Landscape photography is the supreme test of the photographer, and often the supreme disappointment. – Ansel Adams
I cannot agree more with that quote.
To capture an epic landscape photograph, one needs to be at the right place at the right time.
And most often, embrace the weather.
Catching the light during golden hour means we’re always facing a challenge – the challenge of capturing the full dynamic range of the scene.
But that’s not it.
Recreating the landscape with exposure blending in post-processing is actually the most challenging.
Exposure Blending In Landscape Photography
In this tutorial, I’ll show you 3 examples on how I blend multiple exposures to create a beautifully balanced landscape image.
How to fix the image when one of the exposures isn’t aligned and can’t be fixed with Auto-Align in Photoshop.
Let’s dive right in 🙂
Fully Tonal Control With Blending
I like to use exposure blending to create high dynamic range images in landscape photographs because I can have full control of the tones.
The main challenges in exposure blending for me have always been:
- Choosing the right image from multiple exposures to blend.
- Blending the images smoothly and naturally.
If You Fail To Plan, You Plan To Fail
It doesn’t matter if you bracket your exposure or shoot in manually.
You’re going to have at least 2 or 3 images of different exposure (sometimes even more!).
The question is:
Do you blend them all?
My approach is to look at the image at 0EV and decide what I want in each element for the final image.
This is the 0EV of a 3 bracketed exposure. It looks pretty straight forward.
The sky is overexposed, so I want to blend in the darker exposure to recover details in the highlights.
So basically I need 2 images. One for the sky and one for the foreground. I can leave the brightest exposure out because the foreground is already well exposed.
I took 3 bracketed exposure and a long exposure with Lee Big Stopper to smoothen the water surface.
I choose the long exposure image as my base image because of the smoothen water surface.
It’s much easier to blend in other smaller elements than blending in the water surface into another image.
I want to blend in the brighter exposure to recover details from the rocks and a darker exposure to recover the highlights in the sky.
So, for exposure blending, I need 3 images: the long exposure image for the water, the +2EV for the rocks and the -2EV for the sky.
The Blending Zone
The blending zone, as I call it, is where the images meet each other in the blended image.
It’s often, but not always, the horizon where the sky meets the foreground, or where the object in the distance (or it could be anything) meets the sky.
There can be 1 or multiple blending zones depending on your image.
And the crucial part is:
Getting the blending zone right or else your image will look bizarre and hurt the eyes!
Basic Landscape Exposure Blending
This is the easiest of all.
You have 2 images, one exposed for the background and one for the foreground.
Your mission is to blend the correctly exposed part of the images into one.
I know I said 2 images. Hear me out 🙂
This is Scott’s View – a lovely place at the Scottish Border.
If you bracket your exposures, you’ll end up having an odd number of images like this one (e.g. 3, 5, 7, etc). The middle exposure is always 0EV.
If you do it manually, you’ll likely have 2 images: one for the sky and one for the foreground for this scene.
Use The Plan Above
In the planning we did earlier, we know we’re going to use 2 images: -2EV and 0EV.
The blending zone:
Where the sky meets the hills.
How do you blend?
I used free hand blending because the blending zone is straight forward enough. But you can literally use any of the 7 methods I mentioned in this tutorial.
If you want to be absolutely precise, you can blend with luminosity masks.
Step-By-Step Run Through
So here’s what you do in Photoshop.
- Stack both images in layers with the darker exposure on top.
- Create a layer mask for the top layer and fill it with black.
- Select the brush tool: color to white, opacity to 50%, medium size and hardness to 0%.
- Paint the layer mask from the top, in a fluid motion from left to right, right to left as you move down and repeat the same. Do this until you’ve gone past the blending zone.
- Repeat Step 4 but stop just above where you’ve stopped before. This is to paint more darker exposure into the sky.
- Now lower the brush opacity to 25%, color to black. Use the similar painting technique in Step 4 but start from below the blending zone up to the top of the blending zone.
- Do it a few times up and down the blending zone by alternating the white and the black brush. Lower the opacity of the brush gradually to smoothen the transition.
The “Before” is how the layer mask looks and the “After” is how the blended image looks.
It’s Like Painting Water Color
Have you painted with water color in school when you were a kid?
It’s exactly like that.
The purpose of painting left to right, right to left as you move down is to reveal the darker exposure and to create a smooth transition.
I do this with my mouse but you can use a Wacom tablet or similar if you have one.
More Complex Blending Zone
What if the blending zone is not just a simple smooth line?
These example images are bracketed exposures at 1EV interval. I also have it at 2EV interval but the darker exposure was too dark even in the sky.
