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Removing Subjects from Backgrounds

Lesson 21 from: Fine Art Compositing

Brooke Shaden

Removing Subjects from Backgrounds

Lesson 21 from: Fine Art Compositing

Brooke Shaden

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Lesson Info

21. Removing Subjects from Backgrounds


Class Trailer

Day 1


Class Introduction


Why Composite ?


Logic Checklist


What Not To Do When Compositing


Shooting for Composite


Changing Backgrounds and Light


Shoot: Simple Swaps Part 1


Lesson Info

Removing Subjects from Backgrounds

I want to go through a couple of different examples that I have of where I have had to cut somebody off of a background and the process that had to be done to be able to do that so this is an example that we have done before we've looked at this yesterday and this is a really really good example though of cutting things off in the background because of the simple reason that everything was cut out in this picture we talked in the last segment about light and shadow and how important those two things are and when we have light and shadow happening that creates believability and it tricks the viewer essentially so a good example of that is how in this image my body didn't exactly fit into that picture but I was able to make my feet connect with the ground because of shadow and because of adding a book under my foot so that essentially added height even though as you know in a picture you can't actually build height in a picture when it's two dimensional but I put the book under there I a...

dded some shadows and that combination allowed me to make the believability happen of I was actually standing on a book or I was actually standing in that space so this is one example that we did already look at so we're going to go a little bit faster through this portion but what we have or the book pages stuck in there the book pages were done just by holding them up against the sky shooting the book pages and then cutting each one individually and pasting them on obviously the swirl was not done in camera that's something that was done later but that's not such an issue the issue here is did I shoot the book page is high enough in the air for the angle to be correct to fit in this image did the exposure look right and is the whiting consistent on the book pages as with the lighting on my body the whiting in that final image so then I chose the background and I chose this background simultaneously when I was choosing my body position and the angle and stuff like that I was trying to pay attention to how this was photograph although this image in particular was photographed about three years ago so I wasn't sitting there like oh I remember exactly how I shot this picture I knew generally how I shot it based on how I shoot most things which is with my tripod kind of it this height I really enjoyed this height of shooting it's a little bit below the subject makes me look a little bit taller some very very little and so I think that's a nice effect so I went with that assumption I shot a little bit lower than that and that was my error right I should have shot a little bit higher but because I didn't my body was floating a little bit in that picture so that was where I went wrong I photographed the books nearly the same way I moved my camera just slightly to shoot the books but I just laid them all out on the floor where I shot myself not in a field not anywhere else just on some cement and I photographed the books to photograph the books I took them I was one book that I kept flipping the page for and then I would put it in this position and photograph it then I would move it over here and rotate it that I would move it over here and flipped the page I would get closer to the camera further away from the camera and that allowed me to have that perspective happening so some books were smaller and further away somewhere closer to the camera and had some blur to them so that was really great for figuring out where they should go in this image and then I was able to later match the blur of the background to the blur of the books then I've got my body in there and this is the point where you can really see that it's not working yet and that's because of where my feet are touching my feet have shadows on them you can see that just at the bottom there where my foot is you have this sort of shadowing happening it gets darker right under my foot but then the thing that my foot is touching doesn't get any darker as though there were nothing there no shadows nothing blocking the light whatsoever and that is the point that needs to be remedied when cutting somebody out of a background so they're the shadows get added and I'll just go back and forth there just a little bit they're they're not and then there they are and they're they're not in there they are okay and so that's a really subtle change it's something that I made a little bit darker as we went on but that was the kicker for me in terms of making this all come together here we have the dress which was cut out just using a layer mask so I didn't use any fancy blending modes or tools or anything like that just a layer mask and then we have some hair and that hair was cut out using refined edge and so we're going to talk about that a little bit later how hair could be separated from the background all right so moving on in this presentation potentially there we go okay so then I'm blending in and we talked about this in the last segment we talked about how important it is to blend with color and light and that's what's happening here I've gotten to the stage where everything is composited the shadows aaron I like how it's looking but now I'm taking this image and I'm paying attention to where the light is and how it's all sort of creaming together that's really gross term but I don't know it just makes sense like macaroni I don't know okay so it's is getting weird and all right and then we added a texture so I added a texture to this image which I do to most images and that for me helps bring it all together it blends