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EpicSki › General Articles › How To Make Photomontages By Bob Barnes

How To Make Photomontages By Bob Barnes

Having done quite a few of them, I can tell you that it is time-consuming and tedious, but I learn more about it with each montage I put together.

It starts with the original photography or videography. Most of mine come from digital video, although a few have come from my DSLR. A high-definition video camera, especially one that shoots in "1080p" progressive scan mode, will produce very good still images, depending on how it's set. Next best is a high-end standard definition camcorder that can shoot in progressive scan mode("frame mode" is what my Panasonic GS400 calls it). If you use a standard consumer-grade digital video camcorder, you'll need to "deinterlace" each frame to get even "OK" results. (You can do this with Photoshop, and with most better video editing software.)

Still cameras can do a very good job, of course, but they are limited in frame rate. 3 frames per second is sufficient only for low speed skiing. 5 or 6 fps is sufficient for most things. But video cameras shoot 15 (Sony progressive scan SD camcorders like the venerable TRV900), 25, or 30 frames per second. Not only is that plenty fast, but even if you only need 3 to 5 fps, you can choose exactly which moment to start from.

You want the cleanest, sharpest images you can find, so you want to shoot at a high shutter speed to freeze the action--even for video. Pro camcorders let you adjust the shutter speed manually--I would use nothing slower than 1/500 of a second. Lower end camcorders usually have some sort of a "sports mode" that freezes action pretty well, at least in bright sunlight.

You want every frame to be exposed the same, so if you are good at setting exposure, set your camera or camcorder to manual (if it's an option).

Shooting, composing, and zooming video for still montages is different from shooting for good video. In addition to setting the high shutter speed and shooting in progressive scan mode (both of which make the video a little jerkier), you want to make sure that no parts of the skier leave the frame at any point. And you must not zoom the lens during the sequence you intend to create the montage from. But you do want the image of the skier to fill the frame as much as possible. It's a hard balance to reach sometimes! It's OK if the skier moves around a little in the frame (lousy for video, but largely irrelevant once you mask the image from the frame). But you must not tilt the camera during the sequence. None of these "errors" are impossible to overcome with some careful Photoshoppery, but it will take much longer, and the results won't be ideal.

Once you have the images or footage you want, you must "capture" the frames to your hard drive. If it's video, you'll need some sort of editing software. I use Adobe Premiere Pro these days, but you can do the job with less sophisticated software. It will be painful, though, if you have to capture each frame one-at-a-time by hand. Premiere will convert a clip into individual frames automatically, using any frame rate you want. It will also deinterlace the frames if needed. Be sure to switch off any "frame blending" or other motion-blur-creating functions.

So now you have your frames, saved as a folder full of .tif, .gif, or other image format files, or as a single "filmstrip" image (my preference) from which you can copy and paste individual images, and you're ready to create the montage. The theory is simple--using Photoshop or equivalent, you'll start with the most-distant frame, and then cut and paste the closer frames on top, in sequence, one by one. Start with a blank canvas big enough for the entire montage--although you can enlarge the canvas whenever you need to. Copy and paste in the first image, complete with background.

There are several ways to do the subsequent frames. You can cut the skier image from the background and then paste just the cutout image into the montage. (If you do this, be sure to leave some fixed point from the background intact--a gate, tree, chunk of snow, or something else that appears in both images--so you can register the second image on exactly the right spot.)

Alternatively, you can paste the whole second image on top of the first, then cut away just the parts you don't need. To do this, set the top image transparency to around 50%, so you can see the image below it. Line up the backgrounds (something that doesn't move). Then, with masking tools or the eraser tool or both, cut out the background from the top image where needed to let the lower image show through. Leaving the background everywhere else allows the background of the montage to "grow" as needed. Remember to reset the transparency to zero (100% opacity) when you're done.

(Save your work often!)

Repeat for each frame, until done.

(Save your work often!)

Depending on the number of frames and the resolution of the images, it can become a very large file. If your computer starts bogging down, you may need to "flatten" the image as you go along, combining the individual layers into one. Be careful, though--once done and saved, you can't go back and make adjustments.

(Save your work often!)


That should get you started. You'll figure out and stumble upon all kinds of little tricks that will help improve the quality and reduce the time somewhat. But any way you look at it, it takes a while! It can be tedious, meticulous work, and there are no real shortcuts that I know of.

There is, of course, specialized software available that can automate the process to a degree. "Dartfish" is the program that creates the instant montages you've seen on some television broadcasts, particularly of the Olympics. It makes me sick how quickly and effortlessly it does its thing, but the results I've seen, while looking fine on television, are not of the quality of a hand-made montage. Still, I can't help but envy it! It is not inexpensive.

Good luck! Please post your results, as well as any good "tricks" you come up with.

Here are a few of mine, all of which have been posted here before:

Patrick Deneen, US Ski Team (moguls), training at Mt. Hood last summer; from 35 mm DSLR

Freestyler Sammy Carlson, also at Mt. Hood, from high-definition video

Cyprien Richard (France), Noram GS at Keystone last season, from high-definition video

Me, Arapahoe Basin, 2007, from high-def video

David Oliver at Telluride, from progressive scan standard definition digital video

Dan Egan, Arapahoe Basin 2008, from hi-def video

Ben Atkinson, Keystone A51 Terrain Park, from progressive scan std def video

Me again, Arapahoe Basin, from high-definition video

Toni Sears at Arapahoe Basin, 2008. Note that the camera was zoomed for the last frame, requiring that it be enlarged to match the rest of the sequence, and losing some sharpness. Don't zoom when shooting for montages!

Some of these images have some additional Photoshop work, to fill in the background (mostly through "cloning") and otherwise polish them a bit.

*Please note that these are all copyrighted images, and I reserve all rights.


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EpicSki › General Articles › How To Make Photomontages By Bob Barnes