5 Tips on Retouching Photographs for Better Composition
by Dave Mobbs – March 29th, 2016
X-Rite Coloratti Federico Chiesa is an Italian photographer and retoucher, who mainly shoots for advertising, but also focuses on street and fashion photography. Federico shares his top tips on retouching photographs, specifically how he brings together backgrounds with studio shot images.
Before we start with the tips on creating a good composite image, the first thing to discuss is the importance of the accuracy of your devices in this process. When you’re capturing your images, you should use a ColorChecker Target to ensure consistent colour and save time while editing. This is particularly important in studio environments, but even outdoor shots will benefit.
Secondly, it’s very difficult to get a composite image right without an accurate monitor. Calibrating your monitor is essential. I use an i1Display Pro from X-Rite.
Tip 1 – Follow the Light
This might sound obvious to say, but the first thing that leads to good composition is having coherent lighting in all the images in the shot.
Let’s say I’m using, as a background, an image that I took outside (outside is that part of the world that is actually outside my studio – yes, it exists and it is made of grass, trees butterflies and rainbows!) and I want to add to that image something I shot later using artificial lighting. The most important thing is to understand your primary light source. Most of the time when shooting outside it will be the sun; the light coming from it has many different characteristics. On a sunny day, the light will be stronger and harder, throwing neat shadows and colors will often be more vivid. On a cloudy day, the light will be diffused, shadows will not be as harsh and colors will be less saturated.
I always take notes of the traits of my principal lights, and then I analyze all the reflections that may occur in a particular scene. If there’s a white wall close to the spot where I place the subject, I will have to use something in my lighting set up in the studio to mimic that.
The best advice here is to KEEP IT SIMPLE. Don’t try to use more light than you need. Sometimes with just one light, you can perfectly replicate the sunny feel you captured in your background shot.
It might be useful to place something as a lighting reference in your background shot, so you can match that feel in your studio later and also have a good reference for the shadow shapes.
Step 1: Initial Background and Studio Image
Step 2: Masking the Studio Photograph
Step 3: Initial Composite Photograph
Step 4: With Global Lighting
Step 5: Final Composition
Tip 2 – Follow the Path
The second most important thing you‘ll have to deal with is not fame, money and models (those probably will come later on in your career, but you’ll have to be quick because I’m planning to get them all). You’ll have to deal with PATHS. Tons of paths.
Learning how to use the pen tool and how a path should be created is a basic skill. After many years in the industry I’m still surprised by the lack of finesse most of the wannabe photo retouchers show in their paths, which leads to the composition looking terrible.
I usually spend a lot of time in the early stages of a composition masking most of the things I see on an image. With experience you will know what you need to mask and what not to. But trust me, the more you do and the better at the practice you get, with the pen tool, this is golden.
You can use also different tools, like color selection or channels. Usually you will mix different techniques and yes, you will have to learn the most dreaded thing a digital artist has to face, masking hairs (sorry, I know a lot of you now feel sweaty and uncomfortable). For that purpose there’s many different approaches based on the image you have, but that’s a whole other tutorial. Just be sure to shoot your models on a clean background that has nice color separation, so you can later play with color selections and let Photoshop work for you.
Tip 3 – Check the Blacks
Once everything is masked and put together a good trick to make different photographs work well together is to check their black point. All of the images’ black points should be the same intensity and the same hue. If you use the background as reference, you just have to throw a curve linked to your added image and start working with the black point on the RGB curve. Then use the other channel to match the hue. This simple procedure is one of the most important things if you want a realistic composition.
Tip 4 – Glue it Together
At this stage you should have an overall image that works just fine. So far you have worked on matching the light and the blacks, making your photo composition look natural. If you are there, you have won the challenge and you should open that Cristal you have in the fridge.
Now its time to have fun and give the image a mood of your choice and glue even more of the different parts together. Here are some ways to glue the image together:
- Create a folder on top of your layers for all the global adjustments.
- Have a curve that works on the blacks and highlights giving them a little color. This helps to create a greater sense of cohesion in the image.
- Use a color gradient set on color blend to play with different levels of opacity.
- Add a curve and lift the black point and lower the high point, on the RGB and on the single channels. You can use a solid color on top and have fun with blending mode and opacity.
- Create a palette of colors (you can use Paletton to do that) and then use those colors in the shadows, midtones and highlights.
Basically, whenever you will mess with the lows and highs of your whole image you will be able to glue all the parts together better. At the end I usually add a layer of grain, which gives the entire image a more even texture.
Tip 5- QC the Composition
Once you think your photograph is ready to go, just relax, breathe and start your QC, the quality control. You want to check that all of your masking has been blurred and no hard edges compromise your masterpiece. Usually I put some curves on top of that to show me the issues. I use a contrast curve, lightening and darkening curves to check in the highlights and shadows, and a solarization curve that helps me to recognize hard edges from bad masking. Check all the shadows you created and see if they need some blur. Finally, check all the borders to see if you missed any pixels.
Once you are sure that everything is fine, here’s a great tip: change your image to 16 bit and create a stamp, then go back to 8 bit. In this way, you will avoid all of the banding that comes from gradients. A lifesaver trick – believe me.