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Creative Capture For Clever Composites

A whimsical photographic technique creates surprising works of symbolic allusion
Creative Capture For Clever Composites

“My first SLR camera was a Canon film body,” says Ron Palmere, who created this composite photo, “which had a feature that allowed me to capture up to nine exposures on one frame. One day, while photographing a Bird of Paradise specimen with its distinctive design, I took multiple exposures using a 200-400mm lens with a lens collar. Years later, in the digital era, I repeated the experiment to merge nine images into one, duplicate the result, flip it and combine the two composites. I was blown away by the incredible complexity and symmetry of the image.” 

Here’s a photographic technique that runs counter to every argument that great photography is, as Ansel Adams taught, “pre-visualized”—meaning that as Adams captured his images on film, he did so by imagining (in the mind’s eye, so to speak) how the final image would appear following his post-capture work in the darkroom. But, of course, Adams did so with certainty.

In the digital age, the notion of “pre-visualization” is more complex since some capture techniques, such as panoramas, focus stacking and high dynamic range, require processing in photo-editing software, at which point they’re brought to fruition. Yet in each of these techniques, there are elements of chance that are brought into the process.

For the images you see in this article, chance and the element of surprise are taken further. In fact, the technique is precise, but the results are completely unpredictable.

Moreover, the compositions you see here may be reminiscent of the Tibetan Buddhist art form of Thangka, which employs iconic symbols in symmetrical compositions that have deep, intentional meanings. But you may be sure that our configurations are entirely random, and any components that may suggest actual or spiritual beings are completely unintended. And that’s why it’s so much fun!

Creative Capture For Clever Composites
Photo by Rob Palmere

The Concept

The creative process begins with a simple composition that is photographed repeatedly in a circular direction—from as few as 20 to 180 degrees between captures—as the camera/lens combination is rotated around its axis. In photo-editing software, some or all of the captures are merged, duplicated and merged again to create a single, complex, 360-degree image.

The Tools

The essential tool for accomplishing this technique is a lens with a rotating lens collar; the lens collar attaches to a tripod and allows the camera/lens combination to be rotated in place. Many lenses from a variety of manufacturers have the lens collar built in, while after-market, dedicated tripod collars can be purchased for others. Any DSLR or mirrorless camera can be used. The examples shown here were captured with lenses as diverse as a 100mm macro, a 180mm macro, a 200-400mm zoom and a 100-400mm zoom.

A neutral background that provides texture but does not interfere with the composition is critical. These can be purchased at hobby stores in large sheets composed of cork or poster board. The subject must be consistently lit, but the source can be as simple as ambient light, such as from a window, or more complex flash or LED systems.

To complete the process, a photo-editing program that can handle layers is required; we’ve worked with either Adobe Photoshop Elements or Photoshop CC to composite our files.

Creative Capture For Clever Composites
Photo by George D. Lepp

The Setup

This technique can be accomplished in the studio or the field, but it is more controllable when set up inside. Abundant subjects may be found at the local florist or craft store.

To begin, select two or three small stems of flowers, seed pods or ferns, and arrange them in a random vertical composition, kept stable with a vase or clamp. Look for color, texture and design in the components you arrange, recognizing that each will be replicated multiple times in the creation of the final composition and that the tallest specimen will create the outer edge and the shortest the interior space of the design. Simple, distinctive elements generally lead to more clarity, although they may look less interesting in their initial display. The possible combinations are infinite, and therein lies the creative power.

The Capture

Mount the camera/lens combination on a tripod. The essential idea is to capture a simple composition from four to as many as nine times on separate frames; the framing, lighting, exposure and focus are consistently maintained as the camera/lens is rotated around its axis. When framing, do a trial rotation to make sure that no part of the composition is being clipped and that any unwanted elements, such as vases or clamps, are not visible.

Maintain a consistent interval of rotation between captures; it helps to think of the circle as a clock, with captures at, for example, five-minute intervals beginning at 12 and ending at 6; or, as another example, beginning at 2 and working counter-clockwise to 10. 

Any variation of these examples is fair game, and there are no rules. When you create your final composite, you can use as many or as few of the images as you wish. For this reason, while some cameras allow multiple exposures to be taken in the camera on a single frame, we’ve had better results by taking the images separately and selectively combining them in post-capture software.

Creative Capture For Clever Composites
Photo by Ron Palmere


Putting the pieces together into a final composite is a fairly simple process that can be accomplished in any photo-editing program that supports layers and blending modes, including even early versions of Adobe Photoshop Elements.

Here, we’ll take you through the steps in Adobe Photoshop CC: 

Combining Layers 

Step 1: From the “Bridge,” select the images to be used and load them into Photoshop as separate layers by clicking on “Tools” > “Photoshop” > “Load Files into Photoshop Layers.”

Step 2: Select all the Photoshop layers.

Step 3: Change the “Blend Mode” from “Normal” to “Lighten,” and the layers will be combined into one image in the work area.

Step 4: Flatten the Photoshop layers in the Layers palette. Click “OK.” Now, the resulting image may be optimized in Photoshop using “Camera Raw Filter” sliders. You can find “Camera Raw Filter” in “Filter” > “Camera Raw Filter.” Then Click “OK.”

Creative Capture For Clever Composites

Step 5: Drag the optimized layer to the “New Layer” icon (a page with a folded corner) at the bottom of the palette to duplicate it. You now have two identical layers.

Step 6: Select the top layer and go to “Edit” > “Transform” > “Flip Horizontal.”

Step 7: You now have two identical, opposing layers.

Step 8: Change the “Blend Mode” to “Lighten” and the combined image will display in the work area. Finalize the composite by flattening the two layers in the Layers palette.

Creative Capture For Clever Composites

Step 9: Optimize the resulting image in Photoshop to bring out desired features and crop as desired.

Creative Capture For Clever Composites

Creative Capture For Clever Composites
Copyright 2018, George D. Lepp

Alternative Method

Another way to approach this concept relies heavily on post-capture manipulation but does not require a rotating lens collar for the photography.

Choose your setup and make one capture of the arrangement. Bring that single image into Photoshop and duplicate the layer in the layers palette. By going to “Edit” > “Transform” > “Rotate,” you can make a second layer with the subject in a new position.

Repeat this process until you have achieved the design you prefer, and then follow the steps in the text above to “Lighten” blend the composition. Inconsistencies in the background may appear as you make new layers in Photoshop; this can be mitigated with cropping and some Photoshop cloning at the end. The result of the single-capture process is different from that achieved with the rotating multiple-capture method, which we prefer, but it is still fascinating.

 The Composition

As you work with various groupings of subjects, you will gain better understanding of how each component may contribute to the finished composition, such as a large base, a half circle, a wing effect or a central eye. 

Creative Capture For Clever Composites
“One day, I received a call from Ron Palmere,” says photographer and writer George D. Lepp, who created this composite photo. “He identified himself as a faithful reader of my ‘Tech Tips’ column, which runs in Outdoor Photographer magazine…and shared with me a technique he had developed. He sent me some samples, and I was hooked! I have only begun to explore the infinite range of possibilities suggested by Ron’s idea, and I’m looking forward to working with this technique in the future!”

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