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the complete guide from
camera to process
what is exposure blending? how exposure blending works when & why to auto-bracket
ghosting & sensor bloom creating the selection refining the mask the overlay brush sensor bloom & exposure blending final adjustments to the blend 48 introduction to luminosity masks
auto-bracketing overview 10 what is raw? raw adjustments vs. auto-bracketing the versatility of bracketing how to auto-bracket
creating an alpha channel highlight vs. shadow selections refining luminosity selections creating the luminosity mask transitions with luminosity masks finishing touches final thoughts
bracketing: step-by-step manual bracketing final tips on bracketing editing in photoshop evaluating the brackets preparing to blend the blending workflow
71 72 73 about christopher other ebooks copyright information
brushwork and halos 26 advanced blending
when to use refined masks
what is exposure blending?
Exposure blending is one of the most powerful ways to create a stunning photograph. As you’ve probably noticed, it can be difficult to capture an entire landscape accurately (especially those with a sky) because your camera sensor is limited to one aperture and one shutter speed at a time – it’s not possible to have two different settings within the same frame. You’ll often note that your photos rarely live up to what you actually saw – exposure blending is one way to overcome the limitations of your camera and photograph a landscape with the full tonal range that you see in the field. Simply put, in order to have a well-exposed landscape you’ll need one image exposed for the brightest tones in your photo (typically the sky) and another for the darkest tones (the ground, usually) when the lighting isn’t suitable to capture it all in one exposure – think of sunsets and how differently the natural light level is when you compare the sky to the ground. Once you have your two extremes, you’ll blend them together to make one perfectly exposed landscape. Exposure blending can also be referred to as HDR blending in the sense that we’re expanding the tonal range, and this method will create a more natural looking image than tone-mapping with automated software. With exposure/ HDR blending, you have much more control over the end result by manually choosing exactly where you want to blend your exposures together - and at what strength you want the blend to be. It’s a method that is entirely customizable to your scene, which will produce a more pleasing result.
The image where the foreground is exposed well (slower shutter speed) has an extremely overexposed sky. The range of your exposures will depend entirely on how bright your highlights are and how dark the shadows appear. As you can see.a scene with many shadows and highlights .we will get to that later on. a cloudy day will have very little difference in exposure. a middle exposure (one that’s been light metered for the entire image.how exposure blending works In addition to these two photos on the extreme ends. Notice how the image exposed for the ground (left) has the water slightly overexposed. while the photo exposed for the sky (faster shutter speed) has the foreground in complete shadow. I don’t want you to be concerned with the “how” part just yet . . finding a middle ground between your fastest and longest exposure) is good to have as well for any middle ground elements you need to blend in. An example of this would be the water in the below images. you’ll need to combine different shutter speeds into one image. the gap between your fast and slow exposure may be so great. and the image meters for the sky (right) has some noticeable shadows. The two different exposures to the left show how vast the differences can be in order to capture the full tonal range of the scene. the setting sun caused some problems in exposure. For example.it’s not uncommon to have 5 or more photos of the same scene at your disposal. but a golden hour image may have 5 or more stops to your complete tonal range. that you end up skipping the optimal exposure for those elements that fall in between the two. At times. A middle exposure was needed to balance this out. For intricate images with vast tonal needs . For now. I needed to combine these two images (in addition to my base exposure for the water) to get the result shown to the right. To get a proper exposure. the take-away point is that to get a full tonal range.
1. when & why to auto-bracket .
and then will automatically expose two more – one directly after the other .you’ll still have to adjust your settings manually to capture more of a range in exposure than two stops (or whatever your camera’s auto-bracketing limit is). This allows you to capture three sequential images of different exposures without having to adjust your settings manually – it’s very handy. For more intense differences in lighting .auto-bracketing overview To get three different exposures of the same scene. Auto-bracketing is a common feature with digital SLRs.as you’ll often find for sunrises and sunsets . The difference in exposure will depend on your camera and chosen settings. and helps to streamline your workflow when you’re presented with a wide tonal range that one exposure can not contain. I’ll explain how to do this soon. you don’t have to calculate your settings and manually input a different shutter speed. . This is where the term “auto-bracketing” comes from since you’re bracketing your images off automatically by capturing the same scene at different exposures within “X” amount of stops.of a slower and faster shutter speed than your base. which allows you to capture one photo exposed normally (your base image). but first I want to show you why you should auto-bracket instead of adjusting just one RAW file. but usually 2 full stops is the maximum increase/decrease from your base photo that you can use autobracketing for.
it is instantly compressed . RAW does have its limitations however . but this is not a true exposure adjustment and will not recover any data for you. In the example images. Since you’re working with the unprocessed digital “negative”. A website or email it to others without special viewing software. the exposure is artificially is no recovery of data. With a film negative. RAW file is just that .at least. Figure 2 shows how much detail is recovered by reducing the exposure by two full stops in RAW editing.what is raw? For brevity. shorter amounts of time. but you can take that RAW file and turn it into a universal image. thus limiting your reduced simply by adding a layer of black tones .if you adjust the exposure more than two stops beyond the original exposure. and the photo looks noticeably worse than the RAW adjustment. you most to notice the quality to deteriorate. In Figure 1. When you take a photo in JPG format. Figure 3 displays the same reduction in exposure (two stops) for the JPG version. for a limited amount of stops. A RAW file will typically give you two stops of recovery capability .and this compression processing capabilities.it does not exposure. Since the JPG file holds no additional data. you can adjust the exposure by exposing the negative onto your paper for longer or . the sky is noticeably overexposed . such as JPG or TIFF. RAW allows you to do the same give you the power to shoot blindly with no regard to You can artificially adjust the exposure of a JPG image in post process. RAW is preferable to JPG in many ways.there converting it into a more universal file format for display likely will not recover any additional data and will start .the “raw” state of your image that you can’t really use as a photo. you can will take detail away from your photo.a common occurrence. most notably because of image quality.you can’t upload a RAW file to your to recover these blown highlights. and it is always best to achieve a proper image in-camera. In contrast. we can see the true benefit of RAW when trying see that while the foreground is exposed accurately. but all the information you need to create a photo is there. a RAW file is the digital equivalent of a film negative before it is printed onto paper . you can recover some blown highlights or blocked shadows by adjusting the exposure of your RAW file before or print.
two full stops in RAW before you start to see damage – depending on what you’re photographing. While RAW is a great. dropping the exposure in RAW. The more data that is retained. When compared to Figure 2 . the more detailed your image will be. it’s more of a “last effort” way to adjust your exposure when you have no other alternative. and is worth the extra effort of autobracketing. auto-bracketing With RAW being such a versatile format for editing. taking three (or more) images. Typically.you can see that more detail was retained in the sky that RAW could not recover. 5 or even 10 stops difference between your brightest and darkest photos. Auto-bracketing is superior to RAW for the following reasons: I’m going to compare a scene where I underexposed my photo by two full stops using auto-bracketing with my camera vs. You may need more range in your exposure than what RAW can offer you. 1. as well as saving on disk space – I thought RAW was supposed to be a magical exposure recovery tool? It’s always best to capture the optimal exposure for a scene in-camera simply because you’ll have more data in an actual photo than an image adjusted artificially – even if it’s in RAW. why is there a need to auto-bracket when you can simply adjust the exposure in RAW and import all those exposures into one file? It would save you the time of setting up a tripod.raw adjustments vs. Taking the overexposed version that was adjusted in RAW from the previous page and zooming in on the recovered sky (Figure 1). you can only adjust your exposure +/.the photo that I took two stops lower with my auto-bracketing . you can see that there is still some overexposed areas. you may need 3. So while RAW provides a great recovery tool. low-damage. . it’s still better to capture the image with your camera to make sure you have the highest quality photo. 2. accurate way to adjust your exposure. or if you only need a very minor exposure adjustment. Adjusting your exposure in-camera will always give you a superior quality when compared to RAW adjustments.
blending an extended exposure that captures moving clouds with an image that shows stationary grass that would otherwise be windswept if taken at the same shutter speed as the sky: the possibilities are endless. overcast skies). it’s still a file format that has many benefits over JPG and should be used when you bracket.for a total range of four stops. bringing your total tonal range up to eight stops (assuming you stop increments).for example. you’ll typically be taking three images – your base image. It’s a fantastic way to save an otherwise unusable photo. you can increase or decrease your exposures by two stops in post process. and another two stops time and ability to auto-bracket your shoot three auto-bracket images in two. two stops faster. Not only is there more data in RAW format. if you shoot in RAW format. the process I go through to capture those bracketed images to later blend in post process.the versatility of bracketing Although RAW can not replace autobracketing. but if you have the landscape for exposure blending. You can recover blown as a no-damage way to dodge and burn full stops to your range on both ends of just for combining bright skies with Blending exposures using one RAW file is best for those candid shots where tripod but need to correct some blown highlights. but you’ll greatly increase your tonal range for editing. your landscapes. That safety net will add another two your bracket. use it Now that you know why we auto-bracket for exposure blending. . Another popular use of this technique is to blend different long exposures together . or to blend a brighter foreground with a darker sky (like you didn’t have enough time to set up a under stormy. or simply want to brighten/ darken parts of your image – like in wedding or action photography. However. Exposure blending and bracketing is not dark grounds – you can use it in many different ways. it’s time to go over the in-camera workflow.highlights in water reflections. this is the method which will give you the highest quality output with the largest tonal range. If you auto-bracket in JPG format. one taken slower .
