Building the Complex Photo Collage

By Uli Staiger Back to

Uli Staiger, photo montage, digital photography Reichstag

“Phantastomaniac” is a term that for me is the most powerful expression of digital retouching: the ambitious post production and digital composing. In order to make images look realistic, I follow the law of logic wherever possible. It’s also very important for the artist to have a sense of an image, so that it is possible for the viewer to find a meaningful interpretation of the content. To achieve both sometimes isn’t easy, because my images often consist of several hundred layers that have to follow a master plan so that they appear as a completely new scene.

My inspiration comes out of my own fantasy. I’ve always been fascinated by technical things and fantastic scenes and images from the worlds of science fiction. So it was a logical step to bring together photography and fantasy with Adobe Photoshop to create my own zoo of unlimited possibilities.

Believe it or not, the main trick, when it comes to planning a composition, is to divide the process of image creating into three parts. That also means that I have to create images not only once, but three times. Before I grab the camera or switch on the computer, I develop the image mentally. The only borders that limit this process are the borders of my very own fantasy and apprehension. Both phantasy and apprehension are very important tools when planning a composed image.

When the creative brainstorming is done and the image is ready to leave my mind, the second step follows: the visualization of the idea with paper and pencil. At this point of the process, it’s important to first create a simple sketch. I never use any digital equipment for these drawings, but just concentrate on the idea without being bothered by any technical issues. Of course, this usually does not lead to a masterpiece, but a sketch that shows all of the objects the image consists of in the right places in proper perspective is good enough!

Uli Staiger, photo collage, photo montage, photo mag

The third step, the work with camera and computer, follows the sketch. The most important factor while taking pictures is the lighting. Not only the intensity of the sun, but its color is relevant. Is it neutral like between 10 am and 3 pm, or rather orange like just before sunset? Summer warm, or bluish and cold like on a mid-January day? I plan all the shots necessary for the image related to the position of the sun and try to take all image components in the same lighting situation.

Besides the light, perspective is another issue I think about before starting to shoot, because a change of perspective is almost impossible when working in Photoshop. That is the reason I photograph all image components with the same lens. Themes all appear in a very dynamic way because I mainly work with lenses from 20 to 28mm. These short focal lengths emphasize the foreground and make the background look smaller than it is. This makes the image look wide and gives room for the main subject, giving the images a look that is both dynamic and full of energy.

In addition to photographic image files, I also use computer generated imaging for some of the most ambitious compositions. When it comes to fantastic flying objects or imaginary vehicles, I use the 3D software Cinema4D. This program is very compatible with Photoshop. For example, it is possible to change the render settings so that light and material attributes like shadows, transparency and reflection get their own layers once the image is opened in Photoshop. But even this advanced technology requires more than a computer. The background and the surrounding environment of the 3D model are both based on photography− because nothing is more real than reality, even if it is just photographed.

You’d be surprised to see my image archive because it is relatively small. Images that I use frequently in different sizes and perspectives can be found in many categories, including skies, waves, water surfaces, plants and all kinds of technical structures. This means I always carry a camera with me; good motifs are hard to anticipate. The key characters, which often are planes, space ships or other fantastic vehicles, are created or photographed specially for each composition, because I need the object I want in well-balanced light with a certain focal length from a clearly determined perspective −too many attributes for reasonable archival storage.

When all parts of the image are photographed or rendered, I begin to combine the individual parts and forge a new image that looks like all of one piece. Even the smallest things are important, because nobody would ever think that it is necessary to draw a shadow for a detail only three pixels in size. But if this isn’t done, it would look fake!

There is still one of the most difficult things to handle during the process of creation: determining when to stop. There is always something to improve or to change, but looking at the entirety of the image, it is necessary to say “No” in order not to lose control.

Uli Staiger, digital collage, photo montage

Making of Reichstag
Like in most of my work, the topic for Reichstag was something I was thinking about for a long time. How can I visualize the conflicts of politics? On one hand, politicians have to act overtly as representatives of the will of the people, while on the other hand politics could never exist without behind the scenes diplomatic digressions. So I decided to take an architectural shot of the Reichstag, the building of the German parliament in Berlin. After having shot the building on a nice evening in August, I photographed the studio scene. The cloth is thin cotton tissue without any design, which will work as the background material for the mapping later. I masked the studio scene and combined it with the architectural photograph and started to cover the real façade with parts of an old concrete wall. The concrete pieces were transformed and darkened by a levels adjustment layer where necessary.

In the next step, I photographed the white hanging cotton cloth. After masking it, the image was saved as a matrix. Then I used the displace filter, which requires the matrix in order to know how far the pixels of the facade should be displaced. The darker the pixel, the further the displacement of the pixel. I used a different closeup shot from the façade and applied the same filter used for the cloths in the foreground.

Uli Staiger, digital collage, photo montage

Uli Staiger, digital collage, photo montage
Sky Train

Making of Sky Train
The making of the Sky Train required Photoshop’s capability to handle 3D files. The background consists of two images that I took some time ago while visiting New York City. The lighting was quite diffused on that day, so I masked the backs of the buildings and darkened them using a dark grey layer and the blend method “linear light.” The train itself I built in Cinema4D, which can be combined easily with Photoshop. Positioning and lighting of the train both are accomplished with Photoshop. Photoshop versions since CS4 handle 3D files pretty well, as it is able to add textures to the train. Along with the color, there are transparent, distorted surfaces (bumpmap surfaces) and reflections that can be allocated to the meshes of the train. Using Photoshop CS5, the render option looks quite realistic, because the renderer uses ray tracing in order to imitate real lighting.

The finishing of the image was also done in Photoshop. The lightning is drawn, and a copy of its layer is blurred with the Gaussian Blur to make it look even brighter. The smoke is necessary for the atmospheric impression. You can use just a simple brush tip, hardness 0%, opacity 5%, or you load a cool brush set from the Net. In this case, I used the xplosion brush set from

Product Resources Cameras: Canon EOS 5D Mark II; Lenses: Canon EF 20mm 1:2 8L, Canon EF 24-70mm 1:2 8L USM, Canon EF 70-200mm 1:2 8L IS USM; Studio Flash: Broncolor; Mobile Flash: Metz 45 CL2; Computer: Mac Pro 4×2, Macbook Pro; Software: Adobe Photoshop CS4 & CS5, Maxon Cinema4D R12, Filter Forge 2.0, QBrushes.

About the Author

Uli Staiger
Uli Staiger was born 1966 in Tailfingen, Germany. After completing a photographic apprenticeship, he worked in New York and New Jersey as a freelancer. Back in Germany, he attended art school and in 1998 founded his own studio, "die licht gestalten," in Berlin. Staiger specializes in creating hyper-realistic scenes, using both photography and computer generated imaging.