it a little bit it just add this nice sort of even texture to everything so that's why I like that so much so I cut out the hair with refine inge now doesn't mean that I always cut things out with refine edge it's just something that I used from time to time to cut out hair specifically but other times I'll use the background eraser tool and even some other things just depending so the angle of the body was chosen for the background angle being the tilt of the camera I wanted to be looking up at my subject just a bit but again I overshot that and I got a little bit too low with the height of my camera which forced the angle to be looking up a little bit too much at my subject and then I cut out the dress and body with a layer mask I find that to be quite simple in terms of wear masking with address or with something like a leg because you can actually cheat that a lot where instead of going exactly around right where that dress wass instead of doing that you can kind of cut into the dress a little bit and if it's a neutral fabric then you're not really going to be able to tell that you made a little cut where you shouldn't have or something like that so we're going to talk about that later and how you can make creative cuts and photoshopped with just a layer mask to create a different shape to your fabric and in the books they were photographed at the same time is the subject from the lightning gle were the same no this is an example of an image shot in the same exact spot as that book picture this is just my hair on a neutral background my hair doesn't stand out a ton from that background it sort of has a similar tone ality to it in that it's both mid tones so if that were black hair then there would be shadow against mid tone if that were really blonde hair it would be highlight against mid tone but that's not the case here and so that's why in this image in the final picture you can see it almost looks faded at the end and part of that on the hair there is why you see that is because of the motion blur that was happening and the way that the hair was mixing with the background so you're actually seeing a little bit of the background in between the strands and you're seeing sort of ah motion blurred cut which is giving this effect as though it's fading so that's something that I tried to avoid whenever I am cutting somebody out of a background but as we discussed yesterday I have problems with laziness so sometimes I shoot right here the reason being the light is consistent because there's an overhang there and that means that I am not getting light from the sun on my body so that's a really big plus for me and then I've got the hair moving which I know I will be able to cut out it just might take a little time okay so here this is like the roughest of rough ed it's that I've ever done it's not meant to be anything but just to show how the hair was cut out so in this case that's that same exact shot taken just against the wall moved to this background and this was done you could either do this with the background a racer tool or refine edge and the way that refined edge works which we're going to talk about later is basically a selection and then once you refine the edge it's taking that edge and sucking it into the hairs so that's kind of a really rough way of explaining refine it and we're going to talk about that in a little bit so we're fine edge and background eraser tools now this one specifically was the background of racer tool I find ari found that that worked a lot nicer for me in terms of getting him between the hairs yet maintaining all of the little hairs in this picture so whenever I cut somebody out of a background there's the two tools that I go to and I just check to see which ones working better on any particular day now this is an interesting image to me because I get asked a lot if I shoot underwater and then moved my subjects out of the water basically to be on land and there are a couple of reasons why I don't do that and this shows exactly why I don't do that so the first thing is that there's a glow happening around the body that's really typical for me with underwater shop it's ah lot of that has to do with the light reflecting on the glass of my underwater housing and so on and so forth its murky down there so you don't often get a smooth transition of the a person's body with the background there's often a little bit of haze happening down there it's a little bit murky so that's one of the reasons why but the other reason is that you khun see that the backgrounds very dark in this case the white was coming from above and in so I was actually in a cave for this so let me sort of set this up for you there wass an opening to the cave and then the cave went down like this yes so I'm in the cave and the lights coming in like this sort of from the front and above and because of that it gets really dark right underneath her and sort of around her body so you can see shadows you can see that fading and it's fading so much because it's kind of like if you take a portrait using black v flat it's where the black is sort of sucking the light away from your subject and it's chiseling cheekbones and stuff like that it's the same effect it's basically saying there is darkness all around and I've put my subject in the middle of a light spot in that darkness now because of that if you try to cut somebody out of this background you're gonna have to find a background on land that works really well with that kind of lighting so because of this dark fall off here I have to find a background that is also really dark and has that same light filtering in and that's why I find it so difficult very often to take underwater shots and move them on land because we have that lighting and consistency okay so let's go through a couple images here now we already looked at this one so we're going to go quickly through it but instead of moving someone to a new background sometimes I just remove the background from the picture so instead of having the mentality of okay just photographed myself against the wall now I'm going to