With that in mind. giving you a solid base to edit your image in post process. how to auto-bracket The most important part to digital exposure blending is to auto-bracket the correct way. You can’t create a stunning photo in the digital dark room – you can only improve upon an alreadyproper image. like this example. I’ll also explain how to bracket your images manually for those instances where autobracketing is too limiting for your environment.2. I’m going to show you how to execute an auto-bracket the correct way so that you can capture images with an outstanding tonal range. .
and your tripod head. my least exposed image – the blown highlights Follow the instructions in your camera manual to turn on your auto-bracketing. the exposure and NOT your aperture – otherwise you’ll the sky. The middle photo is my longest exposure – horrible for my foreground rocks (as seen in the top image) nicely. I also lock my . Solid legs with a in place. When finished. but it eliminated the blocked shadows from To the right. Finally. or if a strong wind comes along. review the histogram to make sure that you have the proper tonal range to work with – meaning that it indicates you captured one image with no blown highlights and another with no blocked shadows. for the center of the sun) and has given a nice starburst effect to the sun as well. I prefer to use a remote cable release so that I’m not actually touching my camera. Even the slightest movement can alter your alignment. making it more difficult to exposure blend in post process. of course. Switch into aperture priority mode so that your camera will only change your shutter speed to alter have inconsistent depths of field. in the first two photos have been eliminated (except. adjust your focus. Place your camera on your tripod and adjust your focus properly. but to make sure it stays there when you change your settings. lens.bracketing: step-by-step It’s very important that you have a sturdy tripod – one that’s capable of withstanding the weight of your camera. Out of habit. making it nearly impossible to exposure blend accurately. This is usually a simple process with a few clicks and adjustments. which can mirror which can also cause unwanted vibrations. Please read my focusing workflow as this is a very important step to ensure that you have consistent images. good grip are imperative to not only hold your camera lead to camera shake. Press your shutter button and take three consecutive images. The top image is my base image – one that has been metered on average for the entire frame (evaluative). you’ll see the results of auto-bracketing for one particular beach scene.
Check your histogram for any blown highlights – if you still Auto-bracketing is a great benefit because it allows you to However. When this happens. you may find that your camera’s auto-bracketing system is too limiting for the tonal range you’re working with – usually only +/. The aperture you choose to use should always remain the same throughout your images – instead. until they disappear.manual bracketing At times. of your settings. never change your aperture or ISO to meter your image (in aperture priority mode) and make a note ensure that you have smooth exposure blending. you’ll have to forgo the auto-bracketing and do it manually. keep increasing your shutter speed – continue to decrease your shutter speed (overexposed) and check your histogram until you see that your unrecoverable shadows are fully exposed. If you’re shooting a highcontrast scene with many highlights and dark shadows (such as a sunset or sunrise). . Take one image. Repeat the steps above regarding how to set up your tripod and your focus. Instead of turning on your auto-bracketing. then adjust your shutter speed two stops faster (underexposed) to capture another image. just During this process. which is quite simple to do. it’s only a time-saving feature – auto-bracketing does nothing more than what you can do manually. see some overexposed areas.two full stops. Repeat this step for your shadows as well Switch into full manual mode (your instructions will tell you how to do this) and set your aperture and shutter speed to what it was when you metered. you’ll be adjusting your shutter speed for your different exposures. capture three exposures without having to adjust your settings. four stops (two in each direction) will most likely not give you the full tonal range where all your shadows and highlights are recovered.
unless there’s a reason for it (like a moving object you want to capture). This will help minimize any blurring or camera movement. . When capturing your photos. Additionally. The clarity and quality of your image may suffer if you increase your ISO too much as explained here. You’re using a tripod (no risk for camera shake) so there’s no need to sacrifice image quality for a faster shutter speed. Always set your ISO to 100. use a remote shutter release so that you’re not actually touching the camera. take special care when you’re adjusting your settings as you may accidentally re-adjust your tripod/camera in between photos.final tips on bracketing Always shoot in RAW format. and also an all-around higher quality image. preferably RAW + a low-res JPG for quick preview purposes. This will give you the most versatility in editing.
editing in photoshop .3.
the next image is my overexposed bracket (exposed for the ground).the top image is my middle (base) exposure. you can see that the areas marked in blue are underexposedin other words.and the reason why I exposure blend. Once you’ve captured three or more RAW images of the same scene. there is no data to work with as-is so I need to recover it through blending different exposures. For the example here. and finally my last image is my underexposed bracket (exposed to retain sky detail). In the top screenshot. open all three files in the Photoshop RAW editor so you can see them at once. and it’s an overall uninteresting and dull photograph that does not represent the stunning scene my eyes witnessed. The foreground is in dark shadow.blending the exposures together in Adobe® Photoshop® software to make one complete image. I’ve clicked on my base exposure which shows you what is captured using evaluative metering . By turning on the shadow clipping indicator (bottom image). . I use screenshots from Photoshop. the sky is washed out. I have stacked three brackets . For this guide however. This can be achieved in any program that uses layers.evaluating the brackets Now I get to see the results of my careful preparation and in-camera execution .
Let’s say you don’t have a bracket to work with. This is a typical result when shooting scenes with a high tonal range .you’ll have more data to work with if you use an image that had its exposure adjusted in-camera than compared to the same adjustment made in RAW. With RAW editing. and just have one RAW file to adjust (like the image above). you can adjust the exposure slider to recover these highlights and shadows.a base image with blown highlights and boxed shadows that have gone beyond what your camera can capture in a single frame. the overexposed areas are now shown in red. I’d overexpose the sky further. but as you previously learned this is not ideal in terms of quality . If I tick the highlight clipping indicator at the top right corner of my histogram. . and vice versa – the only way to recover the full tonal range of this image is to blend different exposures together.The same method can be used for the highlights. You would still need to go through the exposure blending workflow since your base image has both over and underexposed pixels. If I tried to expose this image more to recover the shadows.
I’ll end up warping and cropping these sections out in process (shown later). and I can tell that I’ve recovered all the data I can and am ready to proceed. I repeat the same process for my shortest exposure (fastest shutter speed). Except for a few rogue pixels .so I have a solid tonal range to work with between these two brackets. I’ll first look at my longest exposure (above).my shadows have been exposed enough to my liking.I can determine if I need to perform any exposure adjustments in RAW to recover more detail. Much interest has been recovered.indicated by red . By evaluating the outside brackets . I’m ignoring the blown out sky because that is not the focus of this particular bracket. I would adjust the affected bracket in RAW by sliding my exposure slider enough to bring back the details. and stitching With the clipping indicators still turned on. . I would have done a manual bracket in the field as described earlier. it’s easy to see why exposure blending can greatly enhance If I did have large areas of lost data. I want to ensure that I’ve captured the full tonal range of my scene. which is exposed to recover the shadows (blue). Ideally. but at times you still need to fine-tune your exposure in RAW.Before I go any further with my RAW adjustments. There are no blown highlights in the sky .my fastest and slowest exposures . My main concern here are the under and overexposed areas within the scene itself.rather just black areas filling the void where the edges aren’t flush. rarely produces an image with perfectly straight edges. which is exposed to recover the sky detail. I should note that these brackets are the result of a panostitch. your photography. The blue chunks you see along the borders of the image are not part of the original scene .which I can easily clone out later in Photoshop . and you can begin to visualize how your final image will look once these three exposures are blended together. When you compare this image to the base exposure on the previous page.
Your top layer should be your darkest image and the bottom layer should be the brightest. You’ll notice that your photos are open in three separate windows . with each image on its own layer.we’re going to combine them into the same file for blending. Press CTRL + C to copy the image and switch over to your brightest photo (longest exposure). and so on. click Open to bring them into Photoshop. If you executed your bracketing properly and used a tripod.preparing to blend From here. Click the “Select All” icon to have your adjustments apply to all your images – except for any adjustments you make to your exposure. Create a new layer and press CTRL + V to paste the middle exposure on top. This helps to cut down on your editing time and keeps all your images uniform. you should have no alignment problems. . you should perform any RAW editing you usually do. such as black and white conversion. Repeat this step for your underexposed image (fastest shutter speed) so that you have all three photos in one file and on their own separate layers. With all three images still selected. Select your base exposure file and click CTRL + A so that you see the “marching ants” along the edge of your frame. white balance adjustments.
