HDR Style Results Using Layers in Photoshop

HDR Style Results Using Layers in Photoshop


In this post Nathan Pask takes a look at a technique to get HDR Style Images Using Layers in Photoshop.


There currently seems to be a lot of interest in HDR or similar processes. What is HDR? Essentially, it’s about collecting a series of shots taken on a tripod at different exposures and allowing über clever software to merge them together to make one supposedly perfectly exposed image. There are various types of software or plug-ins such as Photoshop, Photomatrix or FDR Tools that make producing a HDR image fairly straight forward.

Does the final result look pleasing to the eye? The jury is out for a majority of it as far as I’m concerned. Some images I think look fantastic, but others I feel have done nothing to enhance the subject. It’s using process for processes sake. Being a professional retoucher for quite a few years, working for many demanding clients such as Condé Nast on Vogue, Bride & Traveller magazines, the idea of retouching is about making an image more beautiful than it was to begin with. For the retouch to be successful, it needs to look seamless. It wants to look amazing, almost too good to be true, but with no tell tale signs of it having been manipulated. Granted, there is a place for ‘artistic’ imagery, and perhaps some people who are producing HDR are just doing it for an artistic result, but I personally tend to lean towards the ‘too good to be true’ style when producing an image like this. If you are not a fan of the results HDR give, but like the idea of it, read on. The process I am about to talk you through has essentially the same premise, but will give a more realistic finished result as per the example above.

So to begin, you need to a good sturdy tripod. This is a little easier if you have an SLR camera, but it can also be done with a point and shoot if you can manually adjust your exposure. Mount your camera on the tripod and compose your image to your liking. It is important that when you take your images, your camera doesn’t move. A handy tip if you don’t have a remote control is to set your camera to it’s inbuilt timer and shoot with this as when you press the shutter you are shaking the camera ever so slightly and you will get a slightly blurry result. Every situation is different because your subject and light is different, but for the image above, I took a shot exposing for the water which was 4 seconds at f22, I then took another shot exposing for the rock face and the trees which was 1 second at f22 and I then took another exposure for the sky which was 1/4 of a second at f22. Ideally keep your f-stop constant in this process and as you have it on a tripod you can afford to close down your f-stop/aperture to give you maximum depth of field throughout your image.

The following process is using Adobe Photoshop. I am on a Mac using Photoshop CS3, but it doesn’t matter which version you have. As long as it has layers, you are sorted. Download your images from your camera onto your computer. Once you have chosen your exposures you want to use, in my case 3, open them all in Photoshop so you can see them all side by side with your layers palette open on the side like this (click images to open larger versions).

Hdr-Picture 1

It doesn’t really matter, but I tend to use my darkest layer as my base just because it’s logical. With this in mind, select the middle exposed image. Head over to your layers palette and click and drag your layer icon and drop it on your darkest image. Then select your lighter image and repeat the process. Obviously, you can have as many images/exposures as you like and continue this process till you have dragged all your exposures onto the one image. The more you have, the longer it will take to combine and the more complicated it will become, so choose your number of exposures wisely. You shouldn’t really need any more than 3 or 4 exposures unless your subject is particularly complicated.

Click back on your darker image that you have been dragging the layers on to. You should now have 3 layers in your palette and should look like this. You can close the other 2 images as these are no longer required. What you have left is one image open with your multiple layers, in my case 3, each layer containing exactly the same shot just taken with a different exposure all sandwiched on top of each other.

Hdr-Picture 3

You can’t fully manipulate the bottom layer called ‘Background’, so select this layer, go up to the options at the top of the Layers palette and duplicate the layer. It’s not essential to do this on this particular retouch, but it’s good to get into the habit of duplicating your original layer so you always have an untouched original just in case it all goes pear shaped or you want to refer back to it for some reason. Safety first!

Hdr-Picture 4

Click on the little eye icon on the left hand side of the ‘Background’ layer so it makes this particular layer invisible. You wont be needing this layer. It’s just there as a back-up. I tend to rename all my layers at this stage so it makes it easier to manage. Again, it’s not essential for this retouch, but getting into the practice of naming your layers appropriately is a good habit to get into. When you work on more complicated retouches that might have dozens of layers, it makes it much quicker when you can see easily which layer is which.

So what are we going to do with these 3 layers? We are going to mask out portions of each layer to allow elements from the layers underneath to show through eventually giving us 1 image formed out of 3. Let’s start with our lightest exposed layer. In my case, I want this layer for the water and reeds only. Most of the trees and the sky are way too overexposed. Over to your Layers palette again, select your top layer (your lightest layer) and we want to add a layer mask to this layer. Go to the Layer menu at the top of your screen and select Layer mask/Reveal All. As a shortcut, you can also simply click on the little icon circled and it will do the same thing.

