Some tools are just too powerful not to have in your tool bag as a photographer, and the composite plate technique is one of those methods.
Frequently employed in the entertainment and commercial photography industries, the modern composite plate technique is extremely flexible and shockingly simple. The results that can be achieved using the technique produce an effect that feels a bit like cheating once you realize how easy it is to achieve using the power of modern editing software and its ability to to use layer masks.
Often used in the entertainment industry to shoot group shots of performers who can’t always be in the same place at the same time due to their busy schedules, the basic concept of the technique is to lock your camera into a position, ideally a sturdy tripod, and take several photos, which are then blended together using layer masks in software such as Photoshop. Photographers would take a clean shot of the background and use it as a clean slate to mask the subject shots, which are taken in the same framed scene. Using the tripod to perform this technique optimally keeps each layer tightly aligned, simplifying the masking and blending process and resulting in a very polished final hybrid photo of your scene.
Imagine this: you have four actors for a sitcom and the studio needs a group shot of them. Instead of playing hell to line up their schedules and have them all together at once, a photographer would set up the stage and lock the camera to the tripod, then bring in each actor as they come. available. The photographer can then light each individual with care, even leaving equipment in subject frames as needed, such as light stands, because original shooting of the clean background gives you the ability to not only to hide your subjects together, but to hide anything. extra in topic frames. Once all the actors have their shot, a simple session at the editing desk merges them into a single photo by stacking layers, applying layer masks and carefully masking the actors together, as well as masking any equipment lighting included in the frames.
This concept can be applied to many other forms of photography for creative and practical purposes. Large, neat family photos can be achieved by following the aforementioned workflow, but thinking outside the box to see how it can be a good tool in your photographer’s toolkit opens up a lot of creative possibilities.
I first discovered the technique by teaching myself the use of off-camera flash. I had started using myself as the subject in my flash training using a tripod and a 10 second timer, walking in and out of the scene as I made adjustments to get the right shot. I read about the composite plate technique and realized that I was already doing much of the workflow and that it would be relatively easy to practice my flash at the same time as creating artistic self-portraits by myself. using as a subject not just once in a scene, but multiple times – effectively “cloning” myself into the shots. I eventually created a small series of images where I was playing games against myself, and the deceptively simple process resulted in quite a polished and interesting piece of work for me then inexperienced that I was quite drawn to attention from potential customers. .
But there is so much more potential in this technique than self-portraits and group photos. By adding a few more components to the workflow, I discovered that I could use it to create something along the lines of a time-lapse photo, showing motion in a scene with motion by masking the subject in its range of motion to show them in multiple places along their path of travel.
This use of the technique came in handy for a photo of pro freestyle motorcycle rider Sean Nielson putting on a show for a 4th of July celebration in a local town. As Nielson performed his signature motorcycle jumps, I got into position for a scene that showed both the take-off and landing ramps, as well as the full arc of his jump. I crouched, pre-focused, held as steady as possible and used the camera’s continuous burst mode to fire a series of shots as Nielson launched himself off the ramp and into a backflip, to land on the other ramp successfully. I suspected that if I was careful, I could still pull off the handheld technique, thanks to Photoshop’s extremely handy Auto-Align Layers feature. My theory was correct and the automatic alignment went off without a hitch, creating the same stack of aligned frames for the compositing process as a tripod. I was able to select the best frames from Nielson mid-jump and hide each one in the scene, as well as clean up and hide some unsightly inclusions in the photo. In the end, I had shot a time-lapse shot that perfectly showed the path of her backflip as onlookers gathered to watch. The image went on to win first place in the Utah Press Association’s Better Newspaper contest in the sports photo category, although it’s important to note that the photo process should be explained in your caption if an image like this is used in a journalistic application. to avoid misleading your viewer into thinking they were captured in a single frame.
The applications for this workflow are nearly endless. It is enough to apply the concepts to use them correctly. Some photographers use this technique to ensure a sharp image by only removing subjects or elements, instead of adding them. For example, some street and city photographers will use the technique to cleanly declutter or depopulate a scene of people and cars. The main power of this method is simply the access to easy and polished compositing, without all the mess of cutting and pasting subjects into a non-native scene. Using this method, you even get flawless shadow directionality in your composite, as each frame actually existed and is blended with another, preserving the quality of light and shadow, resulting in a perfectly realistic composite that does not strike the human eye. or the subconscious brain as “strange”, a serious problem affecting many manually composed images where subjects were originally captured in a scene where the direction of light and shadows were different from your setting.