Learn how to design a portrait collage

THE MISSION

Create an original collage by piecing together cropped photos of a face

Time needed: 1 hour

Skill level: Intermediate

Kit needed: Photoshop (or
a set of prints)

Back in the 1980s, artist David Hockney started piecing together Polaroids into collages that showed a subject from multiple angles. Hockney’s ‘joiners’ captured the public imagination and made him a household name.

Since then the technique has been much imitated, to the point where it has almost become a bit old hat. There’s even a website called the Hockneyizer which will do the job for you, which is about as far from the original spirit of the idea as you can get. But experiment with this technique and you’ll find there’s still life in it, in the unusual point of view it creates and the effect it has on
an everyday scene. 

To begin, we shoot a set of portraits taken from different angles, some cropped in tight, others looser. Variety is a good thing here, as subtle differences between the frames will help to set them apart.

From here we’ve got two options: we can either arrange our collage in Photoshop, piecing the images together and then adding shadows to simulate real photos. Or instead we can take the old-school approach by printing out the photos and arranging them by hand. We’ll explain both methods over the page. 

Camera skills Shoot your ‘joiners’

Capture the set of images you need to create your collage

01 CAMERA CONTROLS

These tend to be our stock exposure settings for outdoor portraits: Manual Mode, Shutter Speed 1/250 sec, Aperture f/4, Auto ISO. This way the shutter speed will be fast enough to freeze the action, and the wide aperture blurs the backdrop.

02 MOVE AROUND

Take a series of shots of the face; you’ll need at least 20. Move around slightly
as you shoot to capture different angles. Try adding variety with your focus point; perhaps focus on the closest eye in one frame, and the furthest eye in the next.

03 SUBJECT MOVEMENT

As well as shifting your camera position, ask your subject to move between frames. Shoot them straight on, try capturing their profile, or position them at 45 degrees. For a strong shape to your collage, keep the neckline clear from clothing.

04 WHITE WALL 

You can try the technique on any scene, but if you want to create the kind of strong shape of the head shown opposite, a simple, clean backdrop will work best as it helps to define the shape of the face. We used a plain white outdoor wall here.

05 SOFT LIGHT

We shot our set of portraits outdoors on a cloudy day. Being soft and diffuse, not only is this kind of light flattering for portraits, it’s also perfect for the joiner  as it means the light stays even and consistent across the different frames.

06 ZOOM LENS

You’ll want to vary the crops as you shoot, with some frames tight to different parts of the face and others further away. A zoom lens like this will help you to shoot in this way. At longer focal lengths, brace the camera as you shoot to avoid shake.

BEYOND HOCKNEY

David Hockney might be its most renowned exponent, but photo collage has been explored by many other artists. Thomas Keller creates his collages by shooting a roll of 35mm film, cropping in to each part of a scene from one frame to the next. The entire roll is then laid out as a contact sheet (see above). Portrait photographer Rankin made a series of celebrity portraits, then asked the sitters to chop up and rearrange them to create self-portraits in his series Destroy Rankin. 

STEP BY STEP: Create a digital collage

Piece together your set of portraits and learn about Photoshop’s transform controls, layer skills and shadows

01 CONVERT ALL IMAGES TO MONO

In Adobe Bridge, right-click an image and ‘Open in Camera Raw’, then convert it to mono. Click Done. Right-click the image, choose Develop Settings>Copy Settings. Select the other files, right-click and select Develop Settings>Paste Settings.

02 COPY AND PASTE

Open one image, use the Rectangular Marquee tool to select a portion, then Ctrl+C to copy. Go to File>New and make a new A3 document with white background. Paste in the selection. In the Layers panel, right-click the layer and select Convert to Smart Object.

03 RESIZE AND POSITION

Select the Move tool, tick Show Transform Controls and Auto-select Layer in its options. Move the piece roughly into position and click the corner of the box if you need to resize (hold Shift). Open another image, select an piece, paste it in and position again.

04 CREATE SHADOWS

Lastly, we’ll add shadows. Double-click any layer to open the layer styles box. Highlight Drop Shadow, then adjust the settings to tweak the shadow size and position. Once done, hold Alt and drag the drop shadow effect from one layer to another to copy it.

KEY PHOTOSHOP SKILLS: Non-destructive editing

Give yourself several bites of the cherry by using these top tips for a non-destructive Photoshop workflow

When you resize a pixel-based layer to be smaller, you’re effectively throwing away pixels, which is a problem if you decide to go larger again. However, if you right-click it and Convert to Smart Object, you can resize as much as we like with no loss in quality.

In a project like this there are a myriad ways to create your montage. Using Snapshots, you can easily save a point in your workflow, then go back to it later if you choose. Create a snapshot from the History panel; it’ll appear at the top of the panel.

STEP BY STEP: The old-fashioned approach

Why not print out your portraits, piece together by hand and shoot the result?

01 MAKE PRINTS

We used a high-street printer to make our set of 6x4 prints – some verticals, others horizontal – then laid them out on a white table. As in Photoshop, we can play with positions and move prints up or down, but it feels more authentic to do it by hand, and the results are more random.

02 SET UP A COPY TABLE

For even lighting, position two equally powerful lamps either side of the artwork at a 45-degree angle. Set up a tripod directly above the prints and angle your camera straight down. Some tripods let you reverse the central column so the camera faces downwards, which can help.

03 SHOOT THE PRINTS

Check for hotspots and reflections over the prints and adjust the position of the lights if necessary. Ensure the tripod legs don’t cast shadows over the print. Set your camera to Aperture Priority at f/8, ISO100 then take your shot. Fix any colour casts or convert to mono in Photoshop.

WHY NOT TRY: Experiment with image blending 

There are plenty of other ways to combine two or more photos, like this slotted effect created with Photoshop

You can create all kinds of interesting effects by combining your portraits, including one like this. We start by copying one image on top of another in Photoshop – use the Move tool to drag images between documents. Next we need a set of strips – either make your own or use the strip.png file provided. Copy this in, then in the Layers panel, drag the strip layer in between the other two. Next, hold Alt and click the line dividing the strip layer and the top layer to clip the top layer. Now the only parts visible will be those directly above the strip shape, which gives us our effect. If you like, add a drop shadow to the strip layer.