move my body to a new space sometimes it can work a little bit nicer to just say I'm just going to take the background and move it to the picture with my subject and try to work like that it doesn't always make a big difference it's not like you know there's a whole huge difference and mentality but for some people that's a lot easier to start masking in a background instead of taking the whole person and just moving them and it's a good way to see the lighting inconsistencies as well no in this case we talked yesterday about how I used replace color and we haven't talked about that yet in photo shop but we will replace color to get rid of the green in the background and that's how I was able to create the white effect so here we have that happening that whiteness and then the graying of the white and this is all going into cutting because this was not white you can see that right here there was no white happening in this image whatsoever so in this case then I had to actually take the white brush tool and just start rushing around my subject and hope that that will work for me so that was how I kind of approach this image knowing that I was just going to paint the background away instead of replacing it with anything and that could be a really nice option because sometimes it's just a nice feeling to just erase against somebody and get that done and then drop a background in so here from this step I could have dropped in clouds I could have dropped in whatever I wanted but I have decided to just kind of leave it blank so then we have the building of that dress which we talked about yesterday but we get to this point and this for me is the turning point of the image I looked at this picture for so long so the picture it's unfinished here I ended up looking at that image and I said I had my friend with me I said I just I'm not even going to finish this picture so frustrated I had worked on it for a couple days and I said this pictures awful it doesn't look right it's not blending right the colors air off and so then I had to ask myself what brings an image together what is it that allows me to feel like I've made that leap from something looking really cut out of a background of not looking good too then looking cohesive and for me the answer was blending and that goes into a whole list of things that you could do in this particular image it was a matter of this looked painted to me and I didn't like that look at all so I started adding texture and I started adding color to that background and I started doing things that would bring the red into the sky and it would bring the sky into the read a little bit so texture color and then also sort of changing the light a little bit in this image helped drastically for me all right so light color angle on background that's my checklist when it comes to cutting somebody out of a background is the lighting consistent is the color going to be fixed later or is it consistent is your angle consistent and are you going to switch that background out or are you just going to move somebody out completely how are you going to approach that this image is one where I look at it and I never really thought about it as cutting somebody off of a background and yet that's exactly what I had to do here despite having shot on location so I was actually there see that's my foot down there it was there my subject was there and yet I ended up putting a sky behind her which is in a large way cutting something out of a background so here of expanded the frame just making it a little bit bigger and filling in the gaps where maybe I didn't have enough pictures to fill it in and I'm adding dress on and this is all just basic compositing just like we did in the first editing segment yesterday it was just a matter of flinging the dress when I was on location adding that dress in by layer masking and erasing so that was all simple enough although even this I suppose we could argue is cutting because of how it pops on underneath the hand so I could have made the decision to put that dress on and cover up the arm and it would have been much much easier but this is a case of realizing that I needed to put the dress behind the hand therefore I had to cut out the arm in the fingers and and all of that and subsequently create shadows within this image so I've made a big color change here which is just a stylistic choice something that will be going over later and then I started to de saturate this image and this was where all the cutting had to happen obviously the sky was not there the crack in the wall was not there and this is the image that I was referencing yesterday when we talked about stock images where this crack in the wall is a stock image it's a stock image that I purchased from shutter stock I believe something is that one of them shelters I think it was that one so I purchased it from there and this actually had a wall right behind it so yes it was a whole and yes we had that toe work with keep saying we I think you're out anyways so we have the whole there was a wall behind it and there was just a crack going around the wall and so I ended up just cutting that wall out so I went in around the edges where I saw a natural crack happening and then I just erased the inside of that circle that I had created to create that crack and the rest was easy enough to blend because it was concrete that was cracked so that blended into the concrete wall so there was a lot of cutting their involved but then it started to get a little bit more intense so I added the sky in the background which forced me to cut around the subject to put the sky behind her but then I also started dealing with hair so let me show you what that looks like here here's the hair popping on the interesting thing about this hair is that I photographed the hair at that location so the hair was originally not against a sky it was against concrete which I then had to figure out how to cut out to make it look like it was against skye and that was really important for me because both the movement of the fabric and the movement of the hair that's what's