Just this week I had the joy (and related heartburn) of creating the latest rendition of the “yearly” family photo.  Every year that I’ve done this I’ve faced a creative challenge, and this year was no different.  Not only did I want to present a new concept that was distinct from previous years, but with a recent marriage and an adoption, I now had two additional people to fit into the ever-shrinking constraints of a 4×6 print.

I started out by sketching a rough concept that incorporated everyone into the frame.  I knew that I wanted to take advantage of vertical space to free up some visual room in the frame, and I also knew that I’d have to do some serious stacking if I was going to manage to fit everyone in at a reasonable size.  This was by-far the hardest part of the process, the pre-visualization.  Things seem to make sense once you’ve got all the images shot and placed on your canvas, but when you’re just sitting down with a pencil and paper, envisioning how it will all fit is much more difficult.

Below is my concept sketch that I drew before moving forward with this project.  There are a couple elements missing in this initial sketch, and I did change a couple things in the final image, but this was the basis for my composite.  I don’t show you this to demonstrate my incredible abilities as a sketch artist (as if that wasn’t plain to see!), but rather to show you how a concept drawn out on paper can become a reality because you’ve taken the time to pre-visualize and chart out your idea.  Sketching is the proofing stage where bad ideas are thrown out and good ideas become better.

So after I’d gone through each piece in my mind, had drawn it out on paper, and had conceived how each person in the shot would be placed in the final composition, I was ready to bust out the tripod and the lights and start shooting.

One critical thing to remember when photographing for a composite is to maintain a consistent camera perspective, and to position your camera when photographing the subject so that it aligns with the final backdrop.  In my shots, I placed my camera on a tripod and shot from about waist-level.  I knew that I wasn’t going to be showing the floor in my final composite, so I wanted to shoot lower and parallel with the floor (a higher, top-down approach would be more likely to incorporate the floor into the final image).  This camera position also ensured the most straight-on perspective in relation to my subjects, causing the composite to feel more natural in the final environment.  Had I shot my subjects from shoulder-level, the camera would have appeared to be looking down at them slightly, which would have not meshed well with my final background which was clearly shot from straight-on.

As for the lights, I went with a three-light setup: camera-right octabox key light positioned above the subject to emphasize diffused light coming down from the ceiling, camera-left umbrella fill light to minimize shadows and light faces that were turned away from the key light, and camera-right bare-bulb rim light to emphasize light coming from behind my subjects (light from the Christmas lights or a lamp against the wall).  The rim light was very subtle, but helped with the separation in the final composite.

I shot against a collapsible white background to make masking in Photoshop easier.  Here are some sample shots that were used in the final composite:


As you can see, it’s nothing elaborate or incredible, in fact, taken at face value, these “in-studio” shots are quite ugly until placed into context.  The thing that really brings all these individual shots together is the intertwining story, the connection that all of these individual elements have with each other in the final image.  This is what’s so critical about pre-visualization and sketching, it ensures that you end up with a result that’s at least half-way cohesive.

Below is an animation showing how all the pieces in this composite came together.  This demonstrates that the whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts!


So there it is, another family picture in the books! Hope this inspired you to be more creative and try something crazy at your next family get-together, and to experiment with sketching as part of your pre-visualization process when doing composites. Though the process of putting it all together might give you heartburn, the end results can definitely be worth it!

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