How to create a composite image in Photoshop

X-Wing Squadron in Sweden

X-Wing Squadron in Sweden.

I had a lot of fun making this photo of three X-Wings from Starwars patrolling a Swedish night. I got the idea to make this image because I am working on a book on composition and I use a spaceship as a metaphor. I thought it would be cool to have a photo of a spaceship on those pages, but how do you get a photo of a spaceship? They don’t sit on every second corner.

My first thought was to use one my sons Lego spaceships (he has a ton of them). But before I acted I remembered this kind of cool shot of the ‘Space Mountain’ in Disneyland Paris and decided that would have to make do.

Space Mountain

But I then shuffled a bit around in the photos from that area, and I noticed a photo of the X-Wing and an idea came to me. An X-Wing is a proper spaceship, just what I needed. I would put that on a shot of the Milky Way that has no foreground object or main subject, other than a bit of wood and the Milky Way itself.

I had two shots of the X-Wings from the same angle, just shot on two different days, using two different cameras. Had I known what I would need photos of the X-Wing at a later time, I would have shot a series from different angles, but I didn’t.

Xwing photos

The original photo of the Milky Way looked like this:

The Milky Way in Karlskrona

This is the first shot I shot of the Milky Way. It requires an area low on light polution. This is place in Sweden is not too bad. You can see a bit of light polution just above the trees. However, the photo is not interesting in itself. There is a lack of interesting foreground.

The process of creating a believable composite

I wanted to make the illusion of three X-Wing fighters patrolling Sweden and to make that work and I could see some problems that I needed to be solved.

Problem #1: One photo is shot in the daylight, the second at night

I had to make the X-Wing fighters fall in, and I had two ideas, either a painterly cartoon-like approach or I could take a path on a more realistic look. I decided to try the painterly cartoon style first.

The photo is only a jpg, but I created two virtual copies in Lightroom and made an artificial -2 and +2 for an HDR processing workflow.

3 shot xwing

These three I put into my HDR software and got out a tone mapped HDR version. If the image, like this one, is shot in a low dynamic range situation like here, you can get fine results, when you tone map an image like this. It is only a pseudo HDR, but you still get the look from a real HDR.

At this time, I did not notice; but have a look at the darker image. That fits just perfectly into a night image. I figured that out later, but I only noticed this, because I had made this darker -2 version of the image. And that is the one in the final image.

Problem #2: Masking out the background from the X-Wing

The X-Wing is a pretty regular shape, and it is not too hard to cut out using the Pen tool. The Pen tool can create a Path, which can be converted to a very sharp mask, but it takes a little practice to use.

But for an object like this X-Wing, it was the only real option. I tried some of the magic tools in Photoshop at first, but it just didn’t work well enough in this situation.

XWing Mask

The Pen tool you will find here:

Use the Pen

The Pen Tool allows you to set a series of dots. Photoshop will play “connect the dots”, and if you end up closing the line, you will have a shape. That shape you can convert to a Selection.

Create a selection

You get some options before you get your selection.

Feather selection

Starting from the bottom, you want to create a ‘New Selection’, and you also want to have it on ‘Anti-aliased’, because it makes a smoother transition between the neighboring pixels on the edge.

And the first option is ‘Feather Radius’. If you set this to zero, you will get a very hard edge, and it will not blend very well with a background. Typically I use values between 0.5 and 2, depending a bit on the size of the object, the resolution and what it is. For the X-Wing I used 1-pixel feather radius, and that looks great.

How to use the Pen Tool in Photoshop?

This takes a little practice before you get the hang of it. Start by setting the first dot at a location good for closing the path to a shape. A corner is always a good place.

1 Making a path

When you place the second dot DO NOT let go of the mouse button. Keep it pressed and move the mouse, notice how the path begins to bend, depending on how you move your mouse. Use this to make the path follow the shape, you want to have a mask for.

2 understanding the path

You also get two additional lines (handles). The handles tell Photoshop how to bend the path. Each dot has two handles, one for bending the path before the dot, and one for bending the path after the dot.

The path between two dots is controlled by two handles, one from each dot.

Moving handles: A handle can be moved if you carefully position the mouse exactly over the handle and press ALT. Then you can drag it around and change the path. It is necessary to use this in corners and whenever there is a need for a sudden change in the direction of the path.

And when you miss the handle, just press Undo. You will miss it 100 times because it is small.

Moving a dot: You can move a dot if you press CMD on a Mac or CTRL on PC. Again, be careful to place the mouse exactly on top of the dot, and as with the handles use Undo, whenever you miss. And you will miss.

