Photoshop Compositing Secrets

Book review

Composites in photography are something of a hot topic right now, especially in a divided domestic scene and ongoing debate in international exhibition circles over whether photo realism should be judged alongside photo "illustrations". Indeed,  the debate seems to raging harder than ever and isn't set to end anytime soon. I'm definitely not going to go into the pros and cons for each side of the argument, instead focusing on just the literature!

Photoshop Compositing Secrets, written by Matt Kloskowski and published by Peachpit Press under the watchful eye of KelbyMedia is ostensibly a beginner's guide which guarantees the reader will learn how to do absolute everything needed "...to pull of a convincing, professional composite". This caught my eye because while I'm all for live & let live in photography, bad composites look utterly appalling; cack-handed efforts with as much artistic appeal as a child's drawing. Top-end examples can be very good indeed, but it seems there is a vast gulf between those who are accomplished at the art and those who are not. I was hoping this book would let me try my hand and see just how hard the genre is to pull off convincingly.

At the time of writing, the author Matt was the education & curriculum developer for the National Association of Photoshop Professionals. His photoshop credentials & photographic experience are certainly impressive so I had very high hopes indeed for a quality guide.

The book uses eight chapters to teach the different parts of the process you will need to master. Each has a single image at its heart and Matt shows us how to capture the initial photographs before pulling all the components into photoshop to create the composite. One aspect that was a little disappointing was the assumption that stock photography is used - while this is probably a fast & reliable way to get the images you need, for those of us wanting to learn the "whole thing" or who are constrained by only using images shot themselves, I wish time had been spent on how to build up a catalogue of images for compositing. Even just some tips for how to plan & shoot your backgrounds would have been useful. Simply saying "use stock photos" felt a little like a cop out.

The procedures are given step-by-step and although written for Photoshop CS5 are easily transposed into the latest version of Photoshop CC. They are easy enough to follow but fairly unsophisticated and freely available to watch on youtube. I was hoping that a Compositing Secrets book would introduce me to techniques that aren't widely known! Still, simplicity can be a boon in a beginner guide and I'm sure others may benefit from seeing core techniques demonstrated in this way. This is where I think the book has its greatest value - under the aegis of compositing, the book does present very straightforward ways for manipulating selections & layers, brushwork and so on. But for my own personal needs it is altogether too basic. This manifests in some very amateurish results that are so commonly seen in exhibitions. You probably know the type of image I'm talking about - a super contrasty, almost HDR portrait of a person set against a clearly fake overly stylised background. These are exactly the images I think are giving compositing a bad name! They look absurdly overprocessed and to my eyes display a huge lack of imagination.

Overall I felt that Photoshop Compositing Secrets was something of a let-down. Not only are the techniques extremely basic (and free elsewhere) they produce very basic, amateurish results. Having this information available in book format doesn't offer anything over watching a video on YouTube. The final nail in the coffin is that the examples used in the book completely failed to ignite my imagination - I was hoping for some insight into how to make composites that stand out from the crowd rather than replicating the cookie-cutter images you see everywhere. Still, it did inspire me to produce my own first effort - my goal was to composite together a scene that distorted reality but left the viewer wondering if what they saw was real or not. 

The Windmill, a very simple composite but I wanted the end result to look like it could actually be real.

The Windmill, a very simple composite but I wanted the end result to look like it could actually be real.

If you're a Photoshop novice who is interested in learning some extremely basic tips with a view to compositing later then this may be worth a look but for everyone else I can't find any way to recommend it unless you're going for the very specific composite look that's everywhere these days.

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