Play with scale for surreal results

Turn your most fantastic ideas into reality by shooting and editing your own surreal visual illusions...

Composite images might look like highly complicated flights of Photoshop fantasy, but in fact they’re easy to create and the most important thing isn’t some piece of digital trickery, instead it’s the visual logic. The example shot here has been spiced up with nice lighting, an interesting location, and by adding props, but it’s all built on the foundation of two correctly captured photos – the first for the wider scene and the second for the enlarged subject.

These need to be shot in a certain way to make them work, or it will be impossible to trick the viewer’s eye. Many people make the mistake of trying to create an image like this from just one photo, but that will almost certainly lead to perspective problems, as well as the dreaded resolution mismatch that brings the whole thing tumbling down.

Simple technique
Here you’ll see in easy steps how to shoot pictures that will align with perfect perspective, focus and lighting, and how to seamlessly merge them using simple Photoshop tools like Layers, Layer Masks and Selections.

You can shoot this image on your own, using a tripod to record yourself in the scene, and make it a true self-portrait, but it’s handy – and more fun – to have a second person to help out on the set.

Capture the shots you need
Neither the shooting nor the Photoshop techniques required for this effect are particularly tough to master, but the latter can’t happen without the former being well executed. The pictures are the raw material and they have to be exposed and angled correctly, or you won’t stand a chance of compositing them.

Therefore you need to pay a lot of attention to what’s going on at the shooting stage, or you could end up with a set of images that don’t work together – and a frustrating trip back to the drawing board.

The main things to watch out for when shooting for composites of this kind are consistency in perspective, focus and lighting. The latter is easy – just keep your subjects’ position and the angle that you’re shooting from the same between shots and it will line up fine. Some directional light does help knit the scene, but things can be easier on overcast days where shadows are less of a problem.

For perspective you also need to make sure the angles are consistent, but unlike many techniques this doesn’t mean shooting from a tripod. Just ensure that each subject meets the ground at the same angle and you can shoot handheld, moving closer to the subject in the second shot so they’re large in the frame and tilting the camera up to give them scale.

When it comes to focus, both subjects should appear to share the same depth-of-field. The easiest way to do this is to stop down to f/11 or beyond. So long as the subject to enlarge is sharp from front to back, you’ll have no problems.

Picking a subject
When you want to enlarge a subject, look for something that’ll have a surprising effect when it’s increased in size. Here, a springer spaniel bigger than a man does the trick, but you could try it with any smallish animal or a child. Toys work well too and you won’t need to bribe them to get the eye line correct.

Shooting angle
You can’t simply shoot both pics from the same position, because when one is enlarged the perspective will no longer look right. Also, to make editing easier, both pictures should be captured with the elements as close to their final size as possible, or you’ll lose quality when enlarging (a problem called resolution mismatch).

Light the scene
On this occasion low sun helped backlight the scene and a location flash was used, fitted with a large octagon softbox to add some fill-in light needed to even out the look. You don’t need to do this, but better lighting always adds a layer of gloss to the shot.

Practice makes paw-fect
Before you head out somewhere interesting, give this technique a rough stab in your back garden to learn how the perspective needs to work. Compare the pics opposite and you’ll see how, in the first, the subject has been shot from too high an angle, so they don’t sit believably on the patio. In the second, shot lower, the angle is better and he works with the plane of the garden. Tucking part of the enlargement behind something in the main scene also adds depth.

Good perspective

Good perspective

Poor perspective

Poor perspective

1. Exposure and lighting
It’s really important that your exposure is as consistent as possible between the two shots – if one element is significantly lighter or darker than the other, it will stand out and the elements of the picture won’t gel. For that reason, shooting in manual mode (M on the mode dial) is a good idea. This will keep everything the same between shots, and so long as the light doesn’t change too much you’ll be fine.

Set a middling aperture of f/11 or above, which should let you keep both the wide shot and the closer framing sharp across a good portion of the frame. As I was using fill-in flash and shooting into the sun, I set the shutter speed to 1/100sec, underexposing the available light slightly. The flash head was set to trigger remotely and I fitted it with an octagon softbox, then placed it on the opposite side of the scene to the sun. Starting out at full power it was a bit high, so I lowered it to 1/2.

2. Focal length
Next set a focal length and stick to it for both shots – if you use several different settings the elements may not look right. Here the lens was set to 35mm on a full-frame Nikon D800, giving a reasonably wide-angle view, but minimising the amount of distortion. A wide-angle view also helps extend the depth-of-field making it easier to align the sharpness between the shots, whereas using tightly cropped telephoto focal lengths can make this harder.

