The Truth Behind Composite Photography

And why haters are wrong

You’re cheating.

You’re lazy.

It’s fake.

You’re not a real photographer.

You’re lying to people.

If you have tried composite photography yourself, you surely have heard one of those.

And if you haven’t but thought of trying it, chances are you haven’t tried yet because part of you don’t want to hear those.

That was my case back in 2021.

While I was enjoying landscape photography a lot, editing had become my favorite part of the process.

I would almost intentionally make it last as long as possible because I was extracting that enjoyment for as long as I could.

But you can only work so long on a single shot (that was before I started astrophotography btw, because yes astro images take much longer).

On top of that, I became frustrated by the limitations I was put through. Namely:

  • Weather conditions when shooting

  • (Mis)-alignment of elements in a scene that would make it very difficult to always get exactly what you want

  • When shooting stars, the foreground would be dark and lack details if kept in a single shot

For all those reasons, I decided to give it a try.

Not an easy decision at the time because I was fighting the internal battle of:

  • What would people think about me?

  • If I fail at it, will it make all my previous images (single shots) lose all their value and credibility?

  • Will I still be considered part of the landscape photography community?

After a few years of doing it now, I realized those fears and fights were mostly happening in my head.

I created them.

Never have I felt more connected to other photographers. And 90% of the ones I know are not composite photographers (or at least they don’t claim it).

My images and photography skills have sky-rocketed in quality.

I have never felt as fulfilled about my photography as now.

One thing made this possible though:


Would I have tried to either deny or just don’t disclaim I was doing composites, my stance would be very different right now.

Now, let’s dive a little into what composite photography really is. How it made its way through history, the reasons for doing it, and the rules I set for myself.

1. What Is A Composite

Composite photography is a creative and technical art form that merges two or more images into a single, cohesive photograph.

This technique allows photographers and digital artists to craft scenes that transcend the ordinary, combining elements from various sources to create imagery that might not be impossible to capture in a single shot.

The process involves selecting, editing, and blending different photographs or components, mostly with the help of sophisticated software such as Photoshop.

At its core, composite photography is about storytelling and imagination.

Its purpose is not to represent reality as it is.

It’s the combination of nature and human creativity at work.

It offers artists the freedom to construct surreal scenes or realistic environments with elements that were not present together in reality.

The art of composite photography requires not just an eye for composition and detail, but also a deep understanding of lighting, color theory, and perspective.

The shooting process to create composites is significantly different from single shots.

Compositing doesn’t mean creating something that looks far away from reality either.

This is why to make it look as realistic as possible, you need to carefully angle and capture your elements so that when you put them back together, the difference is almost indiscernible.

Each element must be carefully selected and adjusted to match the lighting conditions, angles, and scale of the base image to ensure a believable and harmonious result.

This meticulous attention to detail is what sets apart high-quality composite images, making them appear as if every component was indeed part of the original scene.

For photographers, composite photography opens up endless possibilities for creativity.

It allows them to convey messages, evoke emotions, or simply create beauty that goes beyond the limitations of traditional photography.

The reason composite photography made so much sense to me is that way before I went that path, I was always seeking aesthetics in everything I was involved with:

  • Decorating my room

  • Making beautiful university reports

  • Building PowerPoint presentations that would make everyone react

It still holds true today, as my main goal is to convey stories with images that share beauty the way I see it.

2. Composite Photography Throughout History

Composite photography, while often associated with the digital era, actually started in the early days of photography itself.

The technique emerged in the 19th century, not long after the invention of photography.

One of the first to play around with this idea was Oscar Rejlander (he’s a Swede too).

Back in 1857, he created a piece called "The Two Ways of Life" by piecing together over thirty different shots.

The Two Ways of Life - Oscar Rejlander

Fast forward to the 20th century, and you've got Jerry Uelsmann turning heads with his surreal, dreamlike images.

He did all this magic in the darkroom, using multiple photos and a lot of creativity to make scenes that looked straight out of a fantasy world.

Untitled - Jerry Uelsmann

And of course the good old debate:

Ansel Adams, renowned for his breathtaking black-and-white landscape photographs, occasionally employed techniques that could be considered early forms of composite work.

While Adams is best known for his mastery of the darkroom and his development of the Zone System (you can read about it here), his work mostly focused on traditional photography techniques.

Though not a composite artist in the modern sense, his innovative techniques laid the groundwork for future generations to explore photography further, including the use of composites.

The Tetons and the Snake River - Ansel Adams

3. Why Compositing

I came to understand that those who come at you to blame composite photography don’t understand the “why” in the first place.

The only time they are right is if your reason for doing it is what they claim. But every individual has different reasons for doing it.

If you’re doing it because you don’t want to bother hiking that far and would rather put yourself standing there in the picture, then maybe laziness is the word.

But it could also be because getting there specifically, puts your life at risk and so if you want to fulfill your vision, you have no other choice.

The laziness argument makes me laugh a lot.

Never have I put as much physical effort, time, and energy into capturing images as I do now with composites.

But I understand every case is different.

Here are a few reasons why composite photography makes sense to me:

  1. Creative Freedom: Composite photography breaks the constraints of reality, allowing you to merge elements from different scenes that can't be witnessed in nature as such. It's all about letting the imagination run.

  1. Unattainable Scenes: Sometimes, the vision in your mind can't be captured in a single frame due to physical limitations or the impossibility of certain conditions coexisting. Composites make these visions possible.

  2. Control Over Lighting and Atmosphere: By combining elements from various photos, you can achieve perfect lighting and atmospheric conditions that might be difficult to find in a single shot.

  1. Storytelling: Composite photography allows for complex narratives to be built within a single image, combining various elements to tell a story or convey a message more powerfully than a single photograph might.

  1. Enhancing Visual Impact: By blending multiple images, you can create more visually compelling scenes that grab viewers' attention and stand out in a crowded visual landscape.

  2. Overcoming Limitations: Whether due to weather, timing, or location restrictions, composite photography can overcome these challenges, allowing you to produce desired images without being hindered by external conditions.

4. The Rules I Set For Myself

The thing with compositing is that it opens up a world where there are no boundaries.

It’s an incredible opportunity and a problem at the same time.

Some people will go beyond wild, and mix elements that have absolutely nothing to do with each other, sometimes leaving a “cheap” impression of the medium.

I noticed for such images to be appreciated, they need to bear certain ethical points within them.

For me, it means:

  • Taking my images in the same region, if not the exact same location

  • Taking my images within the shortest timeframe possible; from sunset to sunrise

And those are the points I allow myself some freedom to reach a vision:

  • Blending focal lengths

  • Blending exposures

  • Blending images from different hours (blue hour landscape with night sky images)

  • Blend elements that are not captured in the same direction necessarily (example below, the MW is impossible to capture in this direction)

Those rules are not meant to be followed if you feel they don’t apply to you.

I decided those for myself because although it gives me more creative freedom and control, I still get challenged to create.

I still have to play with what I have at hand, and if it means a cloudy sky, either I accept it, or I have to go back on another day at the same location.

Setting those “limiting” rules on purpose makes the final image so much more satisfying, precisely because it didn’t feel easy.

Happiness comes from doing hard stuff.

Because this is how you build meaning in what you do.

And this is how you can tell greater stories.

If you read that far, here is my advice for you today:

If composite photography draws your attention, try it.

No way you will regret at least trying.

And believe me, you will suck at it at first.

But if you enjoyed the process, don’t let it stop you.

That’s it for today.

See you in the next one,