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Plate Composites Are a Photography Cheat Code

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Some tools are just too powerful to not have in your tool bag as a photographer, and the plate composite technique is one such method.

Employed frequently in the entertainment and commercial photography industries, the modern plate composite technique is immensely flexible and shockingly simple. The results one can achieve using the technique produce an effect that seems a bit like cheating once you realize how easy it is to achieve using the power of modern editing software and their ability to use layer masks.

Often used in the entertainment industry to photograph group photos of performers who cannot always be in the same place at the same time due to their busy schedules, the core concept of the technique is to lock your camera down into one position, optimally a sturdy tripod, and take multiple photos, which are then merged using layer masks in software such as Photoshop. Photographers would take a clean photo of the background and use it as a clean slate to mask in photos of the subjects, which are taken in the same framed-up scene. Use of the tripod to do this technique optimally keeps each layer closely aligned, making the process of masking and merging them straightforward and resulting in a very polished final hybrid photo of your scene.

Picture this: you have four actors for a sitcom and the studio needs a group photo of them. Instead of playing hell to get their schedules to align and have them all together at the same time, a photographer would set up the scene and lock down the camera on the tripod, then bring in each actor as they are available. The photographer can then light each individual carefully, even leaving equipment in the subject frames as needed, such as light stands, because the original plate shot of the clean background gives you the ability to not only mask your subjects together, but to mask out anything extra in the subject frames. After all the actors have their shot taken, a simple session at the editing desk merges them into one photo by stacking the layers, applying layer masks, and carefully masking the actors together, as well as masking out any lighting equipment included in the frames.

This concept can be applied to many other forms of photography for creative and practical purposes. Highly polished large family photos can be made following the aforementioned workflow, but thinking outside the box to see how this can be a good tool in your photographer’s tool kit opens a lot of creative possibilities.

I first discovered the technique while teaching myself the use of off-camera flash. I had taken to using myself as the subject in my flash training by using a tripod and 10-second timer, moving in and out of the scene as I made adjustments to get the shot right. I read about the plate composite technique and realized I was already doing a big part of the workflow and it would be a relatively simple matter to practice my flash at the same time as creating some artistic self-portraits using myself as a subject not just once in a scene, but multiple times — effectively “cloning” myself in the shots. I ultimately created a small series of images where I was playing games against myself, and the deceptively simple process of doing so resulted in fairly polished and interesting work for my then inexperienced self that went on to get me quite a bit of attention from potential clients.

But there is so much more potential to this technique than self-portraiture and group shots. By adding a few extra components to the workflow, I discovered I was able to use it to create something along the lines of a still time-lapse photo, showing motion in a scene with movement by masking in the subject in its range of motion to show them in multiple places along their movement path.

This use of the technique came in handy for a shot of professional freestyle motorcycle rider Sean Nielson doing a show for a local town 4th of July celebration. As Nielson was performing his signature motorcycle jumps, I placed myself in position for a scene that showed both takeoff and landing ramps, as well as the entire arc of his jump. I crouched, pre-focused, held as steady as I could, and used the camera’s continuous burst mode to fire off a string of shots as Nielson launched himself off the ramp and into a backflip, only to touch down on the other ramp successfully. I suspected that if I was careful, I could still pull off the technique without a tripod, thanks to the immensely handy Photoshop feature Auto-Align Layers. My theory was correct, and the auto-alignment went without a hitch, creating the same stack of aligned frames for the compositing process that a tripod would. I was able to select the best frames of Nielson mid-jump and mask each one into the scene as well as do cleanup and mask out some unsightly inclusions to the photo. When all was said and done, I had crafted a still time-lapse shot that perfectly showed the path of his backflip as spectators gathered round to watch. The image went on to win a first place in the Utah Press Association’s Better Newspaper Contest in the sports photo category, although it is important to note that the photo process should be explained in your caption if an image like this is used in a journalistic application to avoid misleading your viewer to believe it was captured in a single frame.

The applications for this workflow are nearly endless. One must simply apply the concepts to use them correctly. Some photographers use this technique for ensuring a clean image by removing subjects or items only, as opposed to adding them. For example, some street and city photographers will use the technique to cleanly declutter or depopulate a scene of people and cars. The core power of this method is simply the access to easy, polished compositing, without all the mess of clipping out and pasting in subjects to a non-native scene. Through this method, you even get the benefit of flawless shadow directionality in your composite, because each frame existed in real and is merged with another, preserving the light and shadow quality, resulting is a perfectly realistic composite that doesn’t strike the human eye or subconscious brain as “uncanny,” a serious problem afflicting many manually composited images where the subjects were initially captured in a scene where the light direction and shadows were different than that of your setting.

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