Photo-Compositing in the Commercial World

San Diego — In the last post I showed a sample of compositing in order to adjust composition and lighting in a commercial shot.  I was asked if that was “kosher” since the shot was altered.  Well the answer is, it depends.  If the shot were for a news story and I was shooting in the role of a news photojournalist then yes, it would be generally forbidden.  Some documentary authors with a particular axe to grind routinely alter both photos and history to suit their agendas but when caught risk loosing all credibility… at least among those who care or are on the other side of the narrative (those of like belief will accept it all as gospel and then help perpetuate the new image’s myth).

But we are creating advertising shots whose goal is to help lure the viewer into changing behavior, i.e. buying something they otherwise would not do or using some new service.  Specifically in our case we are shooting to get new and return customers into the restaurants we are depicting.  And we have not really created anything misleading.

In the case of the Sandwich Shop owners we had to composite the background back in after lighting it since we did not have the power outlets to light it properly in the first place.  In the case of the Mexican Restaurant from the last post, we simply altered the perspective a little and then layered that in on a better shot of the bar than what was shot at the same time as the food shots.

This week we did a composite for a completely different reason… kids.  The famous line from Hollywood admonishes actors to try to never work with kids or animals.  I would take that as a starting point and add some new rules to it for photographers.

  1. Never Work with small Children or Infants.
  2. If you MUST work with kids do not work with more than one at a time and keep the others in a cage until ready.
  3. Do not allow Parents on the set with you and the kids.
  4. If they come on the set anyway do not allow them to “help” direct or, for that matter, say ANYTHING out loud.
  5. If you absolutely must have kids as props in the shot then hire real professionals.

If presented with a request for such a shot, you also need to find out why on earth otherwise sane businessmen would want kids in their shot anyway?  Obviously, if the shop caters to children then it makes perfect sense to have them in the shot.  So, if that is the case, go to the talent agency and hire some pros.

But if the only reason is a client’s desire to sneak in a cutesy family portrait on the advertising budget, then almost certainly someone is going to be unhappy: whether it turns out to be the marketing director or the parent, somebody’s personal objectives will not be met.  The two goals are not compatible and need to be shot separately, not by trying to shoehorn one view into another one.  And no one will manage to remember it was THEIR idea; they will remember only that YOU were the photographer.

Those rules were broken and their reason for existing was reinforced clearly in the Corvette Diner shots.  However, slow to learn our lesson we found ourselves having to once again shoot kids for a shot for a yogurt shop.  When dealing with small kids and parents, it is like herding cats with a water pistol.  And the result is, especially with tiny kids, getting everyone on the same page is essentially impossible.  In shot after shot, some will look great and others anything from goofy to surly to sometimes having expressions that make Chucky look angelic.  And in the next shot they will have switched roles.

Oh, and by the way, the person who managed to get their kids involved will never, ever admit the truth here so because they want and expect a great portrait shot of their precious little darlings, no matter how good of an advertising shot it turns out to be, they will not be happy campers.  They will believe that their kids are so stunningly gorgeous that the mere fact of their inclusion in the shot will drive people to the business.  To suggest otherwise, no matter how true, is not a good career move…

It is a “no win” scenario for the photographer.  This is one of those vicious “hidden agendas” that normally exist in very large and expensive jobs but will exist on every level of job that uses kids in a shot.

And yet… we persevere.  At the yogurt shop the problem was the kids were most definitely not in synch.  The little guy was totally lost and the other boy and girl just wanted to eat their treat and go home, away from the madness.  Plus, the publisher, whose kids we were using, had not fully apprised the shop owner of the impact this would have on the business operations and scheduled this for a Sunday afternoon on a warm day when the place was not only open for business but swamped with customers.  So there was tension all around and of course kids are fine tuned to pick up on that.

We replaced the little guy with an older boy and the shots were easier but lacked some of the spunk of the first ones.  The boy and girl responded better to the older boy now in the shot but much of the spontaneity was missing or at least thinned out.

What to do?  Well, we massively overshot the scenario to give us as much editing options as possible.  From the collection of shots we picked the two shots below.

The two shots used in the composite.  In addition to dropping the little boy from the left hand shot into the right hand shot, the cables needed removing and walls given better exposure along with brightening up the logo.  Canon 5D Mk III

The two shots used in the composite. In addition to dropping the little boy from the left hand shot into the right hand shot, the cables needed removing and walls given better exposure along with brightening up the logo. Canon 5D Mk III

The one on the left has the younger kid in a great expression and pose.  But the others are in another dimension.  The one on the right has the boy and girl in a happy place but the older boy from the new option is a little forced in his smile.  The answer was obvious… combine the shots.

So with the application of a little digital magic, we now have the good parts of two shots in a single shot.  I still had to straighten perspective, fix the glare on shiny background and blackboard, brighten the logo, correct the perspective, et voila, a more exciting (and more appealing) shot emerged.

Final composite with standing little boy replacing sitting older boy.

Final composite with standing little boy replacing sitting older boy.

None of this visual trickery has the slightest effect on the product in question, but because the tableau is more appealing it has a better chance of attracting customers to the shop and that is the whole point.  Is it cheating?  In my opinion it is not.  It is a shot that could have happened if the timing gods had been on our side. It is the shot we wanted in the first place but could not coax out of the kids.  And even if it is not “real” in the sense that it does not represent a single frame captured by the camera, it still conveys the ‘reality’ we sought to present about the place.


About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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1 Response to Photo-Compositing in the Commercial World

  1. Gabriel says:

    “Is it cheating?”

    Not at all… I think people understand commercial photography is typically manipulated / manufactured in some way. The final decision was definitely the right one — I like the way the chalk connects the older boy to the girl.

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