It takes a little practice, but as soon as you get going, you can make a perfect mask for the X-Wing in less than 30 minutes.

Problem #3 making a seamless composite

As mentioned in Problem #1 I ended up using the darker exposure, and when I added the mask (just press the ‘add mask’ when your selection from the path is active), the X-Wing appeared on top of my Milky Way. As you can see in this 270% crop, the transition between the X-Wing and the background is seamless. This is because of the ‘Feather Radius’ of 1 pixel, as mentioned in Problem #2.

250 percent crop

I made three duplicates of the X-Wing layer, and resized and rotated them a bit, to make them look like three individual X-Wings. I also distored the shape slightly, but not too much. Too much would be obvious, because the perspective would be distorted.

The second part is to make the light match both in intensity and colors. The original X-Wing is shot in daytime, and the colors match a daytime.

X-Wing colors

To make it fit better I change the colors, using a curves layer. I have organized my three X-Wings in a Layout Group. I can target any adjustment layer to only the the layer just below, and if that is a Group of layers, they will all be targettet. But my background will not be targetted.

Colors on xwings

I also have a curves adjustment layer to make the ships slightly darker.

Adjustment layers

The X-Wings now have a good and transparent blend with the background.

Problem #4 placement of the X-Wings

I decided to go with the idea of three visible X-Wings on a patrol. It should look like they are flying at a low altitude, and just flying over the woods as I shot the photo.

The third X-Wing would have to be half hidden by the trees to make this work. To make this work I needed a mask for the trees only, to hide the part of the X-Wing that should look covered by trees.

In the latest version of Photoshop CC 15.5 there is a new Masking tool, and using that, I pretty quickly got a usable mask for the trees.

Tree Mask

The new masking tool is accessed by using:

Photoshop new Select and Mask tool'

And putting this mask on top of the X-Wing Group allows me to half hide the third X-Wing behind the trees and the illusion is complete.

Thanks for reading

If you enjoyed reading this article, you might also enjoy my latest book “10 Essential Tips for Fine Art Photographers“. What you get from the book, that you don’t get from the blog is the mindset and organized rock solid tips on how to become a Fine Art Photographer producing professional images.



Using LAB color to bring out the magic

Fire in the Sky

This photo really came to life, when I used the color space Lab Color as a tool.

Teaser: Last in this post, you can see the before version of this image of the Eiffel Tower.

Recently I have been working a lot on understanding colors and color spaces. It has been coming to me, from two different angles. It’s funny how things sometimes converge from different places and situations into the same realization, at the same time.

I have been working on understanding why some of my prints went haywire color wise, even at a professional printing house. It turned out, it had to do with color spaces or more correctly the gamut of a color space. A gamut is the range of colors a color space can produce. Gamut is a strange word, but I will try to exemplify in a simple way. I will discuss this in more detail in a later post.

At the same time, as I was working on getting my prints looking right, on another track in my life, in my eternal search for new cool processing ways, I came across the Lab color space as a processing technique. It was introduced to me, by Robin Griggs Woods, and I was completely blown by it.

What is a color space anyway?

Before getting deeper into the Lab Color color space, let’s talk a bit about the color spaces in general. Color spaces are quite complicated, and I will try to make an easier-to-digest description.

Continue reading

The Bell Tower in Bruges

The Famous Bell tower in Bruges, Belgium. You can see it poking up from many places in the city.--Jacob Surlandwww.caughtinpixels.comArt sale as limited prints. Photo by Jacob Surland,  Licensed Creative Commons non-commercial v4.0.  No Derivative Work. Protected by

The famous Bell Tower in Bruges.

I only stayed in Bruges for one night, on the way to France. I did, however, make sure I got that way, even if it was bit longer. Bruges is incredibly beautiful, and there are a lot of chocolate stores, pretty close to Paradise if you ask me!

This photo I shot on the main square Grote Markt as a 5 shot HDR. It was on an extremely hot summers eve, in a light drizzle. I made a point of making a more dramatic image, than the original. This is the original photo:

Bruges dramatic bell tower

I created the drama, by adding some strong vignetting, and on top of that, I brightened the sky around the tower itself, and increased contrast to enhance the structures. A bit like a storm building up. This way I got a more interesting photo.