Hdr-Picture 5

For this particular layer mask I don’t want to create a hard edge so we are going to use the brush tool to manually create our mask. Over to your layers palette again, make sure you have the mask part selected (not the image icon) when you click on the mask, it should have the broken black frame around it indicating that you have selected the mask. Making sure your colour is set to black (if it’s not, click on the top colour square and change this 100% black) and select your brush tool. We are ready to mask!

Hdr-Picture 6

We are now going to paint with this tool creating a mask revealing some of the image below. In this case we want to get rid of the sky, rocks and most of the trees. Make sure the opacity on the brush is at 100%. Use an appropriate sized large brush to get rid of a majority of it and when it comes to going around the water line I used a small brush and zoomed in so I could see a little better as I was masking.

Hdr-Picture 7

You should be able to see your middle exposure layer below coming through. You will also see your little mask icon on your layers palette will give you a preview of what you have just masked out. Keep going until you are satisfied. I will show you how to do a more accurate mask on the next layer. But this method we have just performed is a great way to do a quick mask. Once you are happy with your mask, select the layer below. Create a new layer mask as before but instead of using our brush tool on it’s own, this time we are going to make a selection first as we want the mask to be a little more defined around the edge of the cliffs. We want to mask out the sky on this middle layer to reveal the nice rich sky on the darkest layer below. To make a selection you can do this a few ways. As there is quite a good difference in colour and tone between the sky and the rocks in my case, so I am going to use the magic wand tool at a tolerance of about 25 and with my shift key on my keyboard held down, select different pieces of the sky till I have an unbroken line of ‘marching ants’ around the cliff face. (Note: Make sure your image icon is selected in your layers palette, not your mask icon otherwise your magic wand will select your whole image). I won’t have every little piece of the sky selected, but I don’t need to worry about that at this stage. The most important thing is that I have an unbroken line around the cliff like this.

Hdr-Picture 8

Any easy way to select the rest of the sky is to use the lasso tool and holding down your shift key, quickly go round the parts that aren’t selected so you end up with a lasso selection all around the area we want to mask. In this case I want to put a small feather on the selection before we mask as even though I want a crisp line, it’s very rare that you don’t need at least a small amount of feathering. So go up to your Select menu at the top of your screen and select Modify/Feather. In my case I want to use about 3 pixels of feather. Maybe use this as a starting point for your image, if you find out in a few minutes when we start masking this layer that it is too much or not enough feather, just go back in your history palette to this point and alter your feather amount. Every image is different and the amount of resolution in your image will play a part in your feather amount required.

Hdr-Picture 9

So we now have the marching ants selection around the sky with a 3 pixel feather. Select the mask icon back in your layers palette on the middle layer. There are a number of ways you can go from here, but I like to use my brush tool again as it gives me more control. Select this tool again and we are going to do the same as before, however the selection has made it much easier. Like bowling with the rails out over the gutters! You cant go wrong.

Hdr-Picture 10

It’s at this point that you can begin to see the whole picture forming with elements from all 3 layers playing their parts in your overall final result. Continue masking until you have filled your entire area selected. As we have a small feather on the lasso selection, if you keep going over certain areas around the edge of your selection with your brush tool it will creep your mask out a little more if you feel your selection didn’t quite go far enough. When you are happy, deselect your marching ants by going back up to your Select menu at the top of your screen and choosing Deselect.

Hdr-Picture 11

You should now have a pretty much final image visually. You may want to touch up here and there to be completely satisfied. In my case I need to get rid rid of some nasty little sensor marks using my Spot Healing tool on the bottom dark layer. *Note to self – must clean my sensor!* You can alter other things at this stage such as the contrast, hue and saturation. Clone out elements you don’t wish to be there (Cloning is a whole OTHER tutorial on it’s own) in my case, a plastic bag caught in the reeds and using my burn tool, just going over the edges of the cliffs a little for effect.

Once you are completely satisfied, you need to save it. I like to keep a copy of the layered file just incase I decide to alter it slightly in the future, so save it as a .psd or .tif with your layers intact and make it obvious in your filename that it’s the layered file. Save on your computer wherever you wish. Once you have done this, back over to your layers palette for the last time. In your layer options, select Flatten Image.

