Is there a difference between blending and compositing?

Is there a difference between blending and compositing in post-processing? Some make no distinction between the two. But some do. Let’s have a closer look!

I’ve spoken to a number of photographers about blending and compositing. To my surprise, some photographers, especially if they do not do much night photography, do not make a distinction between blending and compositing. I’m going to describe how most night photographers use the two terms.

Compositing

West Virginia Capitol before replacing sky for a composite image.

Above: West Virginia Capitol before replacing sky for a composite image.

West Virginia Capitol after replacing sky for a composite image.

Above: West Virginia Capitol before replacing sky for a composite image.

A composite is when you combine elements from two different photos into a single image. An obvious instance of this is if you use a program such as Photoshop or Luminar to replace a bland sky with a dramatic sky. This is often done in landscape or real estate photography. 

Compositing is also done often in night photography. A photographer might take a really nice photo of the Milky Way from one night and mix it with a landscape photo taken on another night. It’s possible to take a photo of a Milky Way in Utah and add it to a landscape photo of Arizona. Conceptually, it’s similar to someone cutting out a picture of a person from one magazine and pasting it on to another picture, only considerably more sophisticated (hopefully).

Blending

One of the most well-known methods of blending is HDR blending. This is where you might fix your camera to a tripod and take several different exposures of that same scene in succession. Then in post-processing, you would blend those multiple exposures together into a single image. The goal is to render the scene but with a high dynamic range. 

HDR blend of six long-exposure night photos. The sign was considerably brighter than the rest of the image, so HDR blending makes the image look considerably more like it looked in person. Read more about how I got the photo here.

For a night photographer, blending is not altogether different. You are taking photos in succession with the same tripod, camera and lens setup around the same time. Like HDR, it’s still bracketing. It just takes place over a longer period of time.

A blend of two radio telescopes and the Milky Way. The blend was done so that I would have time to illuminate the two radio telescopes and do so using low ISO so I could keep the noise level down.

Examples of how a night photographer might blend photos

Notice how each of them bear some resemblance to HDR in that they are often controlling some aspect of dynamic range.

  • Taking a very long exposure low ISO photo of the landscape. After that, taking a shorter exposure high ISO photo of the Milky Way. The first photo may or may not involve light painting as well. The low ISO image is an effective way of keeping the noise level down.
  • Taking a “blue hour” or moonlit landscape. After that, waiting a while with the camera and lens in the same place to photograph the Milky Way.
  • Blending several photos over time to show the passage of time, only in one image. For example, you could show the transition between sunset to “blue hour,” or somewhat like above, the transition of “blue hour” into night.

The philosophy between compositing and blending

With compositing, you are taking different elements from different photos, then combining them together to create art.

With blending, you are doing so to address dynamic range and limitations of the camera to try to recreate what you see and experience.

The difference between compositing and blending can be fuzzy. Both can look somewhat similar if you are watching someone post-process. But I believe there’s enough fundamental difference to distinguish between the two. Certainly, night photographers seem to feel this way.

I almost never do compositing of night photos. I believe I’ve only done one or two. However, I have no issues with compositing. For night photography, I would prefer if the artist were up front about composites.

However, it really is all art. Compositing, HDR blending, blending to show long passages of time and photography are all different forms of art. Some attempt to recreate how it looked or felt to be there while others attempt to create a fantasy image. And like all art, some might appeal to you while others might wrinkle your nose in disgust. Beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.

What are your opinions on what constitutes composites or blending? Or for that matter, what constitutes photography and what falls into the realm of digital art? Let us know in the comments below.

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BOOKS AND PRINTS:
Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure prints and more.  My books are available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review, thanks!

NIGHTAXIANS VIDEO YOUTUBE PODCAST:

Night photographers Tim Little, Mike Cooper and I all use Pentax gear. We discuss this, gear, adventures, light painting, lenses, night photography, creativity, and more in this ongoing YouTube podcast. Subscribe and watch to the Nightaxians today!

SOCIAL MEDIA:
Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like)
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PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

VIDEO PRESENTATION:

How We Got the Shots: Five Photographers, Five Stories – Night Photo Summit 2022

VIDEO INTERVIEW:

Ken Lee’s Abandoned Trains Planes and Automobiles with Tim Little of Cape Nights Photography
Conversation about night photography and my book with Lance Keimig of National Park At Night

ARTICLES:
A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols

 

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