3 – Creating Realistic Montages

Lesson Objectives

At the end of this lesson, students will be able to:

  1. consolidate multiple photographs to create a coherent image
  2. choose appropriate images to combine
  3. alter environmental elements such as lighting and to contribute to a professional product
  4. determine appropriate adjustments needed


In this lesson, we will discuss how to combine multiple photographs to create visually coherent and realistic montages. This is a simple first step, as we expand our practice and complexity it is important to focus in on details on every layer we combine and at every step. Many of the amazing work we see created digitally starts with the combining of and careful manipulation of images so they all fit together perfectly.   The surrealist artist, Erik Johansson, starts with storyboarding his concept first, shooting many photos, and combining them in different ways.

Artist – Erik Johansson

Here’s a video of some of his behind the scenes process.

Environmental Factors That Contribute to Visual Understanding

Evaluating Images

Noise in an image a result of pixel variability. It is another term for ‘grain’ in darkroom photography. It can also sometimes refer to artifacts that occur with low-resolution jpg images, which is generally not a desirable element. Sometimes we add noise to images for a specific effect but usually it is caused by either a high ISO in your camera or quality of your camera sensor.

Have a look at the photo below with and without noise (use the slider). You could say that the noisy version has more atmosphere, feels older, feels more remote or more graphic. It is communicating a slightly different meaning than the crisp version that has a more realistic and immediate feel. When you put it side by side with the less noisy image, it seems wrong, they don’t fit together at all. That’s true if you are compositing multiple images as well, they need to work together.

Here is a blurry version.

Blurred portrait

In this example, lighting also plays a huge factor in the image. The light is strong from the side, casting deep shadows.

Before you start to composite multiple images, you will need to evaluate lighting and shadow in order to make it more realistic. The two images below have very different lighting directions and strength. The sofa has two light sources and the one on the right is stronger than the left. The dog has one light source and strong on the left. How could you put the dog on the sofa and have it look natural?

You would need to balance the light on the dog somewhat by decreasing the light on the left and increasing the light on the right side.   Of course proper selection, sizing and placement would be important. You would also need to get rid of the grass that is on the front of the dog, perhaps with the clone stamp tool. The dog’s paws are buried in the grass so you may need to make it look like the dog is sitting behind one of the pillows to cover that up. You could select a pillow and isolate it on it’s own layer and tuck the dog’s paws in behind it potentially.

You will also need to evaluate reflection.

Placing this unicorn into the Yellowstone National Park scene at the waters edge, for example would not only require adjustments to the color and light that falls on the unicorn, but also a matching reflection.

Perspective is also tricky to perfect to make realistic montages. We’ll do more with perspective in a later lesson. For now, try to think about whether or not the element is placed into the scene where it is not floating in space, appears too large or small, or distorted in relation to it’s environment.

What’s wrong with this picture?

beach hog

Apart from the fact that hedgehogs don’t generally go to the beach, the lighting and the image grain is wrong. The hedgehog is too light, especially underneath, relative to the background image. The background is slightly blurry and it may have a bit more noise to it.

beach hog

Here, the image is somewhat improved   and the hedgehog seems to blend into the background a bit more through better placement, lighting adjustments, shadow, noise, and blur. Through a Curves Adjustment Layer to bring down the contrast of the hog, a subtle shadow layer, and careful use of the Burn Tool, the image is on it’s way to looking more natural.

beachog settings screen snap

Compositing Tips

Order of Operations

  1. Resize or transform first
  2. Add noise, blur, color transformations later
  3. Sharpen last


Tool Tips

For working with combining two images, the Free Transform tool and other Layer basics, please see this Adobe Tutorial – Working with Layers

For working with Adjustment layers, see also Fine-tune an image adjustment layer

Tool Tips:

  • Brush size: Use [ and ] for increasing, decreasing selection or brush size
  • Free Transform: Use ⌘ t on a Mac or Control t on a PC to get the Free Transform tool or choose it from Top Menu -> Edit -> Free Transform
  • Exit Free Transform: To exit the Free Transform tool, hit your Enter or Return key
  • Use the letter v on your keyboard to choose the move tool
  • Use the letter b on your keyboard to choose the brush tool
  • Use the letter s on your keyboard to choose the clone stamp tool



Additional Resources & Activities

Challenge Activity

(optional) If you are interested in compositing, a fun way to practice is by participating in the Reddit Photoshop Battle.


If all else fails – try this technique for selection. Warning – it’s destructive so just keep watching the tutorial until the end where he shows how to make it non-destructive.

Further Reference



Exercise 3

In this exercise, you are asked to pay attention to visual characteristics of multiple photographs and try to match them to create a coherent and realistic image.

Choose and download one background image (click on thumbnail below to open the full image, then save to your computer):

Choose and download one animal image:

Open both images in Photoshop – the background and the animal. Copy the animal image onto a new layer above the background image. (See tool tip video above for how to do this.)

Do not alter the background image (no change in brightness, contrast, no filters).

On the animal layer, select the animal and click on Select and Mask interface to refine your selection edges. See the tool tips above for how to refine your selections carefully.  Try to get a clean selection without extra pixels on  the edge while preserving details. Save mask to a new layer. You will be using this layer for further adjustments.

Make the adjustments  discussed in the lecture video to make the foreground (animal)  appear to be there when the  background photo was taken.

Save your file as Photoshop file with layers and share with your instructor via your Google Drive folder for class.

Don’t merge layers or flatten the layers.
Don’t reduce the size of the original images below 1200 x 1200 pixels.

Higher points will be given to final images with more visually coherent  and realistic appearance. Dirty or too simple edges around the foreground layer will make the  image less realistic, so try to do your best when you are selecting the  animal before masking.

Journal - Blog Post

  1. Create a new post  on this course website
  2. Upload JPGs of Exercise 3 into your post  
  3. Give your post the  category of “Exercise 3’
  4. Reflection   — Exercise 3: Include a written reflection on the process you used to composite the images. Were you successful? What do you like about it? How could it be improved? What were some roadblocks you ran into?

See also  Grading Criteria  for Journal Posts.


View other student’s Introduction Presentations and  Exercise 2 posts  from last week and make a substantive comment on at least one of them.

Next week we will be commenting on this week’s exercise but feel free to comment on other’s posts early.

See also  Grading Criteria  for comments.