Hdr-Picture 12

You can now save your final image in whatever format you wish to use. Probably a .jpg to save on hard drive space. You have now completed a manual version of HDR using layers. HURRAH! I hope this was of some use. I encourage any comments on this method. I don’t think anyone knows everything there is to know about Photoshop and as my Grandpa always used to say, “there is more than one way to skin a cat!”. But this is a method that has served me very well over the years in coping with shooting an image that required different exposures to fully recreate what I saw with my own eyes.

Read more from our Post Production category

Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • Angelina Lozano February 20, 2013 05:19 pm

    Thank you so much for taking the time of sharing you knowledge.

    Angelina Loz

  • Florian September 30, 2012 06:20 am

    Thanks for the tutorial. I just used the technique on almost the same shot from Yosemite (same location, less water more rocks) ;-)

  • Charles van Dijk May 19, 2011 12:11 pm

    Elements 9 has now layer masking. A quick and easy method is adding black and white gradients in the layer mask.

  • Aputure December 10, 2010 04:40 pm

    Excellent tutorial! This is the way that I do most of my HDR images. I've included you in a list of the top 5 HDR tutorials on the internet here: http://www.aputure.com/blog/2010/12/07/5-great-hdr-photography-resources/

  • Modeeb July 2, 2010 02:13 am

    I've been using Tufuse or Hugin to combine bracketed images and both work well but require some tweaking for contrast and exposure.

    I believe Nathan's image 'does' qualify as an HDR (high dynamic range) image. I believe however, that people have come to erroneously associate "tone mapping" with HDR, but they're obviously not the same. Not to go into the specifics but the crazy, colorful, in-your-face look of tone mapped images is pretty obvious when you see one.

    HDR on the other hand would look vibrant and intense but the content would still rule the images's overall value, not some 'artistic' effect. But strictly speaking, an HDR image does not alter but preserve what the eye originally saw at the time the photo was taken. Even the word "enhanced" using HDR techniques would to me, only mean enabling the image to be more of what you originally experienced during the shot.

    To paraphrase Zack Arias, "Ten years from now, if you've 'tricked' out your photo with effects, will it still be a good photo when the effect has become passé."

  • Burnaby Realtor January 26, 2010 07:54 pm

    I was recently introduced to this technique, and like to perform this, but as stated above, it sure is time comsuming... I have been finding images turn out great, and print very well, but when I upload them to flickr to share, they really do not look right at all... I have been trying to figure this out for a while.

  • Swiss JHG Photo December 15, 2009 04:05 pm

    I do a lot of HDR and already find the process quite lenghty but very powerful in terms of rending. I'm using lightroom and photomatix to get best results, and it works very nicely.
    Tutorial on HDR with lightroom and photomatix

  • Mark Dunn August 21, 2009 05:22 pm

    Now that HDR has integrated into the world of photography,
    there are a few new styles of HDR starting to crop up around
    the internet.

    For those who are interested in trying their hand at one of them I have just finished writing a tutorial for “Dark Style HDR”

    Which you can view with the link below:


  • Nathan August 11, 2009 08:47 pm

    Brent, you can do this, particularly if your original is a RAW file, however it wont quite have the same dynamic range as if you had actually shot it with the correct exposure. The sample I used for this tutorial has quite dramatic differences in exposure. You would struggle to get the same level of detail, saturation and crispness to your final image. But worth having a go to see if you like the results. That of course is the main thing.

  • brent August 11, 2009 11:19 am

    i have a question,,, can i just brighten up a photo and save a copy and darken another one and save a copy as well so i can have 3 different exposures? instead of taking 3 photographs on a tripod... :)

  • yuowl August 10, 2009 10:04 pm

    Good tutorial,i preffer manual work with photoshop, Photomatrix is great for beginners but if you are proffesional i think this real thing....

  • Landscape Photography July 18, 2009 12:19 pm

    This method often looks much more natural than HDR, probably as many people go everboard in HDR which results in ugly halos and really unatural looking shots. Thanks for the tips.

  • Matthew Romack May 23, 2009 08:24 am

    This is nice but this technique is most commonly referred to as DRI or dynamic range increasing. I often couple this technique after the HDR process through Photomatix to further extend the dynamic range and bring back some realism. There are better and fast ways to get the tones you need to blend in place, such as the blend if function under layer options.

  • Paul April 17, 2009 11:08 pm

    i really like the tutorial and i will try this my self.
    how ever it occurred to me.... that i could just take one photo and make 3 different versions(one very bright, mid, and dark) and then blend them together to create a HDR looking image.
    i guess this defeats the purpose of taking a HDR shot though.....

