Tutorial: Simple Composite

By Bob Coates, M.Photog.Cr., CPP

It’s not a bad problem when you’ve captured so many good images that the client can’t narrow the selections down. It gives you the opportunity to sell more and different kinds of product. You can use the techniques in this tutorial to design pages for senior, family and wedding albums as well as framed prints. These images are from a senior portrait session with Heather, who wanted lots of different looks, from casual to fashion.

©Bob Coates

Don’t use too many images on one spread. Usually odd numbers of images work better in design. This helps to keep the eye moving around in the image. Even numbers of images tend to make the layout too static. Here we’ve combined five images to show different composite techniques.

Open all the images you’ll include in the layout. Create a new document at the final print size and resolution you want. Select the Move tool (V) and drag and drop your base image(s) to the new document window. I chose two fashion images to be the base and blended them together using a Layer Mask and Gradient Tool (below).


©Bob Coates 

When you position images for this type of blend, be sure to overlap them so the blend is seamless.

Press the D key to set foreground and background colors to the default white/black.

Select the top layer and click on the Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the layers palette or choose Layers > Layer Mask > Reveal All.

Choose the gradient tool and set the Options bar with the Gradient Picker set from foreground to background, choose the Linear Gradient, set Mode to Normal, Opacity 100% and select the Dither and Transparency boxes.

With the Layer Mask selected, drag the gradient from just inside the edge of the image to just outside while holding down the shift key to make sure the gradient will be perfectly horizontal. This should give you a mask with a very soft transition.


Look at the image in a large view to ensure that neither image's edge is visible. If it didn’t work, drag the gradient tool again with different start and stop points until it blends the way you’d like it to. The new gradient will automatically replace the old.

With the background images in place, drag the final three images onto the document. You’ll use Transform (cmd/ctrl-T or Edit > Free Transform) to resize each image, holding down the shift key to ensure you don’t distort the image.

When you’re not quite sure how large you’d like the final size to be, it’s better to err on the larger side. If you accept a transformation and later enlarge it, you will lose image quality. If you find you've erred on the small side, just delete the layer and drag in a new original. You could bring the images in as Smart Objects to be able to resize the images up or down at any time, but that's another tutorial.

If your originals are all the same size, you can use the following method to resize the images. 

Select the layer of the first of the smaller images, type cmd/ctrl-T, hold down the shift key, and click and drag a corner, taking it down to the approximate size you want. Before you hit Enter or the Commit Transform checkmark in the options bar, note the scale percentage.

Cmd/ctrl-click on the other two image layers to select them both, hit cmd/ctrl-T, click the chain link icon in the options bar, which makes the Width and Height resize to the same percentage, and enter the percentage you used to size down the first image. In this example it's 30%. Hit Return/Enter. It will size down the two images simultaneously.

If you’ve cropped some of your images, you’ll have different sizes (for simplicity, we’ll assume that you cropped using same aspect ratio), and you can use guides to size and align your images.

Once you've resized the first of the smaller images, select the Move tool (V). If the rulers are not visible on your document, type cmd/ctrl-R.

Click in the ruler and drag a guide to the point on the image where you would like to align the left side of the smaller images.


©Bob Coates

Select the layer of the image you've sized down and align its left side with the guide. Hold down the ctrl/cmd key and click on the other two image layers. Click on the left-align icon in the Options bar. The left sides of the remaining two images will align with the first.


©Bob Coates

Position guides on either side of the correctly sized image that's in place. Select the layer of the next image and resize it to the same dimensions (assuming the images were the same aspect ratio) by using Transform (cmd/ctrl-T) to reduce size until it meets the guide on the right. The guide will temporarily change color when the edge is aligned. Accept the transformation and repeat for the final image.


©Bob Coates

The images are now all the same size. If they’re not the right size, you can still make them smaller, no problem. Cmd/ctrl-click the three image layers to select them, type cmd/ctrl-T, hold the shift key and resize. All three images will be resized at once. Hold down the shift key while you use the Move tool to space the images vertically without losing your horizontal alignment.

It’s good to separate the images from the background. You could use a stroke, but I favor a drop shadow. Highlight a layer. Click on the Layer Styles icon, ‘fx’ at the bottom of the layers palette, and choose Drop Shadow. I base the settings on how a particular set of images looks because the density of the background or file resolution will influence what looks best. In this case I used Blend Mode Multiply, Color black, Opacity 53%, Angle 132, Use Global Light, Distance 19, Spread 0%, Size 21, Quality Contour white-to-black, Noise 0%, Layer Knocks Out Drop Shadow. Once you've made settings for one layer you can copy the effects to other layers by by option-clicking, dragging and dropping it onto another layer.

Finally, you can add text. Select the Text tool and click on the image. This creates a new Text layer. Type your text, hit cmd/ctrl-A to select it, and choose your font and font size in the Options bar. Choose a type style that is subject appropriate. You probably wouldn’t want to use this font on a big, burly football player image.

Click on the color box in the options bar to choose a text color. Your cursor automatically turns into a color picker, so you can click on a color from the image to sample it and use it as your text color.

Now choose Layer Styles (fx) > Bevel and Emboss. You can try different settings here, too, to see what you like best. Click New Style to create a preset that you can use again.

Because there is some light reflection in the water, I added a burn layer to make the text more readable. Create a new layer (shift-cmd/ctrl-N) with Mode set to Soft Light. Click on the new layer and drag it just below the text layer.


Paint with a soft brush with black paint with Opacity set to 20% adding density so the text becomes more readable.

Here's how your final layers palette should look. 



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Comments (3)



This is a very good article that I would like to print for future reference but I am having trouble printing it probably due to it's html formating, etc.

I would be great of the ppmag articles like this one would have a print button at the top of the article page which would format the article for easy printing.

Thanks - Bill


There's a link at the bottom of the full view of the story that says "Print this article." Clicking that will take you to a printable version of the article. You can then print it from your Web browser. I just tried it out on Firefox and got an 8-page printout of the tutorial.



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