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Food Photography Tutorial – Compositing Stylized Food

Introduction to concepts

Food photography is becoming a muse of mine. I love the process of creating the food, styling it just so, and then working on a final image. In this tutorial I will teach you how to make an image similar to the one above using a styling element like honey that ‘dies’ really quickly in front of the camera. What I mean by ‘dies’ is that it’s hard to maintain the firm, beautiful look of drops of honey over the course of time.

You may have already inferred that this final image is a composite and requires multiple images. For this tutorial I take concepts popular in architectural photography where they paint with light across many photographs to illuminate different areas of a building and then mask it in. Similarly in this circumstance, I want to be able to add honey where it is needed and have it look amazing in the final image. Not an easy task to do all in one frame — that’s where Photoshop is useful.

Let’s jump right in.

Creating the Image in Camera

You’re already adept at taking a photo so that part of the process is easy. But you need to remember that the overall process happens in stages and you will need a tripod to keep the frame consistent. You will be building an image in camera over time and are going to mask in different parts of multiple images. To do this will require a little bit of revisualization of where you would like to put the styling element. Maybe note some ideas about where you’d like the drips to be. When you are ready go ahead add just ONE DRIP of the honey (or what ever styling you are using) in the position you want it, then take a photograph while the element looks alive. Continue this process this process until you’re happy with the different elements you’ve created. Like I mentioned, it takes a little bit of artistic practice, vision, and planning, but you can do it.

Here are some of the images I’ve used in the final composition. It’s easy to see how I’ve built up the honey.

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File management

After you’ve captured the images, you’ll need something to manage the files. I use Lightroom to view and manage my files. It’s easy and plays well with Photoshop. Of course you can use a browser window and Photoshop alone, but not you won’t be able to use Lightroom by itself for this entire process. If you don’t have either program, I recommend getting the Creative Cloud Photography Plan for $10 a month — it’s excellent, won’t break the bank, and keeps your software up to date.

If you’re using Lightroom, make the selection of the images you’d like to use as part of your composite. You will be bringing them into Photoshop as layers. Select the images in the timeline, right click, select the Edit In menu, and click Open in Photoshop as Layers.

I’ve chosen these 8 images to open as layers in Photoshop.

Navigating Photoshop

Photoshop will pop open and load your layers. They may be out of order and require you to restack your layers — the first stylized image you made is going to be your base layer, followed by each layer that you built up the style elements in. Remember, certain styled areas may look dead in later images, that’s why you’re using a base image and masking in the stylization.

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After you arrange them, I like to name them by what part of the stylization I want to use. It helps me keep things straight in my head. Here the layers are pictured with names and masks. More on masks in a second.

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Masking

Start with you base layer — here’s mine — it’s the first image of honey and melted butter on the roll. I’ve already named it base and it’s going to function as the image that I mask everything into. Go ahead and create a duplicate of this layer just in case you make a mistake along the way or find yourself applying things to this layer instead of masking. It’s a mistake that even the professionals make. I already have duplicated it and have hidden it in a folder.

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For the scope of this tutorial, I already assume that you have an understanding of masking. Go ahead and turn off all the layers above your base layer except the next image containing the styling element chronologically following your base image (i.e. the second image you created with the second drip of honey). Create the layer mask and use the brush tool to bring in only the area of the styling element you want visible.

In the image below you will notice that the front honey drip has been masked in. I paid close attention to the highlights and areas that I wanted to overlay. You can add different effects by using different brush opacities — this especially applies to highlights.

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This is a preview of the mask that I have created to add the droplet in.

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Continue in the same chronological manner to add more and more layer masks building up the image.

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Merging the layers

Once you’re happy with the masked image — it will look like a final image to you minus some cloning and some adjustment layers — I like to group the base layer and mask layers together, then nondestructively merge these layers to one image that appears at the top of my layers. This does not mean flattening the image, but means all the work we’ve done still remains there as layers in a group, but is now combined and copied to one layer at the top of my Photoshop document.

On a Mac you do this by selecting the base layer and all masked layers and pressing CMD+OPT+SHFT+E. Again, this creates the merged layer above your current layers and won’t cause a loss of your work.

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Fixing imperfections

Above the newly created merged layer you will create an empty layer to clone out any imperfections. Use the clone stamp in the empty layer and make sure sampling is set to Current and Below (look for this in the toolbar at the top of PS). Proceed to clone out any imperfections — I start with a low burst opacity to paint out the imperfections with out hard edges. Notice I took out spots on the cutting board in the image below.

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Unsharp Mask

At this point I nondestructively merge the layers again then go into my filter menu and select Sharpen, Unsharp Mask. I use a low amount like 30% and a radius near 20. Play around in the preview until you’re happy with the look and apply it.

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I create a mask and paint it in where sharpening is appropriate (areas in focus) — see the image below.

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Dodge and burn

Finally I use a series of curves layer to create masks where I can dodge and burn in parts of the image. In this case I’ve only lightened the background and parts of the roll.

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Returning to Lightroom

Saving the image now should automatically take it back to Lightroom for file management. Lightroom is where I will give the image any final punch using camera RAW to affect the whole image and then export the file choosing size and quality per your needs.

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The Final Composited Image

Here’s the final image. I am satisfied with the result, but wish I had chosen a slightly larger depth of field in camera — f/8 instead of an f/4 to bring more of the roll into focus. The background of the glass looks beautiful, but I feel I could have taken that with a low aperture and composited it much like the style elements above.

I’d love to hear the results of you trying this technique — shoot me an email or follow me on Instagram / Facebook!

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