for me creating sort of a bird like appearance which I'm sure you'll see in a moment pop in there in the background I've got some birds and here and there they are and that was the point of this picture for me so if I couldn't have the hair all of a sudden in this picture than that loses the believability and that loses the meaning for me and I got into photo shop and despite creating this image to look exactly like this I didn't think for one second about that hair I had never even considered that I would have to cut the hair out of that background my solution is that since the hair was so contrast ing with the background it worked out okay if the hair had not been contrast ing with the background then I would need to basically put a white background behind her in that space to photograph the hair that way I could then cut the hair out much easier and blend it with the sky so that's something that I have an example of in this presentation here unexamined of where that happened so I'm just going to zoom through this picture there it is this is the one where I had to do just that I was shooting this image and I'm sure that you can probably guess by now this's my sewer that's where I want to photograph this picture the issue is that I knew that I needed a moon right behind my subject everything else I wanted it to be dark I wanted it to fall off into darkness I thought that was great but then I needed her hair on a white background as opposed to the whole rest of her body that was not going to be on a white background so the way that I shot it was like this here she is in the main pose and that's what I ended up using as one of my final pieces to the image but then we have this so I had some helpers and they were holding up sort of like a dull gray white car thing what are those things that go in your car to keep the heat off that thing I happen to have one in my car so we'll use that as a background and so to photograph the hair I had her move her hair in all different directions on this white backdrop which allowed the moon to just drop right in because of the same color consistency there so that was really important in creating this image her harris so dark it just blends right in with that background I never would've been able to cut that hair off of the background without just getting in between and trying to cut out little strands that never would have looked okay so that was really important for me here and so this picture got put together which I'll go through pretty quickly here there's the moon there's her head with no hair at the moment and then we added the hair on and it worked pretty nicely because of that background okay these flowers were actually shot at a totally different time um and it was just very lucky that they ended up fitting angle wise and everything into this shot so I was really excited about that okay so here's another example of a cutting from a background but again not in a very traditional way I didn't actually switch the background very much so the way that it started was like this obviously I was not upside down on the wall but I was standing right side up with light streaming in exactly right flat on my body from a window wasn't coming from above wasn't coming from the sides or below straight because of that I was able to just rotate my whole body so this is one of those rare instances were rotating is perfectly fine in my opinion I did it against a blank white wall it just rotated my body and then I started to add some hair on which was again shot on that same wall but this piece of wall that my hair is on is not the same as where my head ended up being so because I flipped everything upside down there's a little bit of a different light shadow variation happening on the wall and so that had to be blended so still in the same background but the hair was cut pasted rotated moved and then blended into the new background and then this just continues on um here is an example of where some cutting had to happen at the bottom here where we have that baseboard popping in and that had to get cut out around it and then we just have some more blending here happening to create a more realistic look so this picture was done by cutting out wings and I well very sadly I could not move my wild turkeys or vultures or whatever they were to this location so I had to photograph the wild vultures in their own habitat was very stinky too have you ever found vultures they're always eating animals awful really sad sight to see but great to photograph so I went ahead and I photographed those vultures and they were just in a field on the side of a road in new jersey and s I photographed them there they got all different angles which was not easy because the vultures have a tendency to run away from you and fly and stuff like that so I ended up photographing them I got down really low and I shot them there and then I got up here and I shot them there and then I held it up and I shot some up there and then I would like kind of do that you know kind of like them too moves and I could shoot them you know looking up higher and I played with them for quite a while got lots of shots and then ended up finding this wing that I thought was just perfect so I really liked it and I use that wing twice by flipping it and that was great side already cut it out the great thing about what happened in this shot for making it come together is that my background was green at a lot of foliage there and when I shot those vultures there was also a lot of foliage there where where they were on the side of the road so the wing that I ended up using had that green behind it which allowed me to just match the green tones when I put the wing on so that I didn't actually have to cut in between every single feather but I could just blend the background a little bit and make it look like it was really there so this one was kind of a simple process here changing it to be purple and then changing the background of the wings to also be purple too then match so I put them in place and I would look and I would see ok this part right here where it's