Photoshop is not a compositing tool

loocas | opinions,software | Sunday, July 10th, 2011

Photoshop CS5

Let me get this straight. Photoshop is not a compositing tool. Period.

I certainly am not a compositing artist, however, I have a, rather, deep technical knowledge of compositing principles and compositing software packages (such as Nuke) and thus I get asked from time to time by fellow CG artists about some compositing issues they have etc. The worst thing is when I find out they’re comping their still image in Photoshop saved as a PNG file! Blasphemy!

There are so many attributes that make a good compositing program that you cannot even start considering Photoshop for the duty. Even After Effects fall flat facing some more serious compositing tasks (mainly true 32bit float comps, or 3D space comps etc…). Why, you may ask. Let’s start with the essentials. One of them is color management. It truly startles me that Photoshop, the mecca of digital image manipulation tools, doesn’t have this feature! I mean, of course you have color management in Photoshop, but that’s more to have with calibration to printing standards, CMYK color space etc… but you don’t have a chance loading up a custom LUT, or, hell, even something as essential as an sRGB LUT. So, working with true linear renders is a huge pain in Photoshop.

Then there is color depth. Photoshop is pretty good at handling 8bit integer formats, it’s even very good at handling 16bit integer formats, but as soon as you start thinking of comping with true full-float (32bit) or half-float (16bit) formats, you’re out of luck. Most of the tools simply don’t support these formats and you’ll have hard times even trying to figure out the colors, exposure etc…

Another techincal problem is the Alpha channel support and handling. There is nothing you could use for unpremultiplication or premultiplication. So, you’re pretty much stuck with cutting out “holes” into your layers and tweaking the mask with Levels, Curves etc… That’s just wrong.

The last thing I’d like to point out in this regard is Photoshop’s linear design (nothing to have with LWF!). You have layers, perhaps even Smart Layers, but that’s it. You can’t branch your comps, you cannot apply filters or your edits nondestructively. It’s just paint-touch-up-bake-done.

You can argue that Photoshop wasn’t made for compositing and also that it’s being used by compositors, matte painters and what not. That’s all true, but my argument here is: Photoshop is not a compositing tool! You should not use it for compositing (of course, if you have an alternative) and you should not advise anyone to use Photoshop for these kinds of tasks.

I personally comp everything in Nuke. Including static images. I just can’t imagine dealing with color profiles (though, admittedly, I am not a DI artist either, by far!), alphas, render layers and elements etc… in Photoshop. I use Photoshop for very quick mock-ups, matte paints and touch-ups or general copy-paste-crop-save tasks. Though with the purchase of Mari, I touch-up my shots, mattepaint and texture more and more in Mari than Photoshop.

Still, Photoshop is an indispensable tool in every digital artist’s toolset and it’s going nowhere, at least in the near future, even if Mari’s on board. But, let me say that again, Photoshop is not a compositing tool!


  1. OK. Well like you said photoshop wasn’t created as a compositing tool. Why don’t you team up with form nerds/geeks/programmers and creating some plugins/tools that handle things correctly. Make yourself a bunch of money. I’m sure it won’t be an easy task but all thing are possible through Christ, ;). Also I didn’t know PS can handle video unless your just doing still frames.

    I started getting into video in the past year or so. I’ve been 3d modeling for nearly 10 years as a hobby. Only now I’m getting rendering and compositing. Its hard. The render times are crushing. Again I just started, so your saying AE isn’t any good? I don’t think I have the cash for Nuke.

    I don’t think there is one program that does everything. I mean Photoshop doesn’t handle Text like Illustrator or InDesign, I mean that’ is amazing. They need to merge PS and Illustrator into one program. Photoshop’s 3d handling is just disrespectful. Can’t wait until Autodesk and Adobe purchase each other. I say use your compositors and then use photoshop to tweak the final end product. PS wasn’t made for what your doing don’t give it such a hard time.

    Comment by Kenn — July 10, 2011 @ 20:56

  2. Hey Kenn,

    I’m certainly not giving Photoshop a hard time, nor am I trying to. I’m simply stating a fact that Photoshop wasn’t and isn’t made for compositing. You can certainly tweak colors and do all kinds of fancy stuff in it, there’s no doubt on Earth you can! But, for actual compositing (be it rendered elements, or footage/photo manipulation) it’s not the greatest choice.

    As for After Effects. It’s certainly a very, very good and capable compositing software. Again, nothing against that. The thing is, especially for my kind of work, I am much better off with Nuke (previously Fusion and before that, not so great, Combustion). I’d say that AFX is absolutely fabulous for quick jobs and animating tons of elements and layers. That’s their strongest point. The weakest is the file type handling, 3D compositing, complex comps. Not that I do too complex shots, but I do a ton of 3D element integration and thus I need 3D compositing and good render element support through 32bit file formats (EXRs), which are a bit of a pain to handle in AFX (maybe not anymore? I haven’t checked for some time).

    Still, I do a lot of animation/video, but for stills I too prefer comping them in Nuke for the reasons I explained above. Photoshop is great for everything else, so, don’t get me wrong, I love Photoshop! :) Well, not so much its video capabilities and especially not the 3D “capabilities”. That’s why I bought a copy of Mari. ;)

    Comment by loocas — July 10, 2011 @ 21:05

  3. This “rant” (and, yes it is a rant) is pointless. Trying to say that Photoshop is not a compositing tool is like saying MS Paint is not a paint program. Your arguments are comparing ease of use rather than focusing on the facts.

    Compositing is the process of combining images or videos together to create a convincingly unified end result. How this is achieved is irrelevant; you may fine things like Nuke easier for you, others can easily achieve what they want with Photoshop. At the end of the day it really doesn’t matter what tool you use as long as you achieve your end result.

    Your rant may seem valid to you, but to me it seems that you are mistaking ease of use with incapability. You seem to be under the impression that Photoshop can’t be used for Composition. This is completely untrue, it can do composition just fine if you know all the tricks, it may take longer to achieve certain results, but it does get you there in the end., The same as MS Paint can be used to paint a masterpiece, test it would be a hell of a lot easier doing it in Photoshop, but that does not mean it is not a program capable of producing the end result.

    Comment by Phil — April 22, 2014 @ 10:46

  4. You do know you can import photoshop files into Nuke, use the breakout layers function in the read node, then track the layers in right? I use this technique often in my composites and they turn out just fine. This whole article is just kind of silly to me.

    Comment by Jayce Suydam — February 3, 2015 @ 20:21

  5. Thanks for just proving my point, man… ;)

    Comment by loocas — February 3, 2015 @ 20:37

  6. Not exactly sure how this proves your point?

    Comment by Jayce Suydam — February 3, 2015 @ 21:07

  7. But you seem right pretentious claiming a workflow that differs from yours is wrong so I guess I don’t really care ;)

    Comment by Jayce Suydam — February 3, 2015 @ 21:12

  8. 2018: Photoshop still sucks in 32-bit.

    Comment by SG — December 12, 2017 @ 22:14

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