HDR Composites – Evolve Your Imagery

Photographers want people to love their work, this is one reason why we share our pictures all over the Internet.  How many times have you hit refresh on your browser just to see if the photo you posted had another hit, like or comment?   Such response is what fuels our artistic dreams.

As photographers we all want to learn, create and look for inspiration.  We want our work to be different.  We want to offer photographs that are unique and something your clients will cherish for a lifetime.  Not only are you a photographer, you are an artist.  Having these qualities will make you stand out in our crowded industry.  HDR Compositing can evolve your imagery and bring your photography to the next level.

I am uncertain when the first HDR (High Dynamic Range) was ever created, but this style has exploded in the photography world.  Years ago being an HDR artist was a specialized area.  The field of HDR’ing has matured drastically in the past few years.  Now you can find HDR’s in groups, web pages, magazines, real estate, and advertising. You can even join groups and have friends share a common bracket set and then compare individually processed HDR’s in a competition.  I have been involved in such groups and it is wonderful to see how each HDR is processed so differently.  This is what makes the world of HDR’s wonderful.  It allows an infinite number of processing possibilities.  I myself have processed an HDR and did the same photo a week later and had a totally different image.

No matter which style you photograph: Portraits, HDR, Sports, Weddings, etc., we create art with our talents, knowledge and gear.  Most photographers are looking for that next cool pose, location, idea or style?  One new and upcoming styles of photography is HDR Compositing.  Compositing has been around for a long time in the movie industry.  We are all familiar with the green screen.  Now compositing is becoming the hot style for portrait photographers with an added kick that includes HDR’s.

If you are a portrait photographer take a deep look into this style, it can open new business avenues for you!  We all know in business, product diversification is key to growth.  HDR Composites can be that new product line you are looking for?  Just think, you can shoot your subject in studio and put them onto a background anywhere in the world!   No need to drive to a location or worry about weather.  How convenient is that? Your senior business may be wonderful, but adding an HDR Composite to your product line will make you stand out and become that photographer everyone will be asking for!

Don’t worry, you do not have to be able to shoot HDR’s.  I will give you details on where to purchase my digital download HDR backgrounds for your usage at the end of the article.  As an HDR artist for many years, I have accumulated many backgrounds that may be of interest to you and your business.

Are you the photographer that likes landscapes and not portraits? I would guess you have taken a photo of a person?  If you own a DSLR and your family knows that you love photography, I can also guess that they count on you to take family photos at any gathering?  This article may open you eyes to potentially using your own landscape backgrounds for those family portraits? Holiday cards?  Or maybe after reading this article you are inspired to produce your own HDR Composites.  Do not be afraid to open your mind and try something new!

Why an HDR over a standard photograph for background?  HDR’s are standard photos on steroids.  A composite should be an enhanced one-of-a-kind piece of art. Then why not use a PED “R” (Performance Enhancing Dynamic Range) to pump up your photo?  HDR’s are distinctive, bold, stunning…utilizing one in your composites will add that extra life to your artistic vision!

An HDR Composite is simple.  It is a portrait photograph, layered on HDR Background, with Photoshop processing.   The outcome can become an amazing picture that can result in tons of word of mouth advertising.   Word of mouth is the best type of advertising…it is free!  Post your photo on your FB page and those “Likes” will be higher than any numbers you have seen before.

This is how a typical photo of each format looks before processing:

Portrait Photograph

HDR Background


 and the final processed HDR Composite


I. HDR Background

Many people may ask what should you shoot first?  The landscape or the portrait?  It does not matter. Typically I shoot my backgrounds and fit in my subjects afterwards.  Although, I have shot a subject and then wanted to shoot a particular background and shot it afterwards.  Any way is acceptable.

For years I photographed HDR’s for the love of landscapes.  And I still do.  But now, I add in shooting for possible backgrounds for my compositing.  It is definitely a different mindset.  For a landscape you are looking for a sky, building, river, sunset, anything to make the shot dramatic.  For a background you are looking for a cool setting to place a person into. It may be an alley, street, stadium…whatever your artistic vision is aiming for.  I shoot both now and it fills up my compact flash card quickly.

As for the HDR settings, I will shoot as follows:

1) 5 or 7 brackets (+2 to -2 or +3 to -3)

2) Use a tripod

3) Cable release (if possible)

There are no set rules. You can go with 3 brackets, single brackets, and hand held whatever you prefer.

What makes a good HDR background?  One problem I see in some composites is incorrect backgrounds.  For an example…why would you put a football player on a farm?  Just does not seem right.  Use your vision to think about the flow.  The main goal is to sell the illusion that your composite is real. Think about the subject you are shooting and plan the background accordingly.  If it is a baseball player…a baseball field will work nicely as the background.   A musician might match up with an alley or grungy location.   A surfer will work on the beach.