National Natural History Museum in Paris

Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle in Paris is worth a visit, alone because of the building. I had some expectations but I was still completely blown away when I got there. So incredibly beautiful and dynamic lighting for a fantastic room. I only had 1,5 hours before it closed, and I didn't even get time to see the exhibition.--Jacob Surlandwww.caughtinpixels.comArt sale as limited prints. Photo by Jacob Surland, Licensed Creative Commons non-commercial v4.0. No Derivative Work. Protected by

The colors of the roof and walls keep changing colors, to simulate day, night and the weather.

I knew that the ‘Muséum national d’Histoire Naturelle’  would be something special, but I was still blown completely away with the beauty of this enormous old room.

I arrived in the midst of a tropical thunderstorm. The roof changes colors, along with the one wall, to simulate the weather. It can show lightning, day and night, and a rainbow … at least that was what I saw, during my 1,5 hours I had there until it closed. I didn’t even get much time to look at the exhibition, but that looked really awesome too. This place I would require a day, to do it full justice I think.

I could just squeeze in visiting the Museum between I hung up my artwork at Carousel du Louvre, and the VIP grand opening later in the evening.

About the processing of this photo

This photo is shot with a Sony A7R using my metabones Nikon adapter attached with my 16mm Nikon Fisheye lens. The fisheye is obvious. I used a fisheye in this location, to got something out of the ordinary classic shot from this museum, and I think I managed to get that. At least, I have never seen anything like this before.

It is an HDR shot bracketed -2, 0 and +2.  The Sony A7R is somewhat limited regarding shooting bracketed HDR photos. I need at least 1 stop between each shot, and prefer 2 stops. When choosing this option, the A7R can only shoot 3 bracketed photos. If I shoot less than 1 stop between each stop, it can shoot 5 shot, a ridiculous limitation.

I shot it at an f/stop somewhere in the middle. One of the drawbacks from using the Metabones adapter for Nikon is, that no EXIF information is transferred from the lens. But I know I had the f-stop somewhere in the middle, my guess is f/8-f/11. And then I had the camera at ISO 100 and the longest shutter speed was 5 seconds. This allows me to blur most of the people fairly much away.

I used my standard processing workflow for this image. I processed it in Photomatix (you might want to see my tutorial here), and afterwards i took the three originals along with the output from Photomatix into Photoshop and blended it to this final result. These are my three original unprocessed photos:

Paris - Natural History Museum

One of the important things, when you shoot a photo symmetric like this one, is that symmetry is as exact as possible. I could spend a long time while shooting, to get it exactly right in the camera, by shooting, checking and re-shooting. I work in a different way. I need to be ‘close enough’ to the final framing, but I do not mind, doing a final more exact crop at home on the computer. This way I get more time, to do more shots, instead of working one composition into death. This might be a different way, than others work, but I like it that way. Of course I sometimes get stuck, if I can’t get a “good enough” result quickly. I hate getting home with something, that I cannot use.

I am far from puritan about ‘getting it right in the camera house’. I see no point in doing that, it would only require more time, at each location, giving me less to time, to do more compositions.

In Photoshop I first got an “overall” good blend of the tonemapped output from Photomatix, and the three original images. Then I added some effect, by using Topaz Adjust. Afterwards i used two of the original shots ones more to fix or improve very specific areas.

Paris - Natural History Museum - Photoshop layers

How do I determine what ‘needs to be fixed’ in an image? What I get out of Photomatix is next to NEVER a final image. This I know, and I just have to look for the ‘problems’ with the image from Photomatix. There is always something, that doesn’t look too good. Something that is too extreme, a nasty halo or a to hard contrast. How do I spot that? I look closely at the image, both in a smaller thumbnail seized image, and in a closer to 1:1 version. But in the end it comes down to a mix of taste and experience/practice. The more images you have processed, the better you get at doing this. In the beginning, this was pretty much a lot of guessing work and less qualified work. Most of this early work, I have withdrawn from my public stream. The more images you process, the better you get at it, and some of the ‘problems’ gets so obvious to fix, that you hardly think about it.

In this particular image, I first got the ‘basic’ image, by blending the Photomatix version, with the three originals. Then I made some effect using, Topaz Adjust, and afterwards I fine tuned the image, by picking some very specific areas from the original images, to fix some problems.

–Jacob Surland

Photoration X – get a kick out of post-processing

As unreal as it might seem, this is a photo from an underground station in Vienna. And to be honest, I have forgotten which. I usually can reconstruct the details in my mind, of where a photo was shot, but this one, I have simply forgot.

I got a kick out of making this photo. The photos I like the most, is the ones I get a kick out of.

