Simulating Location Photography: placing studio subjects in environments via Photoshop

carefully blending together compositional elements, lighting, and color effects between separate studio and environment shots can help you put together a convincing location shot

i recently directed a lifestyle photo shoot for an athletic apparel company. the challenge: produce a wide range of action/lifestyle photographs for web, print, display, and marketing campaigns on a minimal budget. not easy.

the first thing i did was minimize the photography budget by removing location photography from the list of options. this slashed the projected budget tenfold. but one can’t do this without a contingency plan, because the location shots are still needed. the solution: shoot the models against a seamless background and superimpose the models into an environment. it might sound crazy, but it can effectively be done. i do it all the time to help clients save big bucks – but it can also produce some great creative results that might not have been anticipated in an actual location shot.

i wouldn’t recommend that novices attempt seamlessly mocking up models in an environment. without a sharp eye for detail and a great handle on photoshop the attempt will be obvious to a viewer, which results in a viewer’s snort, scoff, and snicker.

here are 6 key details to look out for:

1) compositional context | the studio subject and the environment must have a cohesive composition. when a professional photographer shoots a subject on location he looks at the whole frame and not just the subject. this requires a good understanding of positive and negative space and a host of other compositional elements. these details create interest, even drama, but mostly leads the eye into a narrative. in some ways, this is easier to accomplish in a fully staged photograph where all can be fine tuned at once. simulating the same effect requires planning both in the studio and in the environment shot.

note: in the above example three separate shots were merged together to form the context: the sky, the buildings, and the track.

2) vantage point | in order for the model(s) to appear as if they are in the simulated environment the vantage point in each shot must be the same. for instance, is the point of view at a low angle looking up, or a high angle looking down?

note: in the above example both the subject and the environment were altered in photoshop to enhance the feeling of perspective. the track was distorted to a sharp angle, and the subject’s rear leg and forearms were warped to give an enhanced sense of depth.

3) light direction and shadows | nothing will give away a mocked up photo composition more than reversed lighting, i.e. shadows pointing to the right in the background and to the left in the foreground. consistent light and shadow angles are extremely important. in fact, even when you plan for your subject and background to have the same light angles, the differences in light intensity between the two can be a dead giveaway. i typically post-simulate lighting effects on both levels to bring them into balance with each other.

note: in the above example the subject was given a blurred drop shadow, and subtle shadows were added to the subject itself to add depth.

4) movement | is your subject in motion or standing still? is your background moving or static. is there wind or other environmental factors? these need to be balanced out between levels. i typically use a combination of photoshop blur or sharpening effects to bring them in balance with each other.

5) depth of field | pay attention to the depth of field on both levels. i typically simulate a short depth of field by dividing the background into varied depth zones (through layered blurring – the farther away the blurrier the image gets). this effect is an excellent technique in making the composition convincing.

note: in the above example the subject and the environment were divided into perceived depth layers and given progressive blur levels accordingly. for instance, the subject’s back leg was isolated with a feathered selection and blurred in accordance to the same perceived depth zone on the track. the buildings in the back received the greatest blur level. conversely, foreground elements were isolated and were sharpened in the same manner.

6) color tone | most likely, your studio shot and your location shot are going to have dramatically different tones. i usually carefully and manually adjust the color balance on both levels to match each other, but that on it’s own usually isn’t enough to do the trick. to really bring the layers together i like to create a top level effect layer in my photoshop document that blends over all the sub-layers. depending on your content, the layer blending settings will vary. play around with the ‘multiply’, ‘darken’, ‘overlay’ and ‘soft light’ layer properties – and, of course, your layer fill color and opacity. i typically isolate key areas on the subject and play with effects in several layers.

note: in the above example i used a series of textured color fields to blend over all layers to balance color tone. i isolated key areas of the subject with a feathered selection, such as the face and product, to “pop” it forward a bit.

There are many other effects i used to achieve the final composition in the above example, such as reducing unwanted product folds, enhancing eyes, slendering the body, etc… perhaps i’ll pour over those techniques in a future post.

credit: original photo by rudolph van dommele | model courtesy wilhelmina models