Anatomy of a Shot: Amanda Thompson, Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider composite portrait by Santa Cruz photographer Josh Cripps
Back in August 2011 I dressed my friend Amanda up as Lara Croft, Tomb Raider and took her into the redwood forest of Nisene Marks to do some conceptual portraits of her. I was very happy with the shots at the time but I was looking them over a few weeks ago and thought the photos could use a little more zip. The plan was to remove Amanda from the background I shot her on and composite her into a background with a little more oomph.

So you can see what I was working with here’s the original shot, pretty much straight out of camera. Notice the four-light setup (key, right and left rim, and separation). Pretty nice light which works to good effect, but I knew I could spruce it up a bit.

Tomb Raider portrait by Santa Cruz photographer Josh Cripps

First step was to extract Amanda from the existing background. It wasn’t easy thanks to the complexity of the background, but through extensive use of every selection and masking tool I know of (luminosity masking, channel masking, feathering, quick selections, the pen tool, color selections, free-hand brushing, etc.) I finally got a cut out of Amanda I was happy with.

Tomb Raider composite cutout by Santa Cruz photographer Josh Cripps

Now that I had a good selection of the girl (which was refined over and over and over throughout the compositing process), I had to find a suitable background to drop her into. Digging into my archives I came across this shot of the sequoia forest in southern Yosemite and thought it had some nice elements. I can just picture Lara Croft running through some primeval forest somewhere, right?

Forest background

But that background by itself was pretty blah so I decided to punch it up a bit. First step was to darken the image, then change the color balance to give it a golden, adventurey feel. I also used a zoom blur on the highlights to simulate sunbeams streaking through the forest. And then I used a custom, speckled brush to put yellow splashes of grainy texture throughout the scene.

Forest background

Much more interesting! So then I dropped Amanda in over the top to see what would happen.

Tomb Raider composite portrait by Santa Cruz photographer Josh Cripps

And yikes, she stuck out like a sore thumb. Forget the fact that her legs end in mid air, there are some other issues that need to be addressed: namely scale and perspective. In order for the composite to be believable the subject has to be the right size in relationship to the background, so I shrunk her a tiny bit and enlarged the background. Also, I shot Amanda from about chest height and looking up toward her face. Whenever you shoot a forest with any kind of upward angle the trees point in toward the center of the frame, so I adjusted their perspective to match hers. I also cropped the image to get rid of the floating leg issue. And I used the clone stamp tool to get rid of the fence in the background at left.

Tomb Raider composite portrait by Santa Cruz photographer Josh Cripps

Another huge issue when it comes to believable composites is matching color. Your subject and your background need to look like they were photographed under the same lighting conditions. So shadows and highlights should all be in the same color scheme, and the general color balance needs to match as well. You can see in the shot above that the background is much too golden for Amanda so I added lots of blue and cyan to the balance to swing the tones her way.

Tomb Raider composite portrait by Santa Cruz photographer Josh Cripps

But I didn’t want to lose the golden feel completely, so I also adjusted Amanda’s color to retain some of that gold feel. You’ll also notice in the shot above that Amanda is much more contrasty than the background so through some dodging and curves adjustments I brightened her shadows, making sure that the tones her shadows matched the tones in the shadows of the background.

Tomb Raider composite portrait by Santa Cruz photographer Josh Cripps

Getting there, but now I found Amanda looking a little flat after reducing her contrast. So I did some dodging and burning to add some depth and dimension to her. Notice the painted-on highlights on the legs, hair, chest, and arms to give a little more 3D look.Tomb Raider composite portrait by Santa Cruz photographer Josh Cripps

Taking a good hard look at that image I thought that her blue shirt didn’t blend in well with the color, tones, and feel of the image, so I decided to add some camo patterns to it. This was done pretty easily: just grabbed a camo pattern swatch from the web, warped it to roughly match the curves of her body, set the blending mode to overlay, and used the pen tool to make a mask for her shirt. I also thought that she was looking a little too crisp compared to the background, so I duplicated her layer and ran a Gaussian blur of 0.5 px on it. I also used that same custom brush to add some splotches of texture to her.