Make sure your brush is set to 100% opacity. and with a 0% hardness level. and ensure that your foreground color is set to black. but I need to cut a hole in both my top and middle layer in order to show the bottom layer . and background set to white. selected. I’m going to be adding layer masks to create one image using multiple exposures – it’s much like HDR. With your new layer mask the brush work you previously did and bring back the layer you are masking. While the base layer has a brighter foreground than my top layer. First. Also note that you can always switch your brush color to white if you want to reverse Now select your brush tool by pressing B. it’s not bright enough to capture a solid tonal range. only with a more realistic appearance and completely customizable. I want to combine the water and ground exposure of the middle layer with the sky of my top layer. I’ll add a layer mask to blend in my sky. so your can not see anything beneath a nontransparent layer unless it’s masked. layers are stacked.remember. Click the Add Layer Mask icon located at the bottom of your layers palette. My goal is to blend in the bottom layer for the foreground. What I’m basically doing here is creating an imaginary – and reversible – hole in the top layer so that I can see the middle layer. adjust your brush to a suitable size – for this image. Instead of applying it directly to the layer. I don’t brush over the sky).the blending workflow For the majority of this tutorial. Since I only want the ground and water to poke through. I’m using a mask so that I can adjust or delete this hole later on.e. . I just brush over that particular area (i.
Since I used a 0% hardness. The brush opacity and hardness allows you to fully customize your layer mask to fit your content. this can be beneficial or counterproductive. A brush with 100% hardness will give you a very sharp (or “hard”) transition – good for small areas or sharp horizons. and how differently the image looks when blended with a longer exposure. you can view the mask on your layer and see exactly where you brushed.In the side-by-side comparison to the left. When you reduce the opacity – let’s say to 50% – you’re only allowing 50% of your bottom layer to be seen and 50% of your top layer to remain. I’m starting to see an overall improvement in the tonal range. you can see where the brush strokes were applied to create that “hole”. When set at 100%. This allows you to blend just the right amount between exposures for the perfect balance of tones. allowing the bottom layer to be seen completely. you’re basically cutting a hole in your layer. . allowing the layer beneath to be visible. so you should adjust your hardness to accommodate your scene. you can see how the base exposure is now visible on the top layer. Another great tool you can adjust is your brush opacity – or transparency. By pressing the ALT key and clicking on the layer mask in your layers palette. I usually start with 0% hardness for larger areas and readjust as necessary. the edges of the painted areas are soft and transitional depending on your image. When looking at the bottom image. but generally doesn’t look realistic when you’re trying to blend tones gradually.
Press X to switch your foreground and background color . If I use a 100% opacity brush. This will allow me to blend these two layers together gradually.an underexposure for the sky. I add another layer mask and brush the foreground rocks and tree line with a 100% opacity brush set at 0% hardness (right). but the foreground is still far too underexposed for my liking. I have to choose between either the base exposure (too dark) and the overexposed bracket I used for the foreground (too bright). In the end. you can see that the water and rocks along the edge are a bit too dark and appear distracting. You can always reverse the masking you perform by inverting your foreground brush color.My seascape is starting to improve. displaying a bit of each and create a more harmonious tonal range with a smoother transition between layers. I have three exposures in one to create a well-balanced scene .brush white to lessen your layer transparency. When I zoom in on the shoreline (bottom right). Rather than choose between the two. I can adjust my brush opacity level to a lower percentage. . the base exposure for the middle ground water. Note the changes in the histogram each time I blend a layer. By selecting the base exposure. and the overexposure for the foreground rocks and shoreline. Often you’ll find that using 100% opacity may cause too sharp of a transition on some areas and look rather unnatural. and black to increase it.
you can highlight where you have masked by toggling the “\” key. slowly fading away as you approach the horizon line.in other words. Using a low-opacity brush is not only useful for working along edges.say 80% . . and between any pair of layers. which indicates that your brush is not at 100% strength. for a truly customized blend. I could have masked it with a lower opacity brush . you’ll notice that this lower opacity brush will be varying shades of grey.gradually dissolving my base layer so that the longer exposure underneath starts to show for more accurate blending. If my foreground had been exposed too much to my liking. The top two images show that the transition between layers is hard and abrupt (top right). but not at full strength. When you compare the left-side images. With a brush set at 30% opacity and set to black. which will illuminate your brush strokes in red. If you look at the layer mask by pressing ALT and clicking on it in the layers palette. The bottom mask is now gradual and soft. I will paint over my mask with a black brush. which explains the unnatural look to my photo (top left). I select my overexposure mask and begin to paint the areas I think are still too underexposed. you can see how natural and harmonious the layer blending appears now this change of appearance is mirrored when you compare the two masks on the right-hand side. You can apply this method to any part of your image.To enhance my image and make the transition smoother. In Photoshop.and retain a small bit of darkness from my base layer. I can “layer” my masking . but for blending as a whole. I will mask the water’s edge at a lower opacity level . By brushing over the area several times with a low-opacity brush.
and completely customizable. Try to avoid the temptation to rush through your work. which produced this unnatural “glow” . This requires a finer brush to mask these specific areas. it can be a tedious job to work around structures and other prominent subjects that protrude between layers .the brush I used was large and soft in order to quickly blend areas together.you can take your brush and address halos individually and with 100% accuracy rather than rely on the global adjustments of software or the fixed blend from filters. it’s time to address the smaller areas .such as trees and buildings. the blends are entirely reversible. This requires you to return to the smaller details and edges of your image and work those for a flush and accurate blend. Halos are the result of transitions that are too general . Now that I have generally blended our three exposures.brushwork and halos When blending your layers with the brush tool. By using layer masks. one of the top benefits of exposure blending over HDR software and using a GND filter is the ability to selectively blend exposures together. This is one example of where manual blending outshines HDR software and GND filters . but they can appear anywhere that you’ve added a mask to. and the treeline in the upper left corner where it meets the sky. as seen in the mask in the bottom image. You’ll usually find halos where the sky exposure meets the ground exposure (as seen to the right).identified by the red arrows in the top image. . the blend wasn’t customized to the distinct contours of my landscape.a halo. As a result.such as the rocks in the water. After all. and remove what we call “halos” .
my foreground brush color is set to white and with 100% opacity. I’m going to blend my overexposed layer with my base layer to increase the exposure of this rock.zooming in only far enough to have my subject fill the screen.To illustrate the importance of taking this extra step. With this closer view. I have a noticeable halo surrounding the edges (bottom left). Since my brush size is small. Despite my best efforts. . which is isolated in the water and looks unnaturally dark for my landscape. the hardness level is still set at 0%. With my brush set to 100% opacity and 0% hardness. Since I’m removing the layer mask of my overexposure. When I zoom in further to see this in greater detail (right) and press the “\” key. you can see how my highlighted brush strokes spill over onto the water. I brush over the rock as carefully as I can . which will make my mask flush to the rock’s edge. I can use a smaller brush and remove this overflow.
begin to brush around the area where the transition takes place. With a very low opacity brush (around 10% to start). . You’ll often see this along the horizon line where the sky meets ground. there should be no evidence of brush strokes or sharp transition of tones. The top two images show a mask that was applied quickly. Use 0% hardness. and experiment with different brush sizes to make the transition appear smooth and gradual . This will allow you to blend these two exposures for a more gradual appearance. much like I did for the shoreline previously. After you perform your detailed brushwork. At times you’ll find that even the most accurate brushwork can make your scene appear unnatural and distracting as it creates a hard transition between tonal ranges. create a history snapshot by clicking on the camera icon on your history palette. you can see how a wellplaced mask affects the blending. while the bottom row displays more accurate brushwork that hugs the contours of the rocks.in other words.When compared side-by-side. This will allow you to revert back to this particular point in your editing in case you wish to start over.
When blending multiple exposures together in Photoshop using layer masks, you’ll eventually run into a situation where refining your mask with freehand brushwork becomes too difficult and time-consuming. This is especially true for intricate, jagged horizons that are interrupted by trees, rocks, and other elements – such as the trees to the left. Brushing over the detailed contours of this tree line would require hours working on a pixel-by-pixel basis, which is simply unnecessary if you know how to refine a selection.
