How to Use Auto-Align to Create a Composite Photo

January 31, 2013

in Photography Tutorials, Photoshop

How to Create a Composite Photo with the Auto-Align Tool  - Photoshop Tutorial via I Heart Faces


We have really enjoyed viewing the composite photos that Julie Rivera Photography has been showcasing on her blog and Facebook Fan Page.  Today she is going to teach us how to create a composite photograph in Photoshop by using the Auto-Align feature.

Setting Up the Shot

Set up is key for a good composite photo. You need to have the subject move across the frame of your shot, for example running from left to right, not at you or away from you. Also, before you set the person in motion, lock your focus with the back button focus, or switch your lens to manual focus. Since you will be taking multiple exposures in rapid succession, you can’t refocus for each shot. And finally, you want to take as many images as your camera can handle. Then, when you download all the frames, you can pick the ones that don’t overlap with the next image.

For my example, I took pictures of my daughter going down a slide. I knew her distance from me would not change throughout the action, so the locked focus would work perfectly. After taking about 8 shots, I selected the best four to build my composite. I copied these into their own folder, and numbered them from 1 to 4 to help me work more easily.
I Heart Faces Auto Align Composite Photo Tutorial

1. Open the Images in Photoshop

I opened the first image, 01.jpg. This will serve as the base layer throughout the construction.
I Heart Faces Auto Align Composite Photo Tutorial
Then I opened the next image, 02.jpg. I made sure it opened as a separate window so I could still see my base layer.
i-heart-faces-auto-align-composite-tutorial-3

I used the MOVE tool, while holding the SHIFT key down, to drag the 2nd image onto the window with the 1st image. The window with 01.jpg now has two layers, the original image and the 2nd image as Layer 1. The new image will completely obscure the original image.

I Heart Faces Auto Align Composite Photo Tutorial

2. Auto-Align Layers

Here comes the fun! I reduced the opacity on Layer 1 so I could see both images simultaneously. Still using the MOVE tool, I tried to line the images up as best as I could manually. Now it is time to turn on the power of Photoshop. Layer 1 was already highlighted, so I held the Command key down and clicked on the background layer to make them both blue. Then go to Edit>Auto-Align Layers.
I Heart Faces Auto Align Composite Photo Tutorial
An option screen will then open, asking what type of alignment you want to do. For this example, I want Auto, then I press OK.
I Heart Faces Auto Align Composite Photo Tutorial

3. Add a Layer Mask

Because I still have the reduced opacity on Layer 1, I can see both images, all neatly lined up. I want to erase all but the section with my daughter at the top of the slide, to reveal the original base layer in all but that one spot. I add a layer mask to Layer 1 by clicking the little square with a circle in it at the bottom of the layers palette. Since the layer mask is white, I make sure the black color swatch on the left side tool bar is on top, so I will erase the intended areas.
I Heart Faces Auto Align Composite Photo Tutorial

I select the BRUSH tool at 100% opacity and set about erasing all but the area with my daughter from the 2nd image, Layer 1. The erased area is black on the layer mask. The small area with my subject stayed white.

I Heart Faces Auto Align Composite Photo Tutorial

4. Merge Layers

Before adding the 3rd image, be sure to merge these first two layers. Go to Layer>Merge Visible.

5. Repeat Steps 1-4 For Remaining Images

Now open the 3rd image, 03.jpg, again keeping it as a separate window.
I Heart Faces Auto Align Composite Photo Tutorial

I used the MOVE tool, while holding the SHIFT key down, to drag the 3rd image, 03.jpg, onto our base image, 01.jpg. This 3rd image is now Layer 1. I reduced the opacity so I can see the two layers and go through the auto align steps, making sure to have both layers highlighted, Edit>Auto-Align Layers, choosing Auto.

I Heart Faces Auto Align Composite Photo Tutorial

I add a layer mask to Layer 1, choose the BRUSH at 100% opacity and erase all but my daughter in the 3rd image, where she is making her way down the slide. You can see the area of white on the layer mask.
I Heart Faces Auto Align Composite Photo Tutorial

Remember to merge your layers, Layer>Merge Visible. And here we go with the 4th and final image, 04.jpg. I open it as a separate window.

I Heart Faces Auto Align Composite Photo Tutorial

I use the MOVE tool while holding the SHIFT key down and drag it over the base image. I reduce opacity so I can see everything and highlight both layers. I go to Edit>Auto-Align Layers, choosing Auto.

I add the layer mask to Layer 1, use the BRUSH tool at 100% opacity to erase all but my daughter at the end of the slide. You can see the erased area as black on the layer mask.
I Heart Faces Auto Align Composite Photo Tutorial
I do one final merge of the layers.

6. Crop the Image

Now I need to crop the image, as the alignment process produces an “extra” area around the edges as the program tries to match the images. I prefer to crop by using the RECTANGULAR MARQUEE tool, set to a Fixed Ratio of 3:2 (a standard 4×6 crop ratio). I set the marquee where I like it, then go to Image>Crop (I have this as a keyboard shortcut because I use it so much).
I Heart Faces Auto Align Composite Photo Tutorial
And now you have your final composite image, showing the full range of motion in one picture!
I Heart Faces Auto Align Composite Photo Tutorial

Have you tried this technique yet? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

Julie Rivera for iHeartFaces.comJulie Rivera, owner of Julie Rivera Photography, is an untalented but enthusiastic singer, a dedicated treadmill jogger, a mom to two young girls and one teenage boy and a pretty open blogger sharing her trials and triumphs with photography and motherhood on her blog. Be sure to follow along on Facebook, too!

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Laura June 22, 2014

Thank you for such a great explanation. The kids at my summer camp loved the project.

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Katherine Vargas January 31, 2013

this is perfect.thanks for sharing it.

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Stephanie Ooten January 31, 2013

I did a similar composite for our Christmas pic http://backwoodsbabe.blogspot.com/2012/12/blog-post.html, everyone thought I somehow trained all the animals to sit still and pose at the same time, lol. I didn’t know about auto align, but I used a tripod so all my frames were the same, then aligned by hand very carefully. Next years editing will be much faster, good thing since we added another dog since the Christmas photos.

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Nivs Khemka January 31, 2013

Sounds pretty uncomplicated and I frankly don’t recall the method I used but I made a similar picture for my daughter … Check it out on

https://m.facebook.com/home.php?refsrc=http%3A%2F%2Fm.facebook.com%2Flogin.php&refid=9&_rdr#!/photo.php?fbid=423661321006704&id=294201923952645&set=pr.294201923952645&__user=647636229

But since I don’t remember the method , definately trying it your way next time 😉 great tutorial !!

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Abigail Stoops January 31, 2013

Super fun! Thanks for sharing this great tutorial!!!

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Life with Kaishon January 31, 2013

I can’t wait to try this! Thank you so much for sharing Julia!

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