As unreal as it might seem, this is a photo from an underground station in Vienna. And to be honest, I have forgotten which. I usually can reconstruct the details in my mind, of where a photo was shot, but this one, I have simply forgotten this exact location.

About this the making of this photo

This photo I processed in a different way, compared to most of the photos I make. Actually you only see a quarter of the photo, because I mirror it, twice! Let’s have a look at the original:

Photoration X - original

You can probably easy recognize the lower right hand corner. What’s interesting about this corner is both the light in the floor, and the fact, that almost no people are there.

Why does this work as powerful as it does? There are some lines in the flor, and one of the lines of tiles is even slightly brighter than the others, forming an X when mirrored, first vertically and the horizontally.

The scene is not quite interesting enough, even if the lamps and the circular form of this underground station in Vienna are interesting subjects. I shot this hand held, using my Sony A7R, while I was on the move. I managed to get the perspective right, but it would have required more time and a tripod, to get a really good shot out of this. I tried to proces this in my usual ways, but couldn’t get something really interesting out of it.

Instead I did what I do best. I switched on my problemsolving brain. When put into problemsolving mode, my brain works in mysterious creative ways, with lots of ressources, and this idea of mirroring popped up into my mind. And from there, things went fairly easy.

Gotta Love Venice

I really love Venice, even if there are heaps of tourists. The city is something out of the ordinary, and its magic just captures me. I got up early enough, to be able to see Piazza San Marco (almost) without any people. Photo by: Jacob Surland, Licensed creative commons non-commercial v4.0. No derivative Work. Protected by

Palazzo Ducale or Doge’s Palace in Venice is a huge and incredibly beautiful building.

I really love Venice, even if there are heaps of tourists. The city is something out of the ordinary, and its magic just captures me. We got up early enough, to be able to see Piazza San Marco (almost) without any people (and of course to capture it in the right light). I think we got lucky with the weather.

About this photo

This is a 7 shot HDR, ranging from -4 to +2. I shot it using my Nikon D800 and my Nikkor 16-35mm f/4.

Venice Doge's palace

Why did I shoot from -4? They are almost completely black. One of the hard parts in shooting night shots, or blue hour photos like this one, is that street lamps are incredibly bright, compared to the rest of the photo. And often you end up, having completely blown out lamps. Sometimes, blown up lamps, can look great, at other times, lamps with full details can look great.

By shooting, and making sure, that I have all information, I have the artistic freedom, to choose if I want one or the other. A blown out lamp or a lamp with details. In the case of this photo, I went in the middle.

Venice Doge's palace - lamp

You could argue, that from -2 to +2 would have been enough, but if I had wanted to do something different when I got home, I couldn’t have changed my mind. So I made sure, when I shot the shot.


Bruges the Chocolate Capital

Canal in old Middle ages town.

The White hotel on the right is the one from the move “In Bruges”.

Bruges in Belgium is an amazing town with a center that dates back to the middle ages.Some call it ‘Venice of the North’, but I learned that cities and towns with many canals, like to call themselves Venice of this” and “Venice of that”.

I think both Bruges and Amsterdam both in all fairness can be called a “Venice of the North”. They are both absolutely fantastic. Bruges has a lot of canals, and they wind their way through the medieval center of the city. It is a very beautiful place that I can highly recommend coming visit it for an extended weekend.

I got inspired to go to Bruges from the movie “In Bruges” starring Colin Farrell. In the movie, a couple of hired killers go on vacation to Bruges, and the one character really hates it, while the other one loves it. Personally, I found the movie hilarious, but I know other’s hate it. Some movies divide the World, just like cats and dogs do.

Anyway, the great footage from the old center that made me want to see Bruges, and I made a point out of making a one night stop in Bruges on my way to France.

What I didn’t know about Bruges is that it’s called the Chocolate Capital. I just love chocolate, and we did buy some, which, unfortunately, had to eat at once, due to the extremely hot weather.

This photo is from a particular famous corner, next to “Cafe Little Venice”. I have seen many shots from this corner, and this is my version.

The making of this photo

I shot this photo using my Nikon D800 and Nikkor 14-24mm. I shot it as a 5 shot HDR from -2, -1, 0, +1 and +2. This is the 0-exposure (the normal exposure):

Canal in an old middle age town

 Nikon D800, Nikkor 14-24mm, ISO 200, 22mm, f/11, 2.5 sec.

I should have used a lens not quite as wide, but there was a light drizzle and I did not want to change the lens, instead I cropped the image. That’s one of the wonderful things about having many megapixels. You can crop quite a bit away, and still end up with a 12-megapixel image, like this one.

