There are times when I shoot an image and think it would be way more interesting with a person in it (which is pretty much all the time). Alas, one cannot drag models along everywhere you go. Thus the fun of compositing.

I shot the background image for this portrait near Barnard, North Carolina in 2011. Bernard is a few miles from Marshall, a town 40 miles from Asheville that caught my eye in David Gordon Green’s film, All the Real Girls. I had a great time in the area, shooting ruins of gas stations, barns, houses etc.

The “bad ass” character is a guy I met in my neighborhood a few months ago. I told him I liked his beard and etched face and gave him my card, and offered to do a portrait. Yesterday we shot for about 90 minutes and I edited him into the background afterward. He was a lot of fun to work with. I made a new friend.

Besides the artistic pleasures of creating images this way, there are practical applications for this approach. For example, one client wants to shoot a group of ten people on the Ventura Pier for a wraparound cover image. But that means getting ten people, volunteers, to find time to do this all on the same hour of the same day.

But that’s not all. The time must be late afternoon to get the beautiful light on the mountains in the background. Say we arrange all that. And get permission to shoot on the pier with lights and reflectors (not likely). The day arrives, everyone shows up and it’s foggy. Or everyone shows up, the weather is perfect but the models are distracted. With 10 people, you must shoot a lot to get a usable image with good expressions.

Or, I can shoot the pier when the light is perfect and create an ideal background image. Then we schedule the volunteers and shoot them in studio in three groups, paying attention to the direction and color of the light, and most importantly, the models’ pose and expression. I then compose the photograph in Photoshop. The objective is not to create something realistic, just believable.

In one sense all photographs are fake because how you light them, which lens you choose and how you pose is arbitrary. Even photojournalism is subject to how the photographer chooses his subject and how he composes it. Sometimes composite portraits can be more emotionally valid than one taken straight from the camera.

In the end, I don’t care. I just care about what looks good and resonates.

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