Compositing Backgrounds into an Image

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This image is from a video series I am creating called In The Raw where I take complicated lighting scenarios and break them down piece by piece and show you EXACTLY how it is done to the smallest detail.

Today, I am going to break down how this shot was done here on the blog and show you some of the tools used and needed in order to create something like this without having to be at this location praying for an awesome sunset. :)

Here is how it was done


This is the original image straight out of camera with no editing done to it. I shot the image in my garage on a grey colored seamless background. The reason I used the seamless, is because it gives me a clean consistent background that is easy to remove in Photoshop. The reason that it is gray, and not white (or any other color) is so that we don’t have lots of light bouncing off of it from the flashes and adding more light to the image that is unwanted.

Here, in this behind the scenes image, you can see the entire set up. We have a few things going on in this complex set-up which are broken down below.

Main Light head – Elinchrom Ranger AS Speed with S Head

The main light is powered by this head. It is 1,100 watt seconds and is portable so I can take it on location, use huge modifiers, and overpower the sun at any time of the day.

Main Light Modifier – Phototek Softlighter two 60 inch indirect umbrella

This modifier is amazing (and cheap) because it is indirect. The light points into the modifier, then bounces back which makes it softer since it comes back very evenly. Then, it has a diffusion panel to further spread the light and keep it soft. Then, to further soften the light (ultra soft!), I pointed the flash in front of the subjects (actually aiming it at the wall to my left – see the behind the scenes photo) so that they only catch the very edge of the light. This is called feathering. When you just catch the edge of the light, it gets more contrasty and ultra soft AND if done correctly, it will evenly light all three subjects even though they are all extremely close to the light source.

Kicker Lights – Elinchrom Style RX 600 Monolight

This light is set high and 45 degrees to the subjects back to mimic what real light would do as the sun begins to set.

Kicker Light Modifier – Elinchrom 7 inch Reflector with 25 degree grids

This is a reflector and grid that helps direct the light into one specific area so the light does not hit my camera and does not spread all over the place. I also placed a 1/2 CTO gel over the light to warm up the tones to further mimic late day sun.

The BACKGROUND light is a flash with a 27 inch silver beauty dish attached to it. That light is powered to 1 stop under the main light just to create separation between my subjects and the background so I can easily cut them out in Photoshop later on. It is not critical that the light look great or be of great quality, it just matters that it cuts them out. It does matter the direction of the light, because in Photoshop, I blend the seamless background with the sky image I took to make them look more organic.

There is ALSO a black seamless set up to camera left which is there to create negative fill (or reduce light bouncing off the wall and hitting the shadow side of their faces). I wanted extra contrast and if the light from the flashes bounced off the walls, then it would have filled in the shadow side. The black seamless soaked up the light and created the nice dark side of the face to camera left that I wanted.

This background was shot from my balcony. I waited until there was a night that had a rich warm sunset and photographed this image so I could use it in the final composite for the studio shots I took.

Final Image

Specs and settings:

Main light – f/11

Kicker Lights – f/8

Background Light – f/5.6 – f/8 (depending on the color of the seamless)

Camera – 5d Mark 3

Lens – Canon 85L 1.2

Composite created in Photoshop CS5

Color Adjustments in Adobe Lightroom 4


The hard things to show on a blog are some of the tweaks we did when shooting in real time and the way that I cut them out and put them into the background. I added some flair texture to make it look more real and as many of you know, I have shot lots of images that look very similar to the above (from a sky and contrast perspective) and this looks like it might have been shot on-location.


If you want to see the entire video of how this was done, PLUS the entire rest of this shoot with 4 other lighting set-ups, then sign up for our newsletter to be the first to know when it launches!!