I know that some people find that cropping images to be a sin and that you should get it right in the camera in the first place. I believe that if a photo get’s better from cropping it, then by all means crop it! And one more thing, I would rather come home with 10-20% too much of a scene, than 10-20% too little.

In this case, I didn’t like the white canal tour boats in the corner. I composed the photo, and included the boats and decided to crop the photo later if I didn’t like the boats.

HDR Processing workflow

My overall workflow, when I process HDR photos is, that I generate a pool of images, based on the original bracketed photos. And these I blend to together into a final image. I usually create a one or two images in some HDR software, usually Photomatix Pro. And these I add to the pool of the original RAW files, these files I load into Photoshop as layers and blend them together.

Photomatix supports presets and I have a few I use for inspiration. Often I use one, and tweak it a little bit until I am happy. I did that in this case.

I processed two versions of this photo in Photomatix Pro. First I made one, a single tone mapped. Saved that, and then I took the output, and put back into Photomatix, and did a double tone mapped image.

Bruges double tonemap

Use Double Tone Map to push the effects, but use it with care, because the effects easily get’s really out of control.

Canal in an old middle age town - single tonemapped

Single Tone mapped image.

The double tone mapped image usually goes completely wild, and you have to control it a bit, to make some of useful. The trick is to turn down saturation to around mid 40’s, and push Tone Compression to the left and Detail contrast to the right. They are highly potent, and you will have to find the right balance. Sometimes I find that the balance isn’t really there, and just skip making a double tone mapped image.

Bruges double tonemap number 2

How to get the best result when making double tone mapped images in Photomatix Pro.

When I start to blend my images in Photoshop (you might find my tutorial on layer blending useful) I order them, so that the one I like the most, is my primary image, and it’s usually my single tone mapped image, but not always.

Canal in an old middle age town - double tonemapped

Double Tone mapped image.

In general, my goal with my post-processing technique is to improve my primary image, and by improve I mean:

  • Remove ugly bits.
  • Add cool effects
  • Make it work as a complete and balanced image.

Now that I have my (primary) tone mapped image, I look at the issues I face:

#1 The lamps are way too bright. I dial them back a bit by blending in a darker version of the lamp, from one of the other images.

#2 The wall for some reason has gone almost white (blown highlights). This I also change by using a darker version and masked it in 25-50%.

#3 I really wanted the tower to be brighter, so I found a brighter version in one over the over-exposed image and blended that in.

#4 The water is bad – really bad. It has got a nasty halo. You can see that the water is almost black in the lower middle while it’s very bright along the edge of the reflections. This is called a halo and must be removed. I do that by mixing in the water from the 0 exposure.

A side effect from using the double tone mapped image is that light sources and other bright areas tend to get very bright or even blow out. A part of making the double tone mapped images is to find the balance between getting enough effect, without getting too much trouble repairing the blown out highlights and the halos.

To fix all of the above-mentioned problems, I use Photoshop. I load all my original five shots plus my two tone mapped images into layers (you might want to read this blog post for a full demonstration).

By using this technique I can remove and fix blown out highlights, by blending either the single tone mapped or one of the originals into the areas that are ruined or just look bad.

The result is, that the buildings and reflections come from the double tone mapped image, primarily, while the sky and the water comes from the original exposures.

Canal in an old middle age town - photo shop

Final touches

When done in Photoshop I then save the file as a flattened TIFF file and import that into Lightroom.

In Lightroom, I use the brush tool to increase contrast and the clarity in the sky. By doing this, I enhance some details in an otherwise flat sky. The texture is there, it’s just not very easy to see, but I can be enhance it this way. A side effect of doing this, is that the colors get too saturated, I have to turn down the saturation a bit.

Canal in an old middle age town - Lightroom

The pink areas are the areas that I painted using the brush. On the right you can see what settings that is applied to the pink areas.

Further reading

If you find this kind of processing interesting and want to try it out for yourself, you might want to get a hand on a copy of Photomatix Pro. There is a free trial, but if you use the discount code “caughtinpixels” you will get a 15% discount.

Get Photomatix Pro.

You might also want to read my basic understanding of making HDR photos. There’s a lot of things to understand, and a lot of pitfalls. I get around all of these things here.

I also have these tutorials:

Detailed tutorial on using Photomatix Pro.

Learn how to make double tone mapped images in Photomatix Pro.

Learn how to blend layers using layer masks in Photoshop.

Learn how to blend layers using layers masks using GIMP, the free alternative to Photoshop.