Some tools are just too powerful to not have in your tool bag as a photographer, and the plate composite technique is one such method.
Employed frequently in the entertainment and commercial photography industries, the modern plate composite technique is immensely flexible and shockingly simple. The results one can achieve using the technique produce an effect that seems a bit like cheating once you realize how easy it is to achieve using the power of modern editing software and their ability to use layer masks.
Often used in the entertainment industry to photograph group photos of performers who cannot always be in the same place at the same time due to their busy schedules, the core concept of the technique is to lock your camera down into one position, optimally a sturdy tripod, and take multiple photos, which are then merged using layer masks in software such as Photoshop. Photographers would take a clean photo of the background and use it as a clean slate to mask in photos of the subjects, which are taken in the same framed-up scene. Use of the tripod to do this technique optimally keeps each layer closely aligned, making the process of masking and merging them straightforward and resulting in a very polished final hybrid photo of your scene.
Picture this: you have four actors for a sitcom and the studio needs a group photo of them. Instead of playing hell to get their schedules to align and have them all together at the same time, a photographer would set up the scene and lock down the camera on the tripod, then bring in each actor as they are available. The photographer can then light each individual carefully, even leaving equipment in the subject frames as needed, such as light stands, because the original plate shot of the clean background gives you the ability to not only mask your subjects together, but to mask out anything extra in the subject frames. After all the actors have their shot taken, a simple session at the editing desk merges them into one photo by stacking the layers, applying layer masks, and carefully masking the actors together, as well as masking out any lighting equipment included in the frames.
This concept can be applied to many other forms of photography for creative and practical purposes. Highly polished large family photos can be made following the aforementioned workflow, but thinking outside the box to see how this can be a good tool in your photographer’s tool kit opens a lot of creative possibilities.
I first discovered the technique while teaching myself the use of off-camera flash. I had taken to using myself as the subject in my flash training by using a tripod and 10-second timer, moving in and out of the scene as I made adjustments to get the shot right. I read about the plate …….