools, is PhotoKey, sold by the US company FXHome (www.fxhome.com), and available in Standard and Pro versions. Describing all of the software’s features would take far too long, so we’ll just take a look at the results obtained from uploading a TIFF file converted by Adobe Camera RAW.

Image developed within FXHome PhotoKey Pro, a perfect subject cut-out and transparent background replacement. Sportsman: Maestro Alessandro Aguzzi
Image developed within FXHome PhotoKey Pro, a perfect subject cut-out and transparent background replacement.
Sportsman: Maestro Alessandro Aguzzi

The image obtained after the analysis and cut-out process can be exported in different formats, including 32bit PNG, able to support the alpha channel with the transparency necessary for subsequent developments in Adobe Photoshop. PhotoKey also allows you to finish up the image directly inside the software as shown below.

Stage 3: Creating the perfect illusion

Certainly the most complex and delicate stage in the creative process, the final stage consists of transforming everything produced in the earlier stages into a totally realistic piece of work, whose limits depend only on the intended message of its creator.

The degree of naturalness of the final result depends on all those rules and dynamics that nature has been teaching to man for thousands of years, such as shadows projected in the same direction as the light source and backlights, colour harmonisation and global contrast levels, as well as artificial effects that help to create the unique character and style of the final image.

Image finished inside FXHome PhotoKey Pro, with close-up and background level, projected subject shadows, vignetting, ‘Bleach Bypass’ and ‘Tinta Bronze’ ambiance effects. Sportsman: Maestro Alessandro Aguzzi.
Image finished inside FXHome PhotoKey Pro, with close-up and background level, projected subject shadows, vignetting, ‘Bleach Bypass’ and ‘Tinta Bronze’ ambiance effects.
Sportsman: Maestro Alessandro Aguzzi.

The PhotoKey Pro software offers an incredible range of corrective tools, filters and special effects that can be applied to the subject in close-up, to the background or globally (final style and character of the image), with added text and independent objects. The developed project can be saved and recovered at any time, given that it is saved in proprietary format, or the image can be exported to its final stage in the most widely-used standard formats, such as JPEG, TIFF and PNG.

Those of you who intend to make use of the excellent PhotoKey cut-out technologies can choose to export the close-up level (subject) in 32bit PNG format and then go ahead with the compositing and creative development within Adobe Photoshop or professional editing software.

Image finished up inside Adobe Photoshope CC 2014, with the application of ambiance and chromatic effects, realistic shadows, typical lens light rings, vignetting, local contrast, cinematographic style. Atleta: Maestro Alessandro Aguzzi.
Image finished up inside Adobe Photoshope CC 2014, with the application of ambiance and chromatic effects, realistic shadows, typical lens light rings, vignetting, local contrast, cinematographic style.
Atleta: Maestro Alessandro Aguzzi.

In terms of the expression of creative freedom, the digital artist who has all the project elements conveniently cut out and isolated has very few limits to what he can do with his imagination, which is the key to the success of all professional artists who want to achieve recognition in this crowded world of visual and advertising communication.

Image cut out using PhotoKey Pro and finished up inside Adope Photoshop CC. Sportswoman: Emanuela Diamantini.
Image cut out using PhotoKey Pro and finished up inside Adope Photoshop CC.
Sportswoman: Emanuela Diamantini.
Image cut out using PhotoKey and finished up inside Adobe Photoshop CS7. Sportsman: Fabio Ferraiuolo.
Image cut out using PhotoKey and finished up inside Adobe Photoshop CS7.
Sportsman: Fabio Ferraiuolo.
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