  • leo March 14, 2009 12:51 pm

    hmm, how do you handle the halo ( the dark contour) wrapping the mountains?

  • Sime February 2, 2009 06:51 pm

    Lisa, I've emailed Nathan this morning... He's a touch busy today, but will try to sort you out with the original images (there are multiple)

  • Lisa February 2, 2009 08:57 am

    Hi, I would like to download the original image just to practice with. Don't worry. I won't post it anywhere. Like I said, it's just for practice. Is there anyway I can find it?

  • Zds December 14, 2008 03:33 am

    Good tutorial, thanks :-).

    However, I would still call this HDR and tone mapping.. the fact that you combine and mask the images by hand does not change the fact that this is one way to capture higher dynamic range than can be caught in single shot (HDR imaging) and then manipulating it to be properly shown at limited dynamic range display/print (tone mapping).

  • Design Live November 7, 2008 02:37 am

    Just posted on my blog HDR tutorial: Create HDR photos with free software. Qtpfsgui and GIMP can give you more impressive results than commercial HDR apps.

  • Nathan October 10, 2008 05:43 pm

    I don't think you will find that anyone mentioned anything about hating HDR either on the tutorial or in the comments. You are right. Photography or any art expression is about taste, and this method was a sidestep away from HDR using it's principles if your taste isn't HDR. I think you will also find that I mentioned in the beginning that some HDR imagery looks fantastic, but there is a certain lighting situation that will work best with HDR. What I was mentioning was that all too often, I see what would have been a pretty ordinary image to begin with and to mask this, throw it through some HDR software to get a result. I dont find that particularly clever. That is process for processes sake as I mentioned. But I have seen some fabulous results, it's just a matter of educating when HDR is best used rather than going out and taking a picture of your dog in your dark living room and expecting HDR software to rescue your average image.

    I know you said you weren't, but you do sound very bitter indeed! This wasn't an anti HDR tutorial, this was born from the dozens of people asking me over the past couple of months questions like, "I kinda like HDR, but I am looking to get a more realistic result, can you recommend any software?" and, "I just wish I could could expose properly so I could reproduce what I was seeing with my own eyes". If anything, this is a small salute to HDR for using it's principals, just used in a different way to get a different result.

    I appreciate your sentiment and your comments though and good luck with your artistic expression whatever that may be.

  • DaMizZa October 10, 2008 01:47 am

    It's a little discouraging to see so many people hating on HDR. Photography is art, that's like trying to say that a particular genre of music is better than another... It's not. That's your opinion. While you are entitled to it, when you do something like this to appeal to newbies, it's good form to keep that opinion to yourself, and simply offer your alternative method.

    Creativity should be encouraged, and countless times all I see is people hating on HDR because it doesn't look as real as a single shot photo. That's like hating Classical music because it doesn't have the rhyme schemes and beats of Hip Hop music. It doesn't make sense, and it should not be an issue.

    When I first started in photography, I loved HDR and found it to be my method of choice. When others saw my pictures, all I got was "HDR doesn't look real, therefore it's not good, you need to learn how to take better pictures"... Comments like these turned me off HDR for quite some time, and pushed me into doing something I didn't really enjoy doing. It was to the point where I almost stopped taking pictures, because I didn't get the same satisfaction from the process as I used to. I eventually got back into HDR, and decided that no one else can tell me what I think is beautiful, I have to make that decision for myself.

    It's a shame to see so many people, who a lot of newcomers look up to for guidance and advice, shun and discourage a form of expression. If you're giving advice to newcomers, you should be doing so free of personal opinon. If you don't like HDR images, don't look at them. The same goes for someone who prefers Classical music to Hip Hop, they don't go around listening to upcoming young Hip Hop artists and telling them their work is terrible, they stick to what they know. I often wish photography was more like this, but unfortunately a lot of people want to be the expert/authority on everything, and tell others what does and doesn't look good. Obviously a lot of people feel HDR is a great method of capturing and expressing their photos, or else it would have never become so popular.

    It sounds like a lot of people are judging HDR based off of photos someone did while learning the art. Almost all of my first HDR photos were riddled with halos, but over time, those disappear as I learned how to better manipulate and utilize the technique. It's no different to people who are just learning post production, and you can see clearly every touch up they did. Doesn't mean all post production is terrible, it simply means they're learning. A lot of people even prefer the blown out HDR photos riddled with halos, some of my favorite HDR photos I've ever done were also some of my first and full of halos and unrealistic lighting/colours.

