Combine Two Or More If The Action Doesn’t Unfold

How to use Photoshop to create an illustrative wildlife image, by combining two or more files into a single photo.
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Wildlife photography is a challenge. It requires lots of patience, dedication, trips to the animals and time. But quite often, no matter how much time you spend, how patient you are, how many trips you take, and how dedicated you are, the animals don't cooperate. The light wasn't right, the animals never showed up, they appeared but displayed little behavior, their head angles were wrong, etc. This is where image processing can rescue you from your dilemma of not getting “the shot” no matter how hard you tried.

I use Photoshop to create an illustrative wildlife image to combine two or more files into a single photo. I use the word illustrative in that I don't want to give the wrong impression that the photo was made as a single capture. This is where digital processing gets a bad reputation unless the maker of the photo comes clean. For the sake of those who want to maintain the integrity of every photographer, if you do create composites, please don't to pass them off as single captures.

In the illustrative image I composited for this How To, I used the same bird from two frames, but because of the way he positioned himself in each, it gives the impression that one is chasing another. In actuality, the bird that was doing the chasing didn't cooperate, and I completely left him out.

Step 1: Find two images to composite. It's best if the light is identical, the setting is the same, and the background is plain and simple. Open both in Photoshop.

Step 2: Click on the Lasso tool and make a selection of the subject to move. Leave extra room around it. Go to Edit>Copy. Click on the photo to which the selection is to be moved and go to Edit>Paste. A new layer will appear on the layers palette. Use the Move tool to position the added subject to the desired location.

Step 3: Go to Image>Adjustments>Levels and tweak the midtones slider to get as close a density match as possible. This will help alleviate any variations in exposure from one file to the next.

Step 4: Add a Layer Mask to the new layer. To do this, click on the Add Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the layers palette. Click on the Brush tool. Make sure the layer mask is active - it will have a thin black line around it. Be sure your foreground color is set to black and the opacity is set to 50% in the Options Bar. Paint away the edges of the new layer to blend the two images together. Use a very soft brush so the transition is feathered. If you paint into the layer that was pasted and need to get the pixels back, change the foreground color to white and paint over the area that needs correcting.

Step 5: Click the eyeball of the new layer ON and OFF to preview how natural the addition looks. Some clean up cloning may be needed in addition to other tweaks. If so, perform these steps.



    I hardly think it is cheating when it is listed as an illustrative image.
    The photos you tweak in PS that need a little more contrast or a boost of color are also ones that should also be considered “cheating” as well then, correct?

    Marty and Ram – Please have another look at the second paragraph and read it carefully as I, in no way, intend to pass off the image that accompanies the article as a Nature photo. CK – thanks for realizing this. I had a feeling that the article may stir up some discussion so I made it a point to state it’s an Illustrative Image. The intent of the article is to educate the reader how Photoshop can be used in a Creative way – not in a way to deceive the public.

    As Russ indicates … it ain’t cheatin’ if you state the intention up front. It won’t win any Nature Photog of the Year awards, but it may sell prints or copies for books and magazines.

    BTW, no one considers contrast, saturation, exposure, etc. adjustments as cheating either … these are manipulations that can be done on prints made from negatives, so it is a dead issue.

    Whilst Russ has definitely been upfront about this image, the use of the term “illustrative image” does not yet appear to be widely accepted terminology (Russ has defined what it means for him here). My concern would be that, until the definition for that term becomes widely accepted, some photographers may simply describe an image of theirs as being “illustrative” (without definition) and have it mistakenly judged in the same light as a single shot image. Perhaps a more accepted term would be a “wildlife composite” or a “wildlife collage”.

    We can all discuss terminology for this type of photo manipulation, but it doesn’t change the fact that Russ has been totally up front about his intention and method. Props for doing something interesting and letting us all know about it.

    I don’t see the point of creating an image like this. Without getting in to name calling and labels, it feels different than techniques like color and contrast adjustment.

    To the ‘Cheating’ comments: No, it is not cheating. It can be a valuable part of composing. A few years ago, while on a “hunting” weekend with family, I wanted to capture an unposed/natural group image with a hunting blind in the background. There were 5 people to get in the image, one of whom (an family elder) was in stage 4 terminal cancer. I took a dozen or more candid shots, but someone was always behind a bush, had their head turned away, or . . . . . A few days later, after the trip, the elder gentleman passed away. No re-takes, no second chance, no later opportunity, there was only one thing to do. Photoshop Merge!
    Wildlife photography presents mush the same dilemma. You may never get that light, that angle, that background, that opportunity again to present impression that you wish to express.

    So, it’s not really cheating. The author uses the term “illustrative”, and that’s what it is.

    This brings up the subject is photography an art form or is it just snapshots -click and print – personally I see nothing wrong with adjusting images combining images -George Lepp had a great article in OP on how to do this. Just state what you have done

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