Tomb Raider composite portrait by Santa Cruz photographer Josh Cripps

Cool. Now I was getting there in terms of color and detail. But one of the most important elements in a believable composite is interaction. In that the subject needs to be interacting with the background. Here I thought the easiest way to do that would be to duplicate the light beams from the background and extend them over Amanda so it looks as though the light is actually shining past her.

Tomb Raider composite portrait by Santa Cruz photographer Josh Cripps

The next step was a more subtle one. Using a big, soft brush with a bright yellow color I dodged the highlights on Amanda’s body. The big soft brush creates a bit of a glow which carried over onto the background and helped tie her to it.

Tomb Raider composite portrait by Santa Cruz photographer Josh Cripps

Almost done, now it was time for some global finishing touches. One thing I really like to do for a cool, stylized look that ties the whole scene together is to add a gradient map adjustment layer. I make the gradient using a dark and light color from within the scene, then set the blending mode to soft light. It punches up the contrast and tightens the color scheme nicely.

Tomb Raider composite portrait by Santa Cruz photographer Josh Cripps

Lastly I decided I wanted to present the image a little darker so I used two curves adjustment layers: one to simply darken the scene, and one to add a bit of global contrast. And voila, the final product:

Tomb Raider composite portrait by Santa Cruz photographer Josh Cripps

Think this is cool? Think it sucks? Let me know in the comments.

~Josh

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10 replies
  1. Amanda
    Amanda says:

    Hey! It’s me! Great work with the photo and your break down in clarifying the editing process. I’ve worked with photoshop before, it can be very overwhelming and confusing. I love the green shirt and rays of light! It’s amazing how far you took this photo from the original image and made it what it is now. Very very cool, thanks!

    Reply
  2. Robin Blood
    Robin Blood says:

    Definitely cool! You make it sound so easy and I wish I knew Photoshop and other similar programs better. Smart move going with a camo shirt instead of the blue. It blends in much better with the environment.

    Reply
    • Josh
      Josh says:

      Thanks, Robin! Yes, Photoshop is a monster program, with a monster learning curve. There are some really fantastic tutorials out there on the web. In particular I can recommend the ones Aaron Nace puts together on Phlearn (www.phlearn.com). He has an Intro to Photoshop for Photographers tutorial you might want to check out. I haven’t watched that one but if it’s as good as his other tutorials then I’m sure it’s excellent.

      Reply
  3. Sandra N.
    Sandra N. says:

    I think the idea is cool. I don’t know anything about doing this, but the thing that sticks out to me is the light beams on both sides change angle when they hit the trees, making it look awkward. I learned a lot from your explanations and always enjoy your photos.

    Reply
    • Josh
      Josh says:

      Hi Sandra,

      Thanks for the feedback. You’re right, there are some beams which don’t match perspective. Sometimes when you stare at something too long you begin to not see it at all, you know what I mean? Thanks for the sharp catch. I’ll clean that up.

      Reply
  4. Gail Rinard
    Gail Rinard says:

    SUPER COOL!!!! Love that you took us step by step thru the process. was all this done in photoshop? I’ve been told to get NIK software that works with photoshop.. anyway, love the step by step.. gives me an indication of what can be done.. think I will need to learn photoshop to give my images of Yosemite a little more pizzaz..

    Reply
    • Josh
      Josh says:

      Thanks, Gail! Yep, all Photoshop. Many, many hours of Photoshop. 🙂

      The Nik plugins are pretty good. I’ve only used a handful of them but I really like them. Just be aware that between Photoshop and the Nik plugins there is a learning curve the size of a mountain! If you want to ease into the post-processing world, check out Lightroom as it’s a little more user-friendly.

      Reply

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