Composite World

by Joe Pangburn

Dave Hill

January 01, 2011The light wasn’t cooperating.
No matter how he tried, Dave Hill couldn’t quite get the result he envisioned for Amber Pacific, a four-member band he was shooting in Nashville, TN in 2005. Then a thought came to him—to light and shoot each of the band members separately and stitch the photos together in Photoshop, creating one image with perfectly lit subjects.

“That’s where it started for me; that was my very first full-composite image,” says Hill, 30, whose illustrative style has since gained him the attention of bands, designers and art directors around the country. “Whether moving into composites was a good idea or not, I can’t tell to this day,” he laughs. “It has meant a lot of time in front of the computer.”

Today, Hill’s images have become more complex and visually stunning, as they can often contain more than 40 photographed elements—each edited for color and cohesiveness before masking, layering and adjusting levels throughout more than 300 layers in Photoshop.

He laughs at the suggestion that this style of photography has made him one of the most patient photographers out there. “It helps that I’ve done the same style for five years now, so I’ve been consistent,” he says. “I guess I just have a lot of confidence in the final outcome of each project, and that allows me to spend weeks on images knowing the final project will be okay. If you were just starting out or didn’t 
really know what you were looking for, you would just get lost editing an image in the first day or two. I’ve been honing that one style to the point that it is almost robotic.”

Creating Passion
Hill’s father gave him the creative spark when he gave Hill a Fuji SLR in high school. He began photographing friends skateboarding or snowboarding. “In college I started shooting for the school newspaper and did that for four years—the last of which I was the photo editor,” he says. “After graduating I got a full-time job working as the university photographer for a private university in Los Angeles. I did all the professors’ headshots and sports photography for two years, and I hated it.”

A move to Nashville opened up a world of creativity to Hill that allowed him to carve out the direction of his work. “I was looking at photo magazines and trying to find what I liked and how I wanted to shoot,” he says. “I really liked the look of bringing a flash outside to light your subject and underexposing the sun. There wasn’t a lot of that going on in Nashville at that time.

“I was 23 and single in Nashville, and it is such an easy place to pay the bills that it didn’t take too long before I could start living off my photography. It started with bands. I received a bunch of hate mail for it, but I put up fliers around town offering band photo shoots for $100. You do what you have to do to make it in the business, and that was the right thing for me.”

His unique work began to catch on as a design company hired him to do more work. It brought him bigger and bigger bands, and eventually a record label reviewed his portfolio and had him shoot bands. Music photography, however, has slowed for Hill. “Today we focus on commercial work, and advertising jobs,” Hill says. “Music jobs have really tanked in the last few years. The industry has had a lot to deal with. Most advertising jobs I get, the art buyer calls with a layout or concept locked down before they talk to me. With music there was a little more freedom to do what I wanted with the band.”

Hill likes to have the control over his images by shooting all the elements and editing all his work. That way he knows everything in a final image was the best it could be. The gratitude feels more complete knowing it was all his work.

“With my commercial work I really like to impress clients—I get a thrill out of wowing them,” Hill says. “If I don’t get an ‘awesome’ or ‘great job’ from an art director when they see the final image, then in my mind I failed.”

Something Personal
Commercial photography pays the bills, but it isn’t always personally fulfilling. Every artist struggles with the balance of bringing someone else’s vision to life, and having the freedom to create their own. Hill makes sure to spend time shooting personal projects throughout the year.

His favorite project so far is his Adventure Girl series (which can bee seen on his Web site). Scrolling through this series of images evokes action, drama and a compelling storyline. “It was a personal shoot, so there were no art directors and I could do just what I wanted to do,” Hill says. “I love doing personal stuff for that reason. I will put more time, effort and postproduction into those images. The second part of the series, was all shot over five days—two days here and then three days in the Florida Keys, but I spent nearly two and a half months editing the images.

“In the case of an image featuring divers in an underwater cave fighting monsters in dive suits, there are probably 50 or more images. The people were all shot separately in swimming pools. We tried to shoot the monsters with the helmets on, but they were just way too heavy so we shot those in the studio. The hoses—which are just Home Depot hoses—were shot in my house. The top of the cave is just the bottom of the ocean flipped around. There are two to three images for the rocks in the foreground that were shot in Florida. The top of the ocean in the back is a separate image and I also overlaid some ocean shots there to give it more of a murky feel. The girl chained up, her chains and the rock under her feet were all shot separately. Behind her, to the right and left, are the only stock things I didn’t shoot specifically for this series and they are the rocks sticking up in the back. They were shot up in Utah in Arches National Monument. To make them look more like underwater rocks, I had to cover them with sea particles and sea rocks. The generator pump was shot at a prop house.

The fish were all shot in the Keys. The bubbles were all shot in my house; I have a little bubble machine I use for them. There are probably 20 bubble shots used in this photo.”

For the most part, there are no sketches to Hill’s personal work because he begins with half of the idea in his mind, and the other half of the idea tends to emerge in post. “The only reason I would do a drawing would be to help someone get an idea of a costume,” Hill says. “I get a lot of my ideas from sketches I find from old comic books online. Most of the layout happens in post. I’ll have an idea in my head, but if it’s not working like I thought it was going to, then I will shift elements around until it looks right.”

Hill shows bits and pieces of nearly every shoot on his Web site, from shooting the subjects to finding the right complementing elements and even some simple editing.
“We originally started shooting those when I started shooting for a design company in Seattle,” Hill says. “They were really having us do some very conceptual stuff on very small budgets, so it was us documenting this adventure of trying to make this idea work with little or no money. When I came out with a new Web site in 2006, I put some of those on there and I got a lot of attention from those videos. So I started taking a little more time making them and showing some edits at the end. I don’t try to make them too snazzy though, no music or cool titles, just some clips showing the shoot. A lot of people want to see more of how I do my retouching work, but there’s not really a trick to it. It’s just a month at the computer masking out a million different things.”

In order to mask and blend 40 to 50 components into a single image, Hill says he uses a lot of photos shot specifically for the assignment, but he also relies on an extensive library of photos taken over the years. “Every image I create is a mixture of old and new photos,” he says. “I bring my camera on trips, and I actually hate bringing a digital camera on trips because you end up shooting everything and you have thousands of images to go through later. But every time I do, I am very glad I did. My wife and I visited England and Ireland our first year of marriage and while we were on the northern coast of Ireland, I gave in and decided I would shoot everything. So now I have a couple thousand images of the coast, ocean and rocks. Then, when I was doing the Adventure Girl thing a year later, I remembered I had all these oceans and rocks I could use. I’ve also been able to use some of them for commercial assignments, so I’m glad I’ve taken the pictures.”

To those who want to start doing composite work, Hill says a focus on good lighting for each component is an important piece of the puzzle. “You have to make sure that every element is lit from the same direction, so the light source is uniform in the final image,” he says. “I’d caution anyone initially for wanting to go down this route because it does take a lot of time to do this style of work, but it sure is a lot of fun.”
To view Dave Hill’s work, visit

Joe Pangburn is a Tucson, Arizona-based freelance writer. He also runs Pangburn Photography with his wife Kadie.

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