The following advanced blending workflow will show you how to combine the longer exposure (+2 EV) of the trees with the faster exposure (-2 EV) for the sky, which eliminates all the blocked shadows and blown highlights and recovers any lost data from this dynamic tonal range. Most importantly, this step-by-step guide will show you how to achieve this seamless result by creating a refined selection that automatically masks these two exposures together with great accuracy. By exploring some of the advanced features of Photoshop, you can create a customized layer mask that instinctively hugs every contour for a truly seamless HDR blend of exposures.
when to use refined masks
Before I get into the specific workflow, I want to highlight when and why you should forgo the freehand brushwork method and rely on Photoshop to select your masking. If you would rather just skip ahead to the step-bystep workflow, you can jump to Creating the Selection. You can always come back and read this section if you have any “why and when” questions as you go through each step. Partial blends are a fast and easy way to have A large aspect to the freehand brush method of blending exposures is what I call “partial blends”, where you use a low-opacity brush and paint over the areas you want to blend together gradually – or rather, not 100% transparent. The result is a layer mask of different values, with a certain percentage of your top exposure transparent so that the exposure underneath can be seen to a certain degree – with the goal being to find a happy medium between the two full control over how your exposures (layers) interact with one another by being able to manually adjust the opacity of the brush you use to blend – and for most situations, this method works well. However, for jagged or serrate horizons (such as mountain ranges, tree lines, and other subjects that disrupt a flat horizon line), partial blends can present several side effects that detract from the success of your final image. for a natural appearance and a more complete tonal range. You can also use the partial blend method in order to create a gradientlike appearance of tones where you gradually transition from one exposure to the next – much like the effect achieved with a GND filter. The example images from page 22 (also shown to the right) show a partial blend executed well.
When I do a partial blend of my example image below in an effort to gradually combine the -2 EV sky and the +2 EV tree line, you’ll notice that the tree line gradually gets darker as I approach the sky. This is where the freehand brush method falls short, and more refined blending is necessary. Since the trees are interwoven into the sky line, I have to brush over these tree tops in order to blend in the -2 EV sky, which causes the darkened tree line (top). My only other option here would be to do the reverse – brush over the tree line to blend in the +2 EV layer, which causes some unnatural haloing around the trees (bottom). When attempting to blend two exposures together with a large, lowopacity brush instead of using a refined mask, you generally have to choose between these two side-effects if your horizon line is not flat – either darkened tree tops to compensate for the -2 EV sky, or haloing to compensate for the +2 EV trees. You can’t blend the exposure of the trees with the exposure for the sky seamlessly by using a partial blend, so this is why pixel-by-pixel brushwork is often turned to in order to blend in each tree branch individually – incredibly time-consuming, but the only way to create a truly customized blend. This is where advanced blending techniques come in handy because rather than resorting to either a partial blend (shown on the right) or tedious brushwork, you can render a customized, contoured selection at full opacity. Also, partial blends with a large brush present other issues besides this gradient-like effect on tones. If your layers aren’t uniform in alignment, then ghosting will appear – the partial visibility of an element that is present in one exposure, but not the other.
more specific blending at 100% opacity is necessary. partial blends would produce ghosting – and thus.ghosting & sensor bloom Even the most careful in-the-field execution of your brackets can still produce inconsistencies between each exposure. . and Adobe’s image alignment feature doesn’t always help either. and moving clouds. and not due to bracketing errors in the field. so partial blending is something you should avoid when alignment isn’t uniform. A common cause for ghosting is elements that move within your frame – such as the fluctuating tide. In these instances. swaying tree branches. elements may have shifted. you can forgo a partial blend and choose exactly what you want to mask. By making a custom selection. Even the most sophisticated panostitching software with manual links can produce minor discrepancies between each exposure. When blending different exposures together. and at 100% opacity. Panoramic stitches are another example of when images may not be uniform in alignment.
selecting each individual crevice to mask out. even with perfectlyaligned layers. such as the darkened pine trees against the sunset sky. and this difference will be apparent when the exposures are combined. but it took several hours of detailed work. Admittedly. This overexposed light spilling the trees are smaller. there’s a more automated way to select your edges by working on specific channels and using your overlay brush. The only way to rectify the blending issues with partial blends is to go in with a very small brush and work on an almost pixel-by-pixel basis. The +2 EV trees were rendered considerably smaller in size due to the overexposed sky. beyond where you would normally see the light. but . Sensor bloom is a common occurrence with exposure blending – especially with trees – since many scenes that require blending are taken during the golden hours with foreground subjects backlit by the sun. Even with a perfectly-contoured selection with 100% opacity masking.Sensor bloom occurs when light bleeds – or overlaps – onto elements in front of it. Rather. I’ll still have an overlap to address as the trees in the -2 EV image are larger than they are for now I want you to keep in mind what sensor blooming is and why this overlap would cause ghosting for partial blends. you can see how sensor bloom affects the tree line. When you compare the difference between -2 EV (exposed for the sky) and +2 EV (exposed for the trees). around and in between the trees in my +2 EV image has given the illusion that in +2 EV. which is seen as ghosting for partial blends since the underexposed trees were rendered larger. I’ll discuss how to correct this later (which is rather simple). I’ve done this in the past (with great success by the way). This is especially visible in high-contrast scenes.
creating the selection As a quick overview. making it easy to identify which one to use for a selection. I’m going to look for the channel that has the most contrast. The strong contrast will serve as a way for Photoshop to detect a hard. The typical approach for making a selection would be to use your magnetic lasso tool or select a specific color/tonal range. you’ll have to re-visit the mask and contour it yourself with your brush tool. I’m going to create a high-contrast scene by selecting one channel from the layer I wish to mask. contoured selection. . Often. Unfortunately with these methods. which I can then use to add a customized mask. Here we can see each channel on their own layer. For my image here – and for most cases – it’s the blue channel as the value disparity between tree and sky is higher here than the other channels. which defeats the purpose of automated selections. Once you have all your images aligned as individual layers in Photoshop (see Preparing to Blend). Since the goal here is to create the most contrast between what we want to mask and what we don’t for easy edge detection. too much guesswork is left to Photoshop which makes them highly ineffective for refining a selection destined for exposure blending. select your top layer (fastest exposure) and click the Channels tab to open up each individual channel for this particular layer.
Since I’m going to be making adjustments onto my blue channel directly in order to increase the contrast. the changes I make here won’t be apparent when I switch back to the Layers tab later. Now that this channel is hidden underneath the others. I don’t want that to be visible on the image itself. . I drag my blue channel down to the “create new channel” icon to copy the channel (or just right-click and select “duplicate channel”).
which will help Photoshop detect an accurate edge for selection. Whatever method you use to increase the contrast. I click Image > Adjustments > Curves to bring up the curves tool dialog box. and the tree pixels closer to pure black. and slightly increase the input of my black point to 4. We’ll be refining the selection later so a perfect contrast of black/white isn’t necessary – this step is to simply create a cleaner canvas for easier edge detection. telling Photoshop to reassign most of those grey pixels in my sky to pure white (255). This compresses my tonal range quite a bit. If you increase the contrast too much. or vice versa. make sure not to compress the tonal range to the point where the edges of your future selection are redefined. click the “load channel as selection” icon to create your selection. push the sky pixels closer to pure white.Now I’m ready to increase the contrast between sky and tree. but I like using the curves tool as it gives me direct control over my tones. . Notice how the channel selected is “Blue copy” – the duplicate channel I just added. When finished. There are several ways to go about increasing the contrast here. you can cause the black pixels to bleed onto white. I take my white point and slide it over to 107 on my x-axis (input). What I want to do here is eliminate that grey from the sky and slightly darken the tree line – in other words.
What this will do is create a custom selection based on the value of each pixel which we can then apply as a layer mask. and pixels closer to pure black (0) will be selected less. Click the “add layer mask” icon to apply the selection as a mask. and ALT+click the actual mask to see it on your image. Note: I have hidden my base layer here (+/-0 EV) in order to access the longer exposure underneath (+2 EV) since that is the image I want for my tree line. . After the selection has been made. In other words. Now we can see the result of this entire process – a completely customized and contoured layer mask for incredibly accurate blending. pure white will be 100% selected. pixels closer to pure white (255) will have a stronger selection. so I’ll apply the selection to a layer mask so we can see the result (right). I’m only incorporating the middle ground from this base exposure (detailed here) so once I’ve finished my masking here. and the opacity of each selection for the varying shades of grey in between these two points will depend on where they fall on the value scale. This will make more sense visually. switch back to the layers palette and make sure your top layer (or whichever layer you want to apply your mask to) is active. pure black will not be selected at all. I’ll go back and activate this layer and paint in the middle ground water using the freehand brushwork method described earlier.
I still need to refine it by reassigning all those grey tones on the mask to either pure white or pure black. While the general outline of the mask has been established. which can cause ghosting and an overall flattening of tones. and also see those shades of grey where the partial selections were made. The goal here is a pure white-and-black mask that is contoured to the unique horizon line. grey translates to a partial blend of exposures – which is something I don’t want here. When blending exposures in this manner. which is where the tones closest to middle grey are on my mask.refining the mask I’m going to zoom out a bit so you can see the entire frame. If I select the layer to see how this mask interacts with the blending of exposures. you can see how flat the tones are towards the center of my image. It means that I’ve only partially blended my layers. all the hard work has been done – the borders of the mask have been outlined. Now I just need to fill those areas in. At this point. .
everything but the sky – and fill it with 100% black. You’ll end up with a mask similar to the result below – almost perfect. By selecting my lasso tool (not magnetic) and making sure my mask is active instead of my layer. I trace around the area where I want everything to be pure black (fully masked). I’ll refine the edges with my brush tool. . It’s more important to only select the pixels you absolutely want to mask as opposed to getting as close to the edge as possible. but with a slight border of various grey tones to refine. Afterwards. and click OK. so don’t worry about leaving some breathing room. make sure your layer mask is still active and click Edit > Fill.I’m going to go back and re-select my mask by ALT+clicking it so I can see it on my photo. What I’m going to do here is quickly select most of the pixels I want to be pure black – basically. Once selected. We’ll be refining the edge later (which is an easy process). Select black as your fill color with 100% opacity.