intersecting with the tree that part has to be a little bit duller and not so purple but then maybe down toward the bottom it gets a little bit purple er and purple purple or you're so I had to do that and that was good it ended up working out pretty nicely and a lot of this was a matter of it was motion blurred it was there were just some inconsistencies there with the lighting and stuff like that and that got remedied but generally it was an overcast morning and an overcast evening when I shot this image at about six a m and then when I shot the vultures at expose it with seven p m or so and then this came together just by blending this is one other example that I wanted to show you of something being shot on location everything should have worked out except it didn't so I started with this blank shot I expanded my frame up so that I could have a bigger canvas to work with and then I blurred the background and this was a huge step for me in terms of figuring out how to make the subject pop from the background a little bit more I didn't want the sky to be so bright and yet it woz and I was you know just I guess a little bit impatient about waiting for the right time to shoot this so I ended up blurring the background to create that separation so here's our subject as it began she was standing up on a ladder so she was kind of perched at the top of a tall ladder and we didn't want to fall her husband was there so he especially didn't want her to fall and so I had her hook her leg behind that latter and that was something that we just had to deal with leader and I dealt with that by getting an extra shot of her leg not hooked on that water's then I could composite that in then I flipped her because I thought why not and then I started adding the sticks and the sticks of the thing that you would think would be easy enough to dio right because you're on location and there it is and we can shoot it all at once but the problem was that instead of having her pose there for too long because she was very uncomfortable and holding each stick up they're against her body's the shadows there right and everything's perfect I ended up photographing the stick separately and I photographed them separately by bringing them closer to the camera since I knew that it wouldn't end up matching up exactly anyways and I'd have to move them photographed them closer to the camera to create even more separation between the stick in the background thus creating more of a focus pull their which allowed me to separate the sticks a little bit easier when cutting them out because there was such a focus shift so I photographed him a little bit closer shrunk them down move them in place when you see the sticks pop on their creating some shadows on her dress from those sticks to create that believability and then we have some lighting happening some color shift and then the final image so all of us came together because of the fact that you have to realize when you're shooting if something is going to work out on location or not and that's the big thing with cutting something out is I try to take into account more than I need teo so I started by photographing those sticks against her body up on the water I could see immediately that it wasn't going to work not just because she was uncomfortable but because she was moving so if she's moving around while I'm trying to place the sticks then inevitably the background is going to change because our background isn't constant so if the backgrounds not caught constant then it doesn't really work to photograph it on the same background and then just blend the background otherwise we'd probably have like three of her arms on different places on the picture and it just wouldn't work so I had to photograph those separately okay any questions about those images before I pick up my camera when are you said you photographed six and you're closer so he's here to um come out do you change your aptitude because it closed like it's gonna flirt yes sometimes in this case yes because the sticks were really curved and because based on this angle that I aim to shoot I wanted them to look like they're wrapping around her so I would photograph we're going to use our trusty stick here I photographed the sticks if you're the camera or find the camera like this in some cases so they were moving really far away from the camera so I had a problem with focus obviously the background was out of focus or the foreground or wherever so I did end up changing my aperture for that and that's one of the only times that I'm changing my aperture I will stick to like three point to consistently in everything that I shoot unless I'm bringing something close to the camera to shoot separately so that something definitely think about because if you don't get that focus right in camera you cannot fix that later and it's not like you can un blur something unless you can no ok work on it photo shop a ce faras I know you cannot un blur something so that's the only thing to really pay attention to when moving something closer to the camera did you shoot those six on a lighter like the jesus address behind them I didn't it's something that I regret not doing cause that was kind of labour intensive trying to get all the sticks cut out so if I had been smarter about this I would have had a like a big sheet with me or something to cut them out with her dress was actually kind of tiny in comparison to some of those sticks so you know I should've though I really should have if only we could go back you know it's kind of I think a great lesson to take from this metallica and the chat room said it's just great to see you break it all down the way that you did and I think that's something that's really important takeaway is you can make things work but it's going to take a lot of work or you can shoot it right in the first place with that in mind and make it a lot easier on yourself yes I know I'm thinking about just taking a pile of sticks and keeping them in my garage then every time I messed something like this up I've just got the sticks there it's a good idea