You can see the horizon runs a straight line at the beginning from the left.
Then there is a tree and the sun flare.
If you look closer, the light beam of the sun extends about 1/3 into the foreground.
It’s a bit more complex than the first example but not impossible 🙂
I’ll show you the easiest way to blend this.
Exposure Blending With Luminosity Masks
I prefer to blend images like this with luminosity masks.
I’ll explain that in a minute,
but before that…
Let’s see if there’s another way:
Free hand blending: Not too bad but you need to spend some time working in the area between each sun beam. Also, I don’t want the hill to look too dark.
Blend if: Good results, but it darkens the highlight in the foreground which I don’t like.
Color range: Good results, but I couldn’t get a clean sun flare (lots of tiny flares around from 0EV).
Apply image: Actually quite like the result. The sky was still a little bright.
I could do with the image blended using Apply Image. But I’ll show you how to do it with luminosity masks because that’s just the way I do it 🙂
Want to know other ways to blend in Photoshop? Get the free cheat sheet below.
Step-By-Step Run Through
- Stack both images in layer with the darker exposure on top.
- Create a layer mask for the top layer and fill it with black.
- Click luminosity masks based on the brighter exposure (bottom layer).
- Brights 2 luminosity mask was selected because it separates the foreground and the sky more effectively than other brights masks.
- Load the selection onto the layer mask for the top layer and hide the marching ants.
- I used “painting a mask” technique to blend in the darker exposure.
“Before” is how the layer mask look and “After” is the blended image.
A couple of things to explain:
I used the brighter exposure to create luminosity masks because of the greater luminance in the sky.
This helps to create brights mask that separates the sky and the foreground better.
I only painted the layer mask in the sky and just after the blending zone. I left the rest of the foreground in the brighter exposure.
Blending More Than 2 Exposures
There will be times when you need to blend more than 2 exposures.
A good example is when you want to recover details in the objects in the foreground and the sky.
There are 3 bracketed exposure. I’ve also taken a long exposure with the Lee Big Stopper to smoothen the water surface.
For this image, I want:
The sky from the darker exposure, smoothed water surface and the brightest exposure to recover details in the foreground rocks.
Pretty greedy and demanding huh 😉
Rather than blending in the darker sky to the brightest exposure and blending in the water last, I used the long exposure as my based image to blend others in.
I’m going to use luminosity masks again to blend 🙂
Recover Details In The Foreground Rocks
I used exactly the same steps in the second example image above. Because we are recovering details from the shadows, we’ll have to subtract darker masks from a dark mask.
Just to quickly run through:
- 2 layers first, long exposure below and brightest exposure on top.
- Add a black layer mask to the top layer.
- Create luminosity masks based on the brightest exposure because of better tonal separation.
- Select darks 3 and subtract darks 5 and 6 from it.
- Load the luminosity mask onto the layer mask and start painting white on the rocks.
But the result didn’t look quite right.
Problem With Edges When The Images Are Not Aligned
I changed the blending mode of the top layer to Difference and found this.
I wasn’t sure what happened.
Essentially, my tripod must have sink into the sandy shore while I was shooting because I can see the frame of the bracketed exposures are 1-2mm lower than the long exposure.
While I was annoyed at my mistake, the problem is totally fixable.
Here’s what I did…
I select both layers and go to Edit > Auto-Align Layers. Lighter exposure blended in successfully.
Oh, by the way, I cropped the image 😀
But we’re not finished yet.
Nightmare is yet to come…
I then try blend in the darker exposure for the sky and this is what I’ve got:
Both the camera and the sun had moved after the long exposure.
The bracketed images moved downward but the sun moved down and to the right. I’ve tried Auto-Align Layers but it either aligns for the sun or the hills only.
I chose to auto-align for the sun flare because it’s less complicated to fix the edges on the hills manually.
So, this is what I did:
Make a selection of the sky and invert the selection. Now the hills and the edges are selected.
The next time is easy.
Use the brush tool, sample the color of the hills and paint over the edges.
Once again, problem solved!
How To Fixed An Image That Has Moved?
I don’t think there is one way to fix it.
You have to see how bad the images are not aligned, is it fixable or you have to re-shoot it.
Always try Auto-Align Layers to start with because this fixes most of the problems.
If that doesn’t work or only aligns part of the image, then accept that and find another way to fix the rest.
I’ve given you examples of how to blend in 3 different scenarios.
I hope these will give you some ideas to start off and you can drop me an email if you have any questions 🙂
- Exposure blending with the Gradient Tool by Brandon van Son
- Blending with luminosity masks by Jimmy McIntyre
- Using the Selection Tool to blend by Jay Goodrich