I paint over the sky with a white overlay brush to make sure that all those pixels are 100% white (not The easiest way to achieve this is by using the overlay brush. I like to make several passes over the area. switching back and forth from black to white as I brush to keep things on an even keel. and then focus in on the tree line to refine the mask selection (image on next page). so make sure to keep an eye on your brush work and take note of any changes in size. change your Mode to Overlay from the drop-down menu and change your opacity to 50%. masked at all). but feel free to This can alter the size and contours of your newly-customized mask. and a white overlay brush will push those pixels towards white. which translates to flatter tones and possible ghosting in my image due to partial blending. the more chance it will bleed onto the other. What I want to do is fill in this area with pure black. experiment with the opacity here to what suits your specific needs. Now it’s just a matter of brushing over your canvas and pushing pixels towards their extremes – either pure white or pure black. For this particular image. Now you can see why it was important to create contrast in our channel – not just to get a defined edge for detection. . everything south of the outline should be filled with black. and background set to white. What this will do is take any pixel that is a higher value than middle grey and lighten (screen) it towards pure white. it will reassign any pixel lower than middle grey and darken (multiply) it towards to pure black. Keep in mind though that the more passes you make of the same color (black or white). but to also push those grey pixels that were “on the fence” one way or the other. On the brush toolbar.the overlay brush As you can see. I switch over to my brush tool and make sure my foreground is set to black. and everything north should be white – all those grey values will be pushed to either pure black or pure white. which will make the overlay brush all the more effective. In other words. This is where I typically start with in terms of brush strength. and inversely. This is why I like to alternate back and forth from black to white as it helps to make sure one color doesn’t dominate over the other. A black overlay brush will push grey pixels to black. this is filled in quite nicely – except for the top of the rock down in the corner. Even pixels that are near 100% white will be affected by a black overlay brush if those pixels are on the border and vice versa – and this change becomes more dramatic the stronger your opacity is. It’s various shades of grey.
Let’s take a look at the results to see how this mask interacts with the layer exposed for the tree line (bottom image). this blend is not. . However. Now I can see the refined layer mask that I’ve been working towards – completely customized to the unique horizon line of my image. Here you can see a common issue with this method and exposure blending in general – inconsistent layers. since we have a custom layer mask already in place. this sensor bloom quite simple to fix.After making several passes with an alternating black and white overlay brush. While my mask is successful. and something that would take many hours to create by a freehand brush. my mask is looking much cleaner (top image).
This transition between light and dark is overpowering. which has all blocked shadows in the foreground recovered. This ghosting can happen for various reasons. The software I used for panostitching rendered the -2 EV stitch slightly different than the +2 EV stitch. and this disparity affects how the mask interacts with these layers.sensor bloom & exposure blending As mentioned earlier in this tutorial. so it’s spilling over onto the overexposed sky of this layer. Another issue we see here is simple inconsistencies between panoramic stitches – those ghosting areas identified earlier. Sensor bloom is why you see the glowing edge of light around the trees – the mask is larger than the +2 EV trees. are masked in with a selection based on the -2 EV trees. sensor bloom occurs when the physical area of an object is reduced in apparent size due to bright light sources pouring in from behind. The trees of +2 EV. but usually affects only a small area of your frame. This can be seen when I highlight the layer mask. where I based my mask on) and the image exposed for the trees (+2 EV) is quite different. and the overexposed light of the sky in my bottom layer (+2 EV) is bleeding over onto the trees – making them appear smaller. . which is slightly larger. The difference in size between the image exposed for the sky (-2 EV.
the +2 EV “ground” layer I just duplicated. However. . I then brush over the tree line edges with a soft brush (0% hardness) and at 100% opacity. with a size large enough to cover the areas I want to correct. Making sure that the duplicate “ground” layer is on top of the original and active. fill in to cover the white areas from sensor bloom. the selection I created for the “sky” layer mask (-2 EV) is too big when placed over the “ground” layer exposed for the trees. I select my clone stamp tool and choose a stamp source below the sensor bloom by ALT + clicking on the trees. I’m going to duplicate the “ground” layer underneath my mask (+2 EV) and with my clone tool.To rectify both the ghosting and sensor bloom. Right now. Both the sourcing and stamping are performed on the same layer. some select clone stamping will correct this unsightly distraction.
notice how I selected a new source area to correspond with the new stamping area.When you move about your frame. for other scenes. However. notice how I sourced a tree trunk and stamped it where the tree trunk had been overwhelmed by sensor bloom as opposed to filling that area in with random pine needles. you may need to be more conscious on where you source your stamping and how much you perform before selecting a new source. you may need to reselect new sources as you go along to avoid repeating any patterns – for the image above. . the pattern is very chaotic and random and the mask is serrate. It’s also important to try and be conscious of your clone sources and where you stamp – for example. Since I’m working with pine trees. so it makes for easy stamping with no noticeable repeating patterns or otherwise unnatural blending.
.When finished. my sensor bloom and other inconsistencies between the layers have been removed for a seamless blend.
When you take the stencil off (the layer mask) and look at the duplicate . the stencil was too big and only partly filled in. those sloppy edges don’t matter much since you only see what the mask (stencil) allows you to. Before the clone stamping. and the trees are what fills it. However. The final result is a perfectly customized and highly intricate blend of exposures. when the stencil is put back on (previous page). unrefined (below). the appearance is rather sloppy and filling in the edges around a stencil – where the “sky” layer mask is the stencil.Another way to relate this process to something more familiar is to think of “ground” layer where I did my stamping. so the trees needed to be enlarged to occupy those negative spaces (the sensor bloom). where the -2 EV sky is 100% visible around every contour and through every gap along the horizon line.
I add a curves adjustment directly on top of the duplicate and underneath “mid” (+/-0 EV) and shift the middle tones down closer to pure black. I can mask out areas of this change where it is too drastic. Making sure to reactivate my -2 EV layer (sky) that I just hid to show the stamped duplicate layer. . allowing for further refinement. you can sometimes encounter an unnatural transition where the foreground looks washed out against the background. Since the mask has already been drawn. I can now adjust the tones of +2 EV to match the sky in a more natural way. Since I’m working on a curves adjustment layer.final adjustments to the blend When blending two different exposures together in this manner. The placement of the curves layer here is important so that it only affects my +2 EV image. and any blending discrepancies between each exposure corrected.
I select “Refine Mask” to open up several powerful options – most notably the Adjust Edge section. I want to duplicate the entire layer and hide it in case I need to refer back to it later. In theory. I have the original to revert back to if With this in mind. Before I edit my mask. By duplicating this layer necessary. The amount of feathering you perform will depend on the size of your canvas since it’s a pixel-dependent adjustment. I then masked out any areas that became too underexposed – such as the darker trees towards the left of my frame. I very slightly increase difference for this image. so I instead chose to use +2 EV and applied the curves adjustment layer to reduce the tonal value closer to the horizon line. In my eBook The Art of Processing. In other words. By refining the mask edge. making the transition between exposures appear pixelated.6 px.The best approach to this would be to actually take an exposure at +1 EV (faster) rather than +2 EV so that the curve adjustment step can be skipped. I’d rather collect too much data and adjust it in post as opposed to not enough and be left without a +2 EV frame and blended in the underexposed trees of +2 EV later. but that seemed like an unnecessary extra step since all the data is there in +2 EV. The Refine Mask tool can directly manipulate the pixels of your mask – which means any changes to those delicate adjustments performed to create this mask will be permanent. With this particular image. you can soften this transition for a more pleasing appearance. the darker areas to the left of the frame had blocked shadows at EV+1. I go back to my top how to use layer masks to selectively apply your color and the mask. I always check my histogram in the layer and right-click on the mask. choice. but a little goes a long way to smooth out those jagged edges. I have one more step to perform before I can call a menu. this blend complete. At times. I could have captured both an +1 and the Feather slider to . but that can present it’s own unique set of issues. I discuss this method in further detail and explain and tonal adjustments rather than settling for global changes. Once I’ve made my duplicate. Since my goal is to soften the edge of my mask for smoother transition. which makes quite a . the edges of your masking can be rather harsh and unnatural. which brings up field to make sure that I have recovered all lost data in both my highlights and shadows.
