5 Easy Steps to Exposure Blending for High Contrast Landscapes

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Final Image  Bear Rock, Dolly Sod Wilderness Area, West Virginia

Final Image: Bear Rock, Dolly Sod Wilderness Area, West Virginia. Sunrise and Sunsets can be extremely contrasting and very challenging to capture the wide exposure range.

Here’s a problem I am sure you have encountered, instances where you try to photograph an image that has a greater range of light and dark than your camera can accurately capture. In the example above, when we set our exposure to expose the sky correctly, the foreground objects are severely under-exposed. Likewise, if we set our exposure to correctly expose the foreground, the sky is blown out and loses almost all detail. One solution to this dilemma might be to use HDR software to combine several bracketed exposures into one image. However, this method can be overwhelming and time-consuming to do correctly for a pleasing result. Another solution to this problem could be to use graduated neutral density filters. Unfortunately, a good set of filters can be quite expensive and a cheap set can harm the quality of your image.

A simple solution to this problem scenario may be as easy as taking two exposures, one correctly exposed for the dark areas (in this case the foreground) and the other correctly exposed for the lighter area (in this case the sky). Place your camera on a tripod so that both images will be composed exactly the same.

image correctly exposed for the sky 1/10 of a second @ f/10. ISO 100

Image exposed for the sky: 1/10th of a second @ f/10, ISO 100

Image exposed for the foreground: 1 second @ f/10, ISO 100

Image exposed for the foreground: 1 second @ f/10, ISO 100

Now, let’s look at a simple five step exposure blending process, performed in Photoshop, to resolve this contrast issue.

Step 1: Open your images

Open the two exposures in Photoshop as layers. This can be simply done with the following script. In Photoshop, select: File/Scripts/Load files into stacks (if you use Lightroom just select both thumbnails, right click and choose “Edit in>Open as Layers in PS). Then select your two exposure files. Label the layers for identification. (In this case we label one layer “Sky” and the other “Foreground”). Drag the Sky to the top layer if not already in that position.

Step 2: Add a layer mask

Add layer mask filled with black to top layer.

Add layer mask filled with black to the top layer.

Add a layer mask, as shown below, to the highlighted Sky layer. While holding down the ALT (opt) key, select the Add layer mask button located at the bottom of the layer palette. This will add a layer mask to the Sky layer and automatically fill it with black. The black-filled layer will mask out all of the Sky layer and reveal all of the Foreground layer.

Step 3: Paint over sky

Click on the black layer mask and select the paintbrush tool. Set your paintbrush to paint with white, and set the size of your brush as needed. Set the hardness of your brush to a low number to give it a soft edge while you paint. Paint over the sky area of the image, which will reveal the Sky layer. By adjusting the opacity, size and hardness of the brush as you paint, blend the two exposures together.

Paint with white on your layer mask to reveal the sky in the top image. use different opacities and hardness to make the blending look natural.

Paint with white on your layer mask to reveal the sky in the top image. Use different opacities and brush hardness to make the blending look natural. This is what the mask might look like.

Step 4: Add finishing touches

Add adjustment layers (see below) as needed to adjust colors and contrast of the layers to make the image look natural.

Final layer palette

Final layer palette

Step 5: Save your file

Save your file as a Photoshop document (.PSD). This will preserve your image with layers which you can return to if you need to make further adjustments to improve the image.  You can now can flatten the layers (Layer/ Flatten Image) and Save As a single layer file such as a JPG.

This image was created from three files using Exposure blending. Exposure #1 was exposed for the light green area above the falls and exposure #2 was exposed for the shadow area below the falls. The light was hitting the rock on the left  very hard so a third exposure was need just for that rock.

This image was created from three files using exposure blending. Exposure #1 was exposed for the light green area above the falls and exposure #2 was for the shadow area below the falls. The light was hitting the rock on the left very hard so exposure #3 was needed just for just that rock.

So next time you are faced with an extremely contrasting scene, try this easy exposure blending process to extend the exposure range of your image. Do you have any exposure blending tricks that you use? Post samples of your images.

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Bruce Wunderlich is a photographer from Marietta, Ohio. He became interested in photography as a teenager in the 1970s, and has been a passionate student of the art ever since. Bruce recently won Photographer’s Choice award at the 2014 Shoot the Hills Photography Competition in the Hocking Hills near Logan, Ohio. He has also instructed local classes in basic digital photography. Check out Bruce’s photos at Flickr

  • akshay kasodariya

    Hi Bruce
    Nice article. I am a beginner and have basic question here. Can you explain more about taking different exposure photos ? Do you mean by focus point in 1st image should point to sky an for 2nd image to the foreground?

  • Bruce Wunderlich

    hi Akahay, Your focal point should be the same for both photos, if fact put your camera on a tripod and don’t move it for both images. But set you exposure in one photo for the sky and expose for the foreground in the other. In my example image, the sky was exposed at 1/10th of a second and the foreground was exposed for 1 second.

  • akshay kasodariya

    Ok got it now. I need to just set my shutter speed to make foreground bright enough in 2nd shot while in 1st shot adjust shutter speed for sky. Thanks a lot.

  • Miriam Poling

    Great article, Bruce!

  • Amy Baker

    I’m curious where the waterfall image was taken. Great article.

