Down and Dirty with Photo Composites

By Robert Ordoña

David Oldfield, the creative director for LifeProof, a maker of hard cases for mobile devices, gave photographer Tim Tadder and CGI specialist Mike Campau a big challenge when he recruited the duo to deliver the creative for a 2014 LifeProof ad campaign. The brief? Aggressively illustrate the extreme protective qualities of the LifeProof case for the Samsung Galaxy S5. Oh, and the deadline? Complete the project within 10 days.

Oldfield, Tadder, and Campau had their initial brainstorming sessions and landed on an idea fairly quickly. They wanted to depict the LifeProof battling a phone’s worst enemy—nature. To do so, the team decided to show athlete models in the rugged, phone-punishing environments of their sports. The final four portraits show a wave-drenched surfer, a mud-caked mountain biker, a dust-encrusted motocross rider, and a river-soaked kayaker—each grasping an undamaged LifeProof-protected phone. The resulting images are triumphant yet lively, clean yet intricately detailed, and beautifully gritty. But the creative team decided against erratic outdoor photo shoots and instead did what they do best: they shot in a studio and used CGI and Adobe Photoshop CC to composite in the surrounding environments.

A photo composite of a dirt biker, from the Galaxy S5 LifeProof ad campaign, created by Tim Tadder and Mike Campau.
A photo composite of a woman surfer, from the Galaxy S5 LifeProof ad campaign, created by Tim Tadder and Mike Campau.
A photo composite of a bearded kayaker, from the Galaxy S5 LifeProof ad campaign, created by Tim Tadder and Mike Campau.
A photo composite of a motocross racer, from the Galaxy S5 LifeProof ad campaign, created by Tim Tadder and Mike Campau.

How did creative workhorses Tadder and Campau complete the rush job without the final result seeming in any way rushed? They relied on careful forethought, their mastery of post-production tools, a working relationship that’s as seamless as the photo composites that comprise the campaign imagery, and a truly collaborative spirit. 


Now frequent collaborators, Tadder and Campau met as early adopters of Behance—Adobe’s portfolio platform for creatives—in 2010. Back then, Campau says, “Every time I saw an image that made me stop and look and then go back, it was always done by Tim. I thought, ‘This is getting weird.’” So he sent a message to Tadder and proposed collaborating.

Tadder was equally impressed by Campau’s work. At the time, he was looking for a new digital artist to work with. “One person can make amazing things, but to make an epic creation, you need to collaborate,” he says. “I needed to find other people with a similar aesthetic and a similar vision that I could collaborate with and share my point of view, and have them help me bring [my ideas] to life.”

He found that collaborator in Campau: “I’d worked with a lot of great artists, but so many times I’d get back what I’d expected, and it was like, ‘OK, that’s great.’ But with Mike, I would [get the work back] and be surprised by how he’d taken my vision and made it better than I could have imagined. That’s a testament to him—if I come with a concept, he elevates it even more.”


After working together on various personal and commercial projects throughout the years, Tadder and Campau took on the LifeProof campaign. Inspired partly by the pedestal effect in Sculpture Athletes (a re-interpretation of classical athlete sculptures by Tadder and French digital artist Cristian Girotto), they mounted their models on blocks in the studio for the shoot. Says Campau, “It was easier to do it in the studio so we could control the light. When you’re [on location], there are so many unpredictables—day changes, light changes throughout the day.” Then, using post-production tools, the team created the surrounding environments.

Go behind the scenes of the LifeProof campaign photo shoot, in this video. 

“We couldn’t have accomplished it without Photoshop,” says Tadder. “Some of the 3D engines are cool, but they don’t allow you to have the blending, masking, and overall finishing that Photoshop provides.”

Tadder says that Photoshop was part of the post-production and pre-production decision making. “This project is a good example of what we do—how we plan and how we see. [Photoshop] is a vital part of it every step of the way.... We know what we want this project to look like in the end, and we asked ourselves from the beginning, ‘What steps do we need to get there?’ With Photoshop, we knew we could do that faster, within deadline, and more cost-effective in post than we could do with a set designer or a props person. Because of Photoshop, we could dedicate our resources to other things, like wardrobe and talent.”

Background layer of a composited photo of a dirt biker, from the Galaxy S5 LifeProof ad campaign, created by Tim Tadder and Mike Campau.
The studio shot of layer of a dirt biker, from the Galaxy S5 LifeProof ad campaign, created by Tim Tadder and Mike Campau.
The studio shot of layer of a dirt biker, isolated on a layer, from the Galaxy S5 LifeProof ad campaign, created by Tim Tadder and Mike Campau.


Each LifeProof portrait posed its own post-production challenges. Tadder says that the surfer and the kayaker were among the trickiest, because of what happens when models are shot standing in water. “The distortion between [the models’] feet and the waterline looked so weird. There’s a distortion underwater that makes things floppy and magnified. So Mike had to use Photoshop for blending,” says Tadder.

Campau agrees that the surfer and kayaker were challenging. But to him, the motocross rider required the most post-production know-how, because the team needed to separate the model visually from the trail biker. “We wanted him to look like a motocross rider. We wanted [the image] to be more extreme, so we had to incorporate that dust and dirt, and all that was created in Photoshop.”

Then he added in the details, such as the roadrunner, the rocks on the ground, the cactus behind the motorcycle, the mountains, and the flags—all created using CGI tools and refined using Photoshop. “I even [used the software] to isolate the clouds out of the blue and either brightened them up or set them to a screen layer to blend them into the background,” says Campau. “People notice the small details.”

Tadder says, “I didn’t ask Mike to add the roadrunner. But this was something that made it look better. That’s exactly what I was looking for in a creative partner—that person who could take my vision and bring his own passion to it, and elevate it to another level.”

He concludes, “I look at one thing and try to evolve it and bring something new into the creative universe, so we’re not just echoing what’s out there but bringing a new voice and a new perspective to things. Mike and I are the same on this point: We believe our job is to bring new tools to the forefront—how we can make a visual difference that creates something unique.”

Campau believes their visions are complementary: “We want to make each other uncomfortable, creatively. Tim is very well prepared, where I’m a little looser. I don’t have any preconceived notions or plans about what the images are going to look like. But I feel like I work better when I get something from him, and I can completely go crazy with it. I take what he gives me, and I can go off in another direction. [With the LifeProof project] we started with one thing, and then it turned into something surprising.”

(Learn how to use Adobe Photoshop Layer Styles to add finesse to your artwork and images, in this tutorial.)