In short. The only adjustment I need to perform to this mask is feathering the edge. the Shift Edge feature will allows you to increase or decrease the size of your mask edge. if this was a bracketed scene of a seascape with a flat horizon line. For example. partial blends with a low-opacity brush would be my method of choice as it would create a gradient-like blending of tones as opposed to the harsh. you can see why a refined selection for my mask was preferable to simply painting with a low-opacity brush for a partial blend. While the refined mask here works much better for the unique challenges this horizon line presents. . When I compare the end result of this workflow with those of the freehand brush method shown earlier. the method you use will depend entirely on the contents of your photograph – one is not universally more effective than the other. abrupt transition that comes with a refined mask like this. that is not to say that freehand brushwork is an inferior method to use – it’s just not suited well for this particular image.It’s important to note that there are several other fantastic options here for refining the mask – most notably. but I want to make sure that you don’t overlook the Refine Mask feature as it has several versatile tools that you should explore for future reference.
my layer blending is now complete. It’s entirely customizable to compliment your photograph rather than trying to force your photograph to compliment the confines of automated software. there’s a more advanced way to blend that will allow you make custom selections like this for scenes with complicated or dramatic tonal shifts. While there is no global definition of a “good” histogram. I’m going to introduce luminosity masks into the workflow. and very little mid tones to work with. which will give you the highest level of control over your blends and transform the way you process your scene. for this particular scene it has been improved greatly. When you compare the final result with the base exposure . but that’s the beauty of exposure blending. the “U” shape of my base exposure indicates that I have a high amount of boxed shadows.After my advanced brushwork along the sky and tree line. The amount of blending you perform will depend entirely on your scene.for example. blown highlights.notice how I now have a nice arc distribution of tones. This recovery of data is also reflected in the histograms . Your blending may be simpler or much more involved than this example. there are oftentimes situations where gradual.the image one would normally capture . In contrast. While you can soft-blend exposures together using a low opacity brush.you can see a huge difference in the tonal range and detail. the water middle ground in the top image would benefit from a softer blend as the transition is too abrupt. For the remainder of this eBook. soft blends are preferred to make the transition between layers more natural for complex scenes . like explained on page 21. . so there is no typical workflow to follow. When blending exposures.
however. is that by selecting more specific groups of tones that are automatically feathered. trees backlit by the sun with light rays pouring in Luminosity masks are created by loading a selection from behind. A . you can create a soft. However. but one based on luminance for gradual. difficult transitions between exposures. I then further 2006 as a way to make tone-based. In other words. 100% visible with the sky from -2 EV. black and white mask produces a hard transition. gradual transition between your exposures advanced blending. all grey tones on the mask were eliminated. this harsh transition may not always appear natural. The difference. An issue with this process is that it can be rather rudimentary for more complex images that have that was created on a channel – much like I did in the previous section.introduction to luminosity masks Luminosity masks are a powerful editing tool for landscape photographers as the desire to capture dynamic tonal ranges has become increasingly popular. I created a strong contrast directly on the channel so the selection was well-defined. and can create an unpleasant result when dealing with complicated. However. That method Luminosity masks are simply a unique and versatile involves loading a custom selection based on pixels that were either lighter or darker than middle grey onto a layer mask. natural transitions between exposures. approach to creating a selection based on the tones of your image – and that selection can be used to mask layers together in the digital darkroom. and then refining that selection to the contours of your landscape. when I showed you how to refine a mask previously. To take your a luminosity mask does not simply create a black mask refinement a step further. For situations like this. you can select more specific groups of tones based on their luminosity and white mask. and this often requires blending different exposures together in Photoshop in order to recover any lost detail. these were completely. I explained how to create refined masks can also be used to blend exposures together. selections for your layer mask to assist. In the previous section on Tony Kuyper first wrote about luminosity masks in level rather than whether or not they fall before or after 50% grey on the value scale. local adjustments refined the mask so the trees from the +2 EV layer to one exposure in Photoshop. interwoven transitions between light and shadow – for example.
. This will bring up the marching ants around pixels which are brighter than middle grey. and the strength (opacity) of that selection depends on how bright the pixels are. This is basically the same thing I did in the last tutorial. but instead I’ll go through the luminosity mask creation so you can easier understand how this works. CMD for Macs). select the channel that provides the most contrast overall and load it as a selection by clicking on the selection icon at the bottom of your palette (below) – or simply CTRL/CMD + Click the thumbnail (CTRL for PCs. I want to first blend the sky of -2 EV with the foreground of +2 EV. Much like in the previous tutorial. Select your least exposed layer (-2 EV) and click on the Channels tab.creating an alpha channel To begin.
still active (marching ants are still visible) and click the “Save selection as channel” icon at the bottom of your channels palette. the blue channel) with the selection applied to it. Rename this layer “Highlights” for easy reference as this is the channel you’ll base your future highlight selections off of. Alpha channels are simply a way for you to “save” your tonal selections to use later since you can always return to your Channels palette and select an alpha channel to activate the selection. we’re going to save this selection To create your alpha channel. Don’t worry. This will automatically create a new alpha channel based on your selection. make sure your selection is so we can refer back to later. The easiest way to do this is to create an alpha channel – it’s a duplicate of the channel you’re basing the selection off of (in this case. alpha channels won’t affect how your image appears since they’re hidden. .Now that the selection is made.
no selections are active by pressing CTRL/CMD + D to deselect everything. . I create the Shadows alpha channel by duplicating the Highlights channel I just created and inverting it by pressing CTRL/CMD + I – make sure that before you invert. Otherwise. inverting the alpha channel means that the pixels which are brighter than middle grey are actually your shadows. inverting will only affect the selection and not the image as a whole. For easy reference. rename this alpha channel “Shadows”.Next. Since the “load channel as selection” feature only selects pixels which are higher than 50% grey on the value scale (closer to pure white).
ghosting will be an issue. Before I begin to create more refined alpha channels. These two selection groups. For example.highlight vs. . you should make sure that your layers are uniform in alignment (by first selecting all your layers and pressing Edit > AutoAlign Layers) – if they are still not aligned. If you bracketed off a scene and had no movement between frames. but this workflow. I should note that partial blending should only be used when each layer (exposure) by narrowing the parameters which define “highlights” or “shadows”. sophisticated software and seamless blend can still produce inconsistencies between each layer. which are in the form of alpha channels. The big issue with ghosting comes when you are is what I’ll be discussing next – how to take either blending panoramics together – even the most of these two alpha channels and narrow your tonal selection to base your luminosity mask on later. This is what luminosity masks are based on – making a selection on a group of tones – either highlights or shadows – in order to blend them with another layer. will be the source of all your future refined selections (at least for this exposure). the transition from one layer to another is almost undetectable for a truly natural blend with minimal posterization. make sure you are comfortable with reversing any This is where luminosity masks differ greatly from you are blending together is uniform in alignment potential ghosting manually before going through simply creating a black and white mask – you can get very specific with your tonal selections – otherwise. So before proceeding. shadow selections What I’ve done is split the two tonal ranges – the pixels which are brighter than middle grey and the pixels that are darker – into two main selection pools: Highlights and Shadows. I would select my Highlights alpha channel and instruct it to only select pixels which are completely white (255 on the value scale). If you’re working with only one RAW file (not ideal. you’ll be fine as well. so there’s no movement between frames. Since this method creates a feathered selection. if I only wanted my very brightest pixels selected in order to blend any blown highlights with a lesserexposed layer. This adequate enough if you have no other option) you wouldn’t have to worry about any misalignment since you’re working with the same image.
which means the Highlights alpha channel – which only allows pixels brighter than middle grey to be selected – is useless. don’t worry – visuals help.refining luminosity selections The overall goal here is to create a luminosity mask to combine the sky of EV -2 (sky) with the foreground of EV +2 (ground). I’ll be bringing this layer back in the next step in order to gradually blend in the water since the middle layer has the best exposure for it. what I’ll do is base my selection on the Shadows alpha channel – which has a vast selection pool to choose from – and then invert my mask. there aren’t going to be any highlights for our selection. If you’re lost already. This is confirmed when we look at the levels histogram for this particular exposure (bottom right). Almost all of the tones are to the left. This is what I want to focus on now. so I’ll walk you through this tutorial step-by-step. Instead. so I’m going to deactivate my middle exposure (EV +/-0) and hide the layer so that there is nothing between the sky and ground layers (top right). . Since the layer we are selecting is quite underexposed (sky).