  • This is a great article and amazing photograph!

  • Bruce Wunderlich

    Thanks Amy, The waterfalls is Twin Falls near Valley Falls State Park WV

  • Great and informative article Bruce

  • jsm1963

    Wouldn’t HDR be easier?

  • this is HDR done right.

  • Bruce Wunderlich

    yes, if done correctly HDR could give you the same results or possibly better. HDR software can be intimidating to many entry level photographers. Exposure Blending is just another possible solution to these high contrast scenes.

  • Hello Bruce, great article. I was just wondering, about the first photo, whether the image exposed for the sky should be the correct one to convey the sunset mood. While the exposure fusion is well done, I am left wondering in your final image what light source makes the rocks and the trees in the foreground as (if not more) bright than the sky. Imo it does spoil a bit the mood of the photo. May be it would have been enough lit the shadows a bit more in the image exposed for the sky. On the waterfall photo, nothing to say: it is very well done. I guess what I am trying to say is that a good HDR (or fused exposure) should retain as much as possible the mood of the high contrasted scene we are trying to capture and the balance between what was bright(er) and what was dark(er) should still be there. my 2 cents

  • Michael Shake

    I’ve done both manual blending like this with masks and also HDR software, Photomatix Pro. Hands down the easiest method is the HDR software. Sure it takes some learning to get it to look natural but it can be done and I would argue learning to do masking correctly especially with trees and sky is more difficult to master then Photomatix is.

  • Yeah I have been doing this method since Adobe introduced layers and masks (I think it was called alpha channels back then) back in Photoshop 5 or so. This method works great it allows the photographer total control and mastery of the image, unlike the automated programs like Photomatix and Nik HDR EFX which manipulate the entire image algorithmically. It is basically the equivalent of traditional burning and dodging and requires a bit of artistry and creativity to produce a final image that is the photographer’s unique personal creation.

  • Sascha Kleiber

    Instead of just masking by hand i suggest you use luminosity masks like perfected by Jimmy McIntyre: http://iso.500px.com/luminosity-masks-in-digital-blending/

  • I’ve been doing this for a few shots before, always helpful to avoid spending hard-earned money on an HDR software, especially when having knowledge and skills at Photoshop as well as a pen tablet for the details 🙂 For complete beginners though I think it might be easier on a software…

  • Bruce Wunderlich

    Good eye Andrea, I actually discovered that I had inadvertently uploaded the wrong image for the final Bear Rock composite, Thanks for catching that. Correct image is now been replaced.

  • Jacob Livshits

    Hi. I’ve tried this method in some cases, and it works in architecture and landscapes, but I found that using this with long exposures like flowing water and seascapes, it doesn’t work as well. You have a long exposure resulting in a “flat” water surface and another short one which gives a different image, so blending them together is tricky at best.. any thoughts on this?

  • Bruce Wunderlich

    hi Jacob, Your right this can be tricky, Even HDR might have problems with this scenario, my best advise for exposure blending would be to use a brush with a large feather so that the hard edge blends softly into the softer long exposure.

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  • Jack

    What is the difference between this method and luminosity mask?
    Which one create better result?
    This method is much more easier.

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  • Matt Vargo

    Excellent, tutorial, thank you! This made it easy for me to do exposure blending. I’ve been trying some crackpot techniques that have been less than successful!

  • rodney

    how do you know what area your camera is exposing for, is it where you are focus point is? If so should you use spot metering or leave it on evaluative for both shots. Thanks

  • Darryl Lora

    Hi Bruce, thanks for putting up a very easy to understand tutorial. I need to ask you how do you actually set up the 2 different exposures (what do you ‘physically do to your camera’ – this (to my knowledge has not been answered on DPS in the time I have been subscribing). My method I have always followed is to set my focus (camera locked on my tripod) and then check my cameras exposure to see (hope) that I haven’t got much more than the sun itself blown out, and take 1 photo, then I do a guestimation and increase my exposure by 2 or 3 stops and hope I have exposed the foreground sufficiently. Miraculously this method does seem to work for 99% of my shots, but there is still that ‘unknown’ until I download to my computer. I use a Canon 7D & (usually) a 24 ~105mm L. I do intend replacing my circular ND filter with a Lees or similar holder and GND filters. Sorry for such a long winded question.

  • me

    In Paintshop pro open images in exposure merge. Click click done.

  • Linda Bon

    Great article. Combining the three images in an HDR shot would be faster for me, but probably wouldn’t give the same results. Think I might try this. Thanks for instructions!

  • AndyGraingerPhotography

    use spot metering, set your camera to av priority and select your aperture say f10 and iso, focus camera using af, switch to mf. point the camera at sky and note the shutter speed. point your camera at the foreground and note the shutter speed. point the camera where you want to shoot and take two photos one at each shutter speed.

  • Manny Manuel

    Please help. How do I do the two different exposures? I know I can’t move the camera and my focus is at the center, how do I then move the center to the sun and then for the second move it to the foreground without losing my frame? Or I don’t move the camera and just use exposure compensation?

  • Manny Manuel

    @Andy@andygraingerphotography:disqus do I turn the camera to shutter priorty to dial the 2 shutter speeds? or do I find those by varying my aperture or my exposure compesation dial?

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