Class Materials

bonus material with purchase

Logic Checklist
Must Have Shots
Favorite Photoshop Tools
Lighting Effects
Practice Files - Cutting out Hair from Background
Practice Files - Building a Dress
Practice Files - Swapping Hand
Practice Files - Levitation
Adorama Gear Guide

Ratings and Reviews

Logan Fox

I'm so thrilled to have come across this course and to have been introduced to Brooke Shaden. As a bit of background I do photography as a hobby, and always had an appetite to composite my work. It's only after watching this course that I can finally put a name to a craft that I love, that being 'fine art photography'. Through my own personal journey I've read various books, followed online tutorials both paid and free. When I came across this course I did hesitate. I wondered 'is it going to teach me anything new'... 'would the standard of the course be up to scratch'. Well, I can honestly say with hand on heart that this is by far is one of the best courses I've come across to date. As a solo photographer myself I've found it difficult at times to be both photographer and subject at the same time. From the outset what became clear was that Brooke is just like me in this respect which made the course so 'relevant' to what I do. Brooke shows throughout the course what can be achieved with a little planning and some creative approaches to situations that can be difficult to pull off when on your own. She is such a joy to watch and listen to, I loved her sense of humor and great how the audience were involved in some of the shoots. All I can say is, if you're in to photography and interested in compositing your work, you should give this a go, you wont regret it!


I'd like to show my gratitude and gratefulness to Ms Shaden and other wonderful people at CreativeLIVE for sharing your vast knowledge without making a fuss. Not everybody has a super computer and a top-notch camera, not everyone has a studio to work in and not everyone needs to know everything as perfectly as some instructors and professionals do. I, for one, have gained so much insight and have been intrigued by Ms Shaden's present and past lessons, she makes the most difficult and surreal subjects unfold so easily and effortlessly. Ms Shaden has made me believe no matter where I be and no matter what i have, as long as i have a good story to tell, and the right vision, I should be able to handle it with a working camera and any version of Photoshop. Unlike many other instructors who kill us every 5 minutes to buy their flashes or gear and support this or that company and agency, Ms Shaden has spent the whole time teaching and teaching and teaching and I am sorry I cannot be there to thank you in person, but you, Ms Shaden, are awesome and nobody can unawesome you :)


I have been a huge fan of Brooke's work since the beginning of the flickr days. I'm so excited to see her in her element on CL. So many years ago i was so very interested in learning and creating and CL makes this possible now. A lot of my work has been inspired by Brooke's dark yet beautiful work style and i am super inspired to create some using her advice. I cannot wait to delve deeper into this world i have been waiting so long to indulge in it and now i will even more so than i have the last 3 years. Thank you Brooke and CL ! =) Sarina Gito Photography (

Student Work