3. Check the perspective 
After taking a few versions of the first, wide shot, take a look at the results on screen. First, check that there’s enough space in your composition for the second element of the image (if anything you should frame more loosely than you’d normally do, so you have some wiggle room in Photoshop). Next, look at the angle of the area where the first subject meets the ground. Does it look flat? Or tilted and by how much? Bear this angle in mind for the next shot.

4. Move closer and take the second shot
Keep all settings the same (bar focusing) and position the smaller subject in the same scene, so the lighting is identical. Move closer so they’re larger in the frame and compose so their feet, or whatever is touching the ground, are at a similar angle to what was going on in the first shot. It can also help to tilt up slightly. Try a few subtle changes of angle so you’re covered for editing.

Create your composite
After you’ve got the individual shots it’s time to turn them into the finished composite. This might look like a staggering task, but remember, it’s just a few simple tools and techniques strung together. First, we’ll need to convert the RAW files in a consistent way, then get both pics into a Layered document. Next, we’ll resize the second shot a little to work with the main image, and we’ll do it as a Smart Object, which helps keep the quality high. Because of the way it was shot, not much enlargement should be required, and you certainly shouldn’t push it beyond about 130% or it will begin to look blurred due to the resolution mismatch. We’ll then cut out the subject using the Lasso and the Refine Edge command and tidy it up using a Layer Mask, before finally adding a shadow (if required), and adding some contrast and drama to the scene by dropping in a new sky.

1. Convert your RAWs
If you’ve shot RAWs (which is advisable), you’ll need to convert them before you can begin working on the composite. Load the main picture and the second shot into Photoshop together (hit Ctrl+O and highlight both, then hit OK), then press Ctrl+A to select both in the Filmstrip. Make any adjustments and they’ll be applied to both, keeping things consistent. Now hit Open Images to convert both.

2. Add the enlargement as a Smart Object
You’ll now have both images open in Photoshop, so go to Window>Arrange>Float All in Windows, allowing you to see both at the same time. On the second image, go to Layer>Smart Objects>Convert to Smart Object. Now pick the Move Tool (V) and click and drag the smart object onto the main image. Release the mouse button and it’ll drop in. You can now close the second pic without saving.

3. Reposition and resize
Still using the Move Tool, drag the new pic (Layer 1) into place. In the Layers palette (Window>Layers), drop the Opacity to see how it works with the main scene. Go to Edit>Free Transform, and holding Shift to constrain proportions, resize to suit by dragging on the corner handles. You can also rotate by dragging outside the bounding box when you see the double-headed arrow. Click the tick when you’re done.

4. Make a selection
Pick the Polygonal Lasso Tool (L, or Shift+L if another Lasso Tool is active) and then zoom in close to the part you need to cut out with Ctrl and the + key. Click carefully around the subject, but don’t worry too much about tricky parts like hair or fur as we’ll tackle these next. In the zoomed-in view, use the Spacebar to toggle the Hand Tool, so you can scroll around. Return to the starting point to complete the Selection.

5. Refine the Selection
Go to Select>Refine Edge, and add 0.5px Feather. Tick the Smart Radius box and set the Radius to about 20px. Straight off, you’ll see the benefit, as the Selection wraps to the subject. Press F to cycle through the previews, and using the Refine Radius Tool, paint over any areas you’ve missed (hold Alt and paint to remove errors). Finally, tick Decontaminate Colors and set Output to Selection, then click OK.

6. Add a Layer Mask
Go to Layer>Layer Mask>Reveal Selection. At this point you can still reposition and resize the subject if required, as in Step 3. Inspect the mask closely and, using the Brush Tool (B) with a small Size and low Hardness, paint black anywhere you want more background to show (or white where you want to reveal the subject). Drop the Opacity of the Brush anywhere you’re dealing with translucent parts like hair.

7. Add some shadow and sharpness
If you’ve shot with identical light sources, you won’t need to add much shadow, but a little can help. Go to Layer>New>Layer... click OK, and in the Layers palette drag the new Layer (Layer 2) under Layer 1. Now grab the Brush Tool, set the Opacity very low and paint black shadow where it would naturally fall. Next, click back on Layer 1, and go to Filter>Sharpen>Unsharp Mask. Add some sharpness and click OK.

8. Add some sky
If the pic is lacking a bit of ‘top’, open a shot of a stormy sky, go to Select>All, then Edit>Copy and close it. Back on the main image, click on Layer 2, and go to Edit>Paste. Resize and reposition the sky as in Step 3, and then in the Layers palette click Normal and choose Multiply. Add another Layer Mask as in Step 6 and brush it away from the lower parts of the image. Go to Layer>Flatten Image to finish.

This article was first published in the June 2016 issue of Practical Photography - download back issues here.