The image above is a composite from 5 photos, one of me in the studio and one of the house across the street and of lightning from the same spot but on a different night, plus a sunset and one of the bird. All blended together in layers using Paint Sho Pro X5. Akvis Smart Mask version 3, Nik Color Efex Pro 3 for some color enhancement.
The trick to good extractions is to have the whole subject or area you want to extract in good focus and the background out of focus or at least a smooth surface that is a different color. Large aperture does not work here. I use Akvis Smart Mask for the extractions. In fact I use the older version 3 as I like it better, my testing shows that the older version gives more accurate hair extractions with my images. All the masking software (including PS) works about the same overall and none of them can perform miracles. If you have fuzzy edges the software will make a mess of things most of the time. The same thing goes if the background is in focus too. You must have good differentiation between the two for the software to do its job without artifacts showing up or having to do a tedious selection process. You need a difference in color or sharpness. Shooting older DX camera sensors at higher ISOs with its fuzzy edge definition can cause problems as well. The cleaner the image and the sharper the pixels the better (but not grain). In my small garage studio I try to use as long a focal length as I can and use F8-11. With a seamless background you could use a shorter focal lenght and F8 would be good too. I almost never use any of the clean up tools in Akvis Smart Mask because theres very little to clean up and what needs doing I can do later in layers. The clean up tools I use are the Erasure, Various selection tools, and the Change to Target tool (PSP X5, Photo Shop may call it something else). Often no clean up is needed. The clean up tools that most plug-ins have is about dropping and keeping colors with a magic brush, I find these tools need to be improved, I have tried all the latest masking SW and I don’t find those tool work too good most of the time and certainly not like their videos show. On some images yes but most of the time no. Photoshops Refine Edge seem to do a better job sometimes. Joel Grimes is a master at this, check out his videos and website. Removing a tree with leaves etc from a background is a whole different job for the software and your mileage may vary. Hair is often the hardest thing to get right unless you have just the right conditions then any of the SW will do a great job.
Don’t be fooled by all the cool demo videos at the various software websites, those image are selected because they work well with their product. When you get home you will find it is not as easy as they promote unless your image is very close to theirs. Although they do work very well in many cases and can be faster and simpler for those non PS gurus.. Once you get the hang of it they all work and have the same tools for the most part. Some will perform better on one image then another then the next one will favor a different software. PS can can sometimes give the best redition but still it’s not perfect with difficult images. I have gotten results from PS that blew away the plug-ins in some areas of the image while the plug-ins did much better on other areas. In these cases I will just blend the best from both if I have to. On One brand Masking software comes with Perfect layers built into it so if you don’t have Photoshop or Paint Shop you might find that is the best choice for you. There are some good tutorials out there that cover photoshop hair extractions. Joel Grimes covers it in depth in one of his paid videos. At least one of the Pro tutorials at Phlearn.com also covers that in more detail than the free ones. Most of the time my Akvis Smart Mask works just fine with only minimal clean up needed. With images that have a lot of wild hairs sticking out your going to lose some detail except under optimum conditions. A gray background without any color in it can be a bit harder to do extractions than colored backgrounds with plug-ins. I use gray most of the time. Since I have very few situations where I need to extract a lot of wild hair I don’t usually have any issues. If you know ahead of time that you will be doing exactions than expose the BG so that there is a good tonal difference from the hair. As long as your going to put in a BG with similar tonality as the original you won’t have as many problems. Going to a white BG is probably the hardest as even a tiny bit of extra left over pixels from the old BG will show through. In most situations your subject probably wants you to clean up the wild hairs anyway so that makes things easier when cleaning up the extraction.
Part 2 of his interview here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nIv4lNrEDI&feature=plcp
Be sure to watch both interviews with Joel Grimes.
Here are his very informative Lit Up series.
If you look carefully at Mr. Grimes backgrounds on many of his sport shots for example you will see that they were often shot during the day as an HDR then processed to look like evening or night. Stadium lights are sometimes added as well as light rays emulating from the lights. He then sometimes brightens up the center area around the subject. Shooting during midday or afternoon opens up more shotting opportunities when processed this way. This mood is not done with HDR software but with blend modes in the layer pallete in PS. HDR software is just used to give a full tonal range to start with. Although Joel doesn’t always brighten up the center area it is a hallmark of this syle. I have yet to process a composite in that way.
Here is a link to a couple of photographers photostreams on Flickr who do composites work .
There are also Composite groups to check out. Here is just one of them.
Processing. If you can visualize what you want before shooting you will fare better. Try to take background images with the intention of using it for a composite. The above example looks far different then the out of camera originals. The background was an HDR from inside a mechanics garage and the subject was taken out in the sun with an AB800 opposite the sun. Normally the subject would be shot in my studio using 3-5 lights , one gridded softbox over head and two goboed speedlights or diffuesed 51″ PLM umbrellas from Paul Buff for the side lighting. One on camera for a light fill or reflector if needed. Nothing wrong with hard lighting if an edgy look is what your after. This type of lighting also helps with extractions because there is good contrast along the edges. Most lenses perform the same at samller apertures so even a cheap lens will do the job just fine. High MP cameras(24-36mp) may need to be shot at F5.6 -8 max for sharpest results. You will have to experiment to see what you can get away with and still get all the hair sharp. Most photographers don’t use a tripod in the studio when using flash but your results will be sharper and more consistant. I personally don’t like using a Tripod in the studio very often but I know I’m better off doing so.
Once you have your extraction done all you have to do is paste different images into your layers palette and see which one you want to use. Don’t forget to save you extraction in case at a later time you want to redo it or your software locks up on you and you lose all that time you put into it, seems more likely to happen when your working with a lot of layers. You may have to process the two images separately until they start to look right in your eyes. Again, it really is best to plan your shots ahead of time. If you go out with taking backgrounds in mind you will find that your captures will be different than when you were just finding interesting things to shoot. Bring a note book with you to write down ideas for the captures or get ideas from other photographers composites. Some things to consider are making sure your perspective is the same for both the background and subject, I’m not talking about the angle of view but your height and how level your camera is compared to your subject ,there is some leeway here but keep that in mind. I have lots of ideas but very few models that match what I want to do. Having access to the venues you want to photograph helps too.
Action. If you want to capture action using flash your going to be limited to either speedlights or something like Paul Buff’s new Einstein studio lights as they have much shorter durations that lend very well to capturing movement. The Einsteins are by far the best action studio lights for the money. You should experiment before the shoot to make sure your equipment is up to the task, make sure which power settings give short enough flash duration to catch fast moving action at close range. Otherwise you might be surprized just how blurry the details are in the image. Your average studio flash is not up to the task of giving sharp images of things like water flying off your subject while moving.
Just a note to you real estate photographers who have been vistiing my blog the last few years, I recently deleted all my real estate related posts & pages. sorry but I am no longer involved in real estate or real estate photography.