Definition: Composite image, composite picture; photographic composite

Composite image; composite picture | Glossary entry

Composite image or picture

A ‘composite’ results from combining more than one photographic element from various sources in a single picture. The intention is to create a picture (or graphic) where all the elements appear as complementary parts of the same scene. A composite work creates a unity of meaning in the final picture. Thus, the new image tells a single story, meaning or a new message. In other words, a composite is a construct of more than one photographic element to create a new single picture.

A composite is born

We consider a photograph to be a composite when the final image portrays a single concept in the viewers mind. Thus, the original image of the Mill (in the graphic below) is transformed by creating a composite. The ‘Rye Mill’ composite image portrays the character an attractive mill in an atmospheric setting. Yet, it contains three separate photographic elements. The mill, trees and river are one element. Two other elements are added – a new blue sky and the white duck. Sourced from three separate photographs, they combine into a new synthesis. Some colour and editing work has also been done in the final image.

The Mill On The Rye - a composite explained

• The Mill on the Rye (composite) •
This graphic shows the original picture straight out of camera (left), and the final picture created from three separate images (right).
See original image as taken.
See the composite (final edit, full size).

The process of compositing

A compositor (digital photog/artist) combines parts (elements) of various sourced images into one derivative. Using a digital editor, we can insert an element from one image into another. The insert may be substituted for a part of the image, or be an addition to existing content.

The actual process is simply to deposit one image element over a section of another. Usually, some form of digital blending fuses the two image elements. The blending aims for their final appearance to be as parts of one seamless picture.

Blending an insert into another image may involve one or more tools or techniques. Cloning, smearing, soft-edging or blurring, or more complex processes may be used. These tools are commonly found in photo-editors like Adobe Photoshop or Corel PHOTO-PAINT®.

Multiple origins – pristine result

A composite includes multiple image elements from separate origins (or copy and paste from the same image). Each element is not clearly distinguished – the integration is seamless. The completed image appears realistic. Thus, it is not always possible to identify the precise history of a composite image. Often, it is impossible (without forensic analysis) to pick out which elements are original and which are additions or integrations. Normally, the outcome of the composite process is a single picture giving the impression of a single message, meaning or story. The aim is to create a result which looks like it had been made in a camera as a single shot.

A composite can be many things

A composite differs to a photomontage. The composite contains multiple elements sourced and integrated from other original images. Finally, it becomes a new creation; a synthesis of all the elements. On the other hand, a photomontage is usually a set of pictures. Each has its own meaning, story or intention. Although, a montage of pictures will probably share a common theme.

The graphic above explains the creation of a composite. There are two pieces of text and two distinct images. The two pictures with their own content also makes it a type of photomontage. One purpose, one graphic. However, it is also one graphic with more than one distinct picture mounted in it.

Does composite = confusion? No, think context

Yes, we can easily confuse a composite and a montage. A composite creates one image or graphic. On the other hand, the montage shows multiple pictures each with their own meaning, intent or story. Alternatively, like the graphic above, the terms can interchange. With multiple images on one graphic the terms do appear difficult to designate by one term or the other. It depends on the context you are using in speech.

Multiple inclusions, single outcome

There are other important uses for ‘composite’. It often describes the method of constructing other classes of image. Hence, you could describe the image above as a montage. Oddly, the combination of separate elements means it is also a composite. Multiple pictures commonly appear in one graphic file. So, it is not surprising this mistake frequently appears in the literature.

For example, a photomontage, a photographic collage, a photomozaic, diptych, triptych are all examples of multiple image sets. However, all of them can also be composites. That’s because they can combine into one graphic file (like the graphic above). Simultaneously, they also present multiple pictures as distinct images.

Different word forms

It is the action of putting these separate entities together in one image (file) that makes it a composite. Thus, the term composite comes in a variety of forms. It may be used as a noun (a type of image). It can also be a verb (to composite or create an image from many elements). Finally, it can be an adjective (which describes combined image elements in a distinct single picture).

Untangling meanings and images

As we have seen almost any image may be a composite. Therefore, describing its nature can raise a whole complex of different meanings. Consequently, without careful use, the etymology can also be complicated. So, multiple images may cause people to mix up ‘montage’ and ‘composite’. In fact, they have distinct meanings. Just as the different classes of multiple image sets (above) can fall into the different contexts of ‘composite’ when in one file.

Look out – they are all around us

Composite images or graphics are all around us. They have had a long history – many chemically developed photographs were in fact manipulated composites from a variety of source negatives. Some date back to the 1800’s. Today, most composites are created by digital manipulation in post processing. Actually, the composite is common place. Most of today’s advertisements, info-graphics, and any number of other images are composites. Beware, when it comes to modern images. The photo you see may subtly differ from the image captured in a camera!

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Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photographers.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.

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