I can tell sculpting – I have the general outline of my figure. but quite worth it when you see the power of this process and why many photographers exposure blending. You can compare this process to wood carving or clay By looking at the selection here.To begin. the ability to condense and refine a selection based on the value of each pixel. In overlapped into the sky. my selection is too general right now and has use luminosity masks for their photography beyond . Photoshop to take this selection pool and narrow it down on the thumbnail. but need to whittle away some of the rougher selections in order to refine and mold it into what I want. you can see that while all of the shadows are selected. With a luminosity mask. I’ll select the Shadows alpha channel by clicking CMD + clicking the thumbnail again. other words. and then activate the selection by CTRL/ to only include the darker shadows of this channel. It’s been a long explanation so far. This is where the true power of the luminosity mask comes in. there’s still quite a bit of sky detail that I don’t want.
which will tell Photoshop to eliminate those pixels on the very edge of the selection – the lighter shadows – and only select darker tones: in other words. To do this.What I’m going to do here is take this alpha channel and intersect the selection with itself. and click on the thumbnail for the Shadows alpha channel. and the sky is (almost) completely deselected? . reshape and refine. Here you can see the difference only one intersection made – see how the selection now hugs the contours of the tree line. press CTRL/CMD + ALT + SHIFT all at once.
The next step would be to save this selection to use later by pressing the “save selection as channel” icon and renaming the channel for easier future reference. which means that the transition from one exposure to another will be very soft and gradual. there’s one very important difference with luminosity masks which isn’t apparent by simply looking at the selection here – the selection is self-feathering. but pixels which are selected with less than 50% opacity will not be outlined by the marching ants. So it’s possible to have no marching ants on your alpha channel and still have a selection. I like to simply add a roman numeral when I intersect channels. where I added contrast to the channel directly in order to refine my mask. Looking at the refinement of this selection. you’ll notice how similar it appears to the one I created in the previous section on advanced blending. . However. but feel free to use your own labeling methods. The marching ants you see are simply pixels that are selected with more than 50% opacity.
CTRL/CMD + ALT + SHIFT while clicking on the layer thumbnail will again further refine it to select even darker shadows. I would have created luminosity masks based on the Highlights alpha channel and selected the overexposed sky for my masking. However. the selections have been created for blending. I’m going to stop intersecting here since the next intersection starts to cut into the tree line a bit too much. if I was working with EV +2 or any other overexposed layer. So the channel you choose to work with for blending – either Highlights or Shadows – will depend on the exposure of the image you are basing it off of. which is everything but the sky. You can do the same exact process for your Highlights. I intersect the selection once again. and also your intent (what areas you want to select for masking later). and there are several ways to apply your selection and create the mask. and can actually create your own set of Photoshop actions to do this process for you automatically. This process is rather simple. However. . making sure that my Shadows II alpha channel is active and the selection is loaded. gradually narrowing your selections until only your very brightest areas are chosen – a good selection method for working on any blown highlights. You can do this process as many times as you need to. For this particular exposure.I need to refine this selection a bit more in order to get the results I want. the scene is quite underexposed so it made more sense to base my selections off of the Shadows alpha channel. My channel work is done. this is only half the process – I need to transfer these selections over to my layer and apply them as a mask to blend the exposures together.
Once the correct selection is active. First make sure that your selection is active. and then CTRL/CMD + Click on the thumbnail again to bring up the marching ants. Turning a selection into a mask is quite simple. You can activate this by first clicking on the channel thumbnail to highlight it. and is based on the correct alpha channel – for this image. and the selection will transfer over. it’s the Shadows III channel. Apply a new mask to your layer.creating the luminosity mask Now that the selections have been made and saved as alpha channels. . and I’ll go over two different ways to approach this. switch back to your layers palette and select the layer you wish to apply the mask to. it’s time to turn them into a luminosity mask and blend the exposures together for an HDR photo.
it’s doing the foreground white. I’ll . other words. since the mask was inverted for shadows. the higher the opacity is for that selection.Alpha channels are based on selections of pixels that have higher concentrations exact opposite of what I want it to do – the sky is predominantly black and the of white – the closer a pixel’s value is to 100% white. your channel looks exactly like what your mask is going to be. you’re transferring over the tonal ranges of that channel directly to the mask. which means that the sky is actually getting masked out and the foreground is still visible. For this particular image. When you apply an alpha channel selection to your mask. In my mask by pressing CTRL/CMD + I – and since I’m aware of this beforehand. This is a simple though as all I have to do is invert hold down the ALT key when I apply the layer mask to instantly invert it.
There’s also some sensor bloom and ghosting issues to address. .This blend is starting to come together. Referring back to the previous advanced blending workflow. but for this particular set of exposures a gradual transition does not work well – especially for the tree line. I refine my mask to eliminate all the grey tones by filling the foreground with black and sky line with white – first generally with the lasso tool. and then more specifically with the overlay brush.
the result is a fully contoured mask. The water you see in the bottom right image is from the +2 EV layer. However. this is exactly what I want – the +2 EV tree line and foreground blended seamlessly with the -2 EV sky. which is quite overexposed when compared to the -2 EV sky. so this dramatic jump of 4 stops is too harsh. As far as masking goes. this hard transition does not look natural for my middle ground and horizon line.After refining the edge of my selection. . but this appears to be just as unnatural (inset). A gradual blend is needed to transition softly from the -2 EV sky to the +2 EV foreground by introducing a third exposure – the base image (+/-0 EV) which I hid at the beginning of this eBook. Another option would be to blend in the water from -2 EV.
however. For this image. This is very useful since the alpha channel selections you create can be applied as a luminosity mask to any layer (exposure). I want to create a new alpha channel based on my middle exposure as that has the greatest contrast between the water and the surrounding land – my goal here is to create a selection around the water and isolate it. I’ll unhide my base exposure and switch to the Channels palette. Here you’ll notice something new – all the alpha channels I created based on -2 EV are still accessible. and then gradually blend in the water exposure of +/-0 EV with the +2 EV exposure to softly transition between these two extreme tonal groups.transitions with luminosity masks To begin. .
and then save that selection as a channel (“Highlights I mid” below).Looking through my RGB channels. and then save the selection as another channel (“Highlights II mid”). blue provides the greatest amount of contrast so I create an alpha channel just like I did before – load the selection. . I intersect this selection once to further target the brighter highlights: CTRL/CMD + ALT + SHIFT and click on the alpha channel thumbnail. Since my goal is to just select the water for blending.
you may want to apply your luminosity mask in a different manner than simply loading it directly onto a layer mask. select the correct layer and add a mask. To do this.At this point I would normally just add a layer mask and refine as necessary. I find it more successful to transfer over just the selection made with your alpha channel. like I did previously. make sure your alpha channel selection is not active (no marching ants) by pressing CTRL/CMD + D to deselect. but now I have the confines of a feathered selection that I can simply fill in – in other words. I hold down the ALT key while pressing the “add layer mask” icon. Since my alpha channel selection is based on what I want to keep – the water – the mask will have to be black as I can only paint within the confines of that selection. To add a black mask. white retains and black removes your layer. Then switch over to your layers palette. and create your luminosity mask by manually blending it in with the brush tool at a low opacity level. The color of your mask is an important consideration here depending on what you want to accomplish – remember. . However. It’s a lot like what I did earlier in the eBook on manual blending. and at varying transparency levels. the selection I created acts as a mold that I can then paint my luminosity mask into. for gradual transitions.
Notice how the rocks have already been cut out since they were not part of the original selection – their luminance was too dark. select your mask. I recommend you begin by using a very low opacity brush to gradually apply your luminosity mask selection – 10% opacity at most. further color adjustments can emphasize banding and posterization. simply return to your layers palette. This will help to ensure that your brushstrokes are not visible. . my final blended image and mask look like the images to the right. Even if your brushwork does not appear to be producing any pixelation right now. This is a wonderful time-saver since I do not have to go back and manually mask out the rocks which decorate the water. so it’s best to create a solid foundation rather than have to go back and re-apply your mask later on. Once I finish gradually applying my mask with a low-opacity brush. and begin to paint your luminance selection onto the mask with a white brush. and fell outside of the selection parameters. which can lead to banding.Now that the mask has been applied. switch back over to your Channels palette and load the selection you just created. Once the selection is active again.
Thanks to the meticulous blending of exposures from this workflow. you can remove the selection and do any necessary touchups to your luminosity mask with your brush tool. but also the negative spaces along the edges of my frame. which I will go over in the next section. Below is an example of mask painting without a defined selection. which dictates not only the quality of your final image. your brush strokes won’t affect pixels which are not selected since the boundaries have already been defined. haloing becomes an issue since the brush tool will affect wherever you paint. and the resulting halo effect. When painting in the mask. Another benefit to using luminosity masks for exposure blending is that it gives you a solid foundation to apply your color processing onto. I was able to apply many different color and tonal techniques without any detrimental effects. some clone stamping and cropping will be necessary to not only remove the tripod legs. you know that I separate editing from processing in the digital darkroom – and the focus of my editing is to cultivate the best possible canvas to process with. At this point. but also the number of avenues you can pursue without causing damage. allowing me to achieve the final image at the end of this eBook. Since this image was a panoramic stitch. Without the luminosity mask. I decided to blend in a bit of the EV -2 water near the horizon with a low-opacity brush in order to mirror the sky detail more closely. If you read my article on editing vs. processing.One of the greatest benefits of luminosity masks is that you have created a defined selection based on luminance. .