Now on occasion I have shot an HDR and for some reason it did not work with my subject.  One solution is to make sure when shooting a location in HDR for backgrounds, make sure you photograph multiple angles and views.  This gives you options to fit your subject in correctly.  In some of my early composites, I had a basketball player in an alley.  The main problem was the site line was not correct.  Make sure that your viewing angle flows as well!  Recently I shot our local high school football field and spent over an hour taking every angle possible.  If you find a great location, don’t be shy…fill up your memory card.  One day you will be glad you did.

Some HDR background ideas:

Sports stadiums, alleys, streets, wall, doors, parking structures, buildings, piers, grungy locations, iconic landscapes, stairways, trees and many more!!  Just use your imagination.


If you are a portrait photographer that uses strobes/flash, then this will be easy for you!  If not, and you are thinking about HDR composites, consider investing in some lighting equipment.   The typical setup for a HDR Composite photograph is a 3 light set up.  You can vary it however you like.

Suggestions for a professional studio:

  1. Strobes + softbox (typically 36” x 48’ w/ silver lining). Each softbox to have grids attached
  2. Strobe + Octabank (5’). No grids attached.
  3. White Backdrop (not lit) – it will look gray in your photos – I use Denny Mfg. (Freedom Cloth)

Suggestions for home studio:

  1. Hot shoe flash and softbox (typically 24”x24” w/ silver lining). Each softbox to have grids attached
  2. Hot shoe flash + Beauty Dish (typically 18”+). No grids attached.
  3. White Backdrop (not lit) – it will look gray in your photos – I use Denny Mfg. (Freedom Cloth)


  1. Align the shoulders to the front of the softboxes w/grids
  2. Your camera should be in position immediately below your Octabank/Beauty Dish (touching slightly)
  3. Use a tripod when shooting your subject (ensure a sharp portrait)
  4. Light distance: The closer the lights, the harsher the light.  Set to your preference.  I typically do about 2 ft from the subject
  5. Shoot in RAW format for your portrait

Lighting Setup Diagram


Once you are set up, take a test shot using the two side lights w/grids.  Check that the rim lighting is correct.  This will ensure you have your lights properly placed.

Rim Light Test Photo

Now it is time to take your photos!   Before all my HDR Composite sessions, I will prepare sketches of poses for my subject.  Visualization is key to a fast session.  Here is one of my sketches.

My sessions usually take only 20-30 minutes. I try to get take all photos of my sketches and give the subject some time to strike their own poses.  I will end up with 30-40 photos to choose from to produce my composite.

This is how my portrait will look on my camera viewfinder:

I make sure my rim light is stronger than my front light.  This is key to the sports composite.  Next step for this photograph is Photoshop!


There are various ways to produce an HDR Composite in Photoshop.  I have a step-by-step processing sheet that is 4 pages long.  If you are looking to become a composite artist, please ensure you are proficient with Photoshop layers.

I will give you an overview on my processing (I use Photoshop CS6) – you can also use Photoshop Elements

Portrait Processing

  1. Open file in RAW – (as smart object) raw adjustments via sliders
  2. Duplicate layer – “Open New Smart Object Via Copy”
  3. Duplicate Layer – turn into Grayscale, adjust colors, blend overlay
  4. Flatten Image
  5. Extract subject – refine edge
  6. Save w/layer mask
  7. Touch up of subject – missed areas, edges

HDR Background

  1. Open file Jpeg or RAW (as smart object…convert if nec)
  2. Duplicate layer – “Open New Smart Object Via Copy”
  3. Duplicate Layer – turn into Grayscale, adjust colors, blend overlay
  4. Flatten Image
  5. Expand Canvas size horizontally.


  1. You will have two files open – Portrait & HDR Background
  2. Click and drag subject onto HDR background layer
  3. Resize and fit subject to desired location on HDR background

Creating Atmosphere

  1. Add new layer between HDR background and subject
  2. Brush – white opacity 20/20 to add smoke effect
  3. Lights in background if needed – bring any lights to life


  1. Making sure the background and subject blend well you may need to add a color balance layer to the subject and HDR background (link to each individually).  This will allow you to control either to ensure the proper color balance.
  2. You may also need to adjust levels/ hue-saturation/curves individually on subject or HDR background as well.

Final Touch Up

  1. Dodge and burn where needed

This is a screen shot of one of my HDR Composites.  For the atmosphere on this shot I added a texture of rain.  It is not real rain.  I added this layer and blended it in.

Just like HDR’s, there are infinite ways to produce HDR Composites.  You have to find what works best for you and your style.

Let your inner artist out….have fun and you can create amazing one-of-a-kind pieces of art with HDR Compositing!  It just does not have to be for sports…you can composite for business, entertainers, models…why not even try a dog in an HDR composite of a fire hydrant?   Options are endless.

HDR Backgrounds for Sale!

Are you looking for HDR backgrounds?  I offer them for sale in two locations (each location has exclusive HDR’s):

1)    Denny Mfg. – one of the world’s leading manufacturers of photography backdrops

  1. Available as digital download
  2. Available as a printed backdrop


2)    Peter Talke Photography Page

  1. Available as digital download




Peter Talke

Peter Talke Photography