Another way to think of merging layers is that you’re essentially gluing it all together. A downside to merging is that my masking and brushwork will become permanent. To see your blended layers again and perform any further edits to the individual exposures. highlight all your layers and click Layer > Smart Object > Convert to Smart Object. which will abstractly combine my layers so I can make universal adjustments to the image as I see it on my screen. However. The layers will flatten into one. essentially creating a “source” file that remains unaltered. double-click on your new Smart Object layer. and I won’t have the ability to alter them later if needed. . You’ll notice that you now have one layer in your layers palette. Rather than permanently merging my layers. I need to merge them together so that I am working with one uniform layer. since I added several masks and can not adjust more than one layer at a time.this is especially important when I’m working with a panostitch. To create a Smart Object.finishing touches Now that my blending is finished. I can adjust the crop and realign my composition . Photoshop will create a separate file with my layers and masks still intact. I can work around this limitation by creating a Smart Object.
I can now clone out the areas I wish to remove before I begin my color processing. I’m comfortable enough with merging the layers together. I’m going to copy the Smart Object and hide it in the background so I can access it later if I need to. I need to prepare my image before I begin to clone since you can not change the pixels of a Smart Object. However. . click on Layer > Rasterize > Smart Object to rasterize the exposure blend (bottom right).Now I can warp my image to adjust my horizon line and also stretch out those negative spaces (top right). At this point. To compromise. With the duplicate layer selected. The clone tool is rather straightforward and there are many video tutorials available which can show you how to clone out unwanted areas. The changes you apply to your Smart Object will not become permanent to the layers themselves. yet I don’t want to lose all the masking work I’ve done by permanently gluing it all. but wish to have a point to revert to if I’m not happy with the result. my image needs to be merged and rasterized before I can clone to remove unwanted elements or to remove ghosting. I’ll duplicate the Smart Object .this way I’ll have a layer copy to revert back to. The final edit I want to perform before I begin to process is to use my clone tool to remove the tripod legs and any ghosting from partial blends. Copying layers is a method I use often when I want to apply permanent changes by merging. On this layer. First.
so the quality of my creative processes are dictated by the editing techniques I perform first. I am preparing my canvas by creating the best possible environment. When I process a photograph in Photoshop. it is my hope that I have provided you with the tools and knowledge to overcome the limitations of your camera and be able to create the photograph you wish to express. and removing any impurities that detract from my image. In short. This will allow me much freedom for the creative stage. My editing techniques are corrective in nature . To continue the learning process seamlessly. The creative stage is entirely dependent on my editing stage . I have two very different workflows that I go through . I have written a color processing eBook that will detail how I went from the top image to the bottom in a step-by-step fashion.The top left image is the final result of my editing. adjusting the crop and composition. specifically color and tone processing. I also address the philosophy of my color processing and how I develop my workflows.I can not enhance details and data that aren’t already present.blending exposures. . which can serve as a template for creating your own color and tone processes.editing and creating. click here. By detailing my blending workflow. If you would like to learn more about The Art of Color Processing.
What if you’re shooting a portrait in RAW and have some unsightly blown highlights in the background? When you drop into shadow – you’ll need to blend two different exposures in order to keep your subject properly exposed and also eliminate those distracting highlights. I knew I could just blend the RAW file by dropping my exposure down recovery as small as this. you can reopen that same RAW file. you would open your image in Photoshop after RAW editing – exposed for the subject but with your blown highlights and/ or blocked shadows. your exposure to correct this. for several other editing processes other than expanding the tonal range . the photo here. your subject is cast and combining it with the original image.referring to a slightly overexposed image according to your histogram as opposed to underexposing it. I use this often when I’m dealing with minor exposure differences .ones that did not call for the need to bracket my entire image.focus blending being a notable example. and open the image(s) in Photoshop and blend together. The exposure blending workflow is also used If you’re working with a single RAW file. In Remember. except for the slightly overexposed green foliage to the right. For a . The process of blending layers has limitless applications and can benefit any photography subject. if auto-bracketing isn’t a viable option. this technique has a wide variety of uses – and not just for landscapes or golden hour scenes. you can save different exposure settings and blend them together using the above workflow. you can get a better recovery of detail in RAW if you “shoot to the right” . For this instance. there isn’t much need to go through the entire bracketing process as the loss of data is not noticeable.final thoughts As you can tell. You’ll find a higher-quality result in recovering blown highlights than compared to increasing the exposure of blocked shadows. my entire frame was exposed correctly. Instead of autobracketing for this. Afterward. adjust the exposure to recover the lost data.
More details on the contest can be found here. you’ll also be entering my print giveaway contest.as well as to see my latest work. which makes it the perfect landscape. emotion. My work changes like the seasons of New England. By signing up. On the first day of every season. Maine is one of the few states that is relatively untouched by human interference. I returned to the coast of Maine to pursue my love of landscape photography and have made it my career. . You can subscribe to my newsletter to receive updates on when new editions of my eBooks are available . as I have written several articles on the basics of photography and beyond .about christopher Through my work. Prints of my work are available for purchase at my online store. There are countless mesmerizing scenes among us that are often hidden from society – my goal is to expose them to the world so that I may share the wonders I have seen. I randomly pick one subscriber to win a free medium-sized print of their choice or my entire eBook collection. After college. I encourage you to visit my website for further learning. I like to show a vantage point that is rarely seen in reality. and serenity. a show of beauty.free to download to those who have already purchased a previous version. which always present me with surreal opportunities to create something unique.
ethereal images that have a deeper meaning and interpretation. By reading about my camera workflow. hours with confidence and accuracy. and the importance of applying photography principles in your composition (such as contrast and symmetry). Click here to learn more about The Golden Hour Portfolio. With The Golden Hour Portfolio: A Monograph on the Light of With The Portfolio of Bokeh.other ebooks The disparity between learning a photographic technique and knowing how to apply it creatively to your environment is a source of much frustration for landscape photographers. Sunrises and Sunsets I can help to bridge the gap between your vision and your creation by explaining how I approached each of my golden hour images – and more importantly. you will find detailed solutions to the challenges this light presents – changed or controlled. By reading about my camera workflow. manipulating an environment that usually can not be In this eBook. Each photo is paired with a full page spread that contains a wealth of information on how I created each image. . completely transform a landscape. you can The Golden Hours: A Guide to Photographing the Light of Sunrises and Sunsets is written to help guide photographers through the unique challenges that this light presents. The Art of Bokeh: A Guide to Using Shallow Depths in Landscape Photography was written to inspire photographers to think beyond the confines of a deep depth of field. why. and this guide can show you how. and unleash your inner creativity. Click here to learn more about The Art of Bokeh. and to create abstract. This portfolio study can show you how to overcome this roadblock. By detailing the steps I go through to create my images – both in the field and in the digital darkroom – I explain how to transcend the disparity between your view and your results. I can help to bridge the gap between your vision and your creation by explaining how I approached each of my bokeh images. You can create a complex or simple photograph by changing your from compositions to exposure difficulties – so you can begin to photograph the golden depth. I discuss many aspects of my creative process – some examples include how I find inspiration. allowing you to create realistic images of this beautiful light. It’s focused on guiding landscape photographers of all levels to widen their aperture and see the environment as light and shapes. you can learn how to critically analyze a scene and decide on the best method to use. choosing a strong focal point. By using a shallow depth of field and thin slices of focus. In this eBook. Click here to learn more about The Portfolio of Bokeh. Click here to learn more about The Golden Hours. you will find 22 full page examples of my strongest bokeh images in high-resolution color. you can learn how to critically analyze a scene and decide on the best method to use that compliments your creative style.
All Rights Reserved worldwide under the Berne Convention. please contact me. nor has it been authorized. Acrobat. Adobe. May not be copied or distributed without prior written permission. sponsored. iPhone. Please contact me at christopher@christopherodonnellphotography. .S. Adobe product screenshots reprinted with permission from Adobe Systems Incorporated. This eBook is available by signing up for my newsletter here. is © Copyright Christopher O’Donnell. and other countries. publisher of Adobe Acrobat®.. This eBook is an independent publication and has not been authorized. If you obtained this eBook (or a printout) without subscribing to my newsletter. This eBook is an independent publication and is not affiliated with.copyright information All material in this eBook. or otherwise approved by Apple Inc.com (or by clicking here) if you would like to discuss redistribution options. sponsored. registered in the U. other than the exceptions noted below. Microsoft and Windows are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Microsoft Corporation in the United States and/or other countries. iPad are trademarks of Apple Inc. ACR (Adobe Camera Raw) and Photoshop are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Adobe Systems Incorporated in the United States and/or other countries. or otherwise approved by Microsoft Corporation. This eBook is not endorsed or sponsored by Adobe Systems Incorporated. Apple.
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