    Just remember, it's all relative, and it's all taste. You can't tell someone what they do or don't like, but you can influence them to the point where they become ashamed of what they do like, and that simply takes the joy out of what they do. If someone asks you for your opinion, don't base it on your personal tastes, try to be as neutral as possible, and provide constructive criticism. If you don't like HDR, or know much about it, don't tell them HDR isn't good or realistic looking, give them composition tips if applicable, or simply tell them that you don't do HDR and don't really have any advice to give them. The last thing ANY art form needs is people discouraging expression and creativity. That is exactly what art IS.

    I don't mean to sound bitter, but this is essentially me venting for the years of anti-HDR sentiments thrown my way that I can only imagine other people who are in my position when I first started might take out of things like this.

    If you like HDR, do HDR. Photography isn't about what everyone else likes, it's about what you feel expresses you in a way you enjoy doing. Maybe it won't make you a professional photographer, but I'd rather not make money from photography than make money from it in a way I don't truly enjoy.

    *I'm not trying to be harsh to anyone in particular here at all, I just want people to understand that you can't tell someone what is or isn't a valid or good form of expression.

  • dan October 7, 2008 06:15 pm

    I really appreciate the effort put in here.

    however as it has been asked before.. the distinction between the cliffs and the sky is not looking perfectly seamless..

    is there anyway we can come over this issue ?

  • mick October 5, 2008 06:04 pm

    I uploaded a black and white scan to Flickr - it was a train carriage and window picture with steam drifting past and condensation on the window .

    I got asked by the Admin of the HDR Ortoners and Dragen effect group if they could have my picture in their group .

    I said they could have it but had to point out it was taken on Ilford Delta 400 film , you could spot the Delta grain pattern on the carriage roof straight away ( other commenters said the grain gave a grittiness to the picture ) .
    I said I used a 28 year old Olympus OM2 to take the picture - technology from long before HDR .

    Says a lot about dynamic range on digital ? - LOL

    There is a lot of overblown , overcooked landscape pictures on Flickr and yes it can be a cliche

  • R zaman October 5, 2008 05:35 pm

    Thanks for the TUTORIAL.
    Want More..........

  • Bowie October 5, 2008 02:07 pm

    Photoshop Elements users can fake layer masks like this:


    Or you can install a layer mask tool:


    If you install the tool, I'll warn you that PSE will take a LONG time to rebuild the content database the first time you open it after adding the tool. So start it up and go have lunch or something while it rebuilds. :)

  • Sarosa October 5, 2008 09:32 am

    P.S. Will I love your pictures, especially the cave! Great shot!

  • Sarosa October 5, 2008 09:28 am

    Thanks for sharing this very interesting tutorial with us. I learned a lot, and I am eager to try out more.

    I am curious how much different the same pictures would look like if you would use the merge option and simply merge the 3 pictures together, that's how I do HDR normally. Anyway great tutorial, thanks!

  • Kostas Panagias October 5, 2008 09:01 am

    Great tutorial! HDR gives amazing results for some specific (tough) topics like shady mountains with bright skies.

    Thank you very much!

  • Viqi French October 4, 2008 01:22 pm

    Excellent tutorial. I at least minimally tweak all of my shots, but only layer and "magic wand" about half of them for in-depth manipulation.

    I use Paint.net, not Photoshop, so don't have quite as many manipulation options. Still, I'm pretty pleased with much of the work. Always good to learn a new thing to keep improving!


    Ebook / Viral Report Ghostwriter

    Flickr Photostream

  • Adrian October 3, 2008 09:04 pm

    Great technique and good tutorial. I never even thought of doing this before I saw this article.

    Thanks so much


  • Sunnyman October 3, 2008 06:23 pm

    Excellent tutorial! It must have taken some time to put together. OK, the technique is well-known but this explanation was very clear and helpful.

    I've been thinking about putting up something like this on my blog, but unfortunately I have a very old version of Photoshop and the interface isn't in English either. So tutorials like this will have to wait.

    And to to those of you that think this is some kind of HDR: it is NOT! - the author just refered to HDR in the beginning to say his method is an *alternative* to HDR.

    And yes, I've seen a bunch of HDR's on Flickr and I have mixed feelings about them... Like any tool, it can be used with various results.

  • Online hry October 3, 2008 06:00 am

    Great tutorial. Very simple.

  • ziad October 3, 2008 04:09 am

    Nice tutorial, but would not really consider it HDR-style, at least if you are using a more expansive definition of HDR.

    I would consider it more of a DRI or digital blending tutorial.

  • RBB October 3, 2008 01:58 am

    This type of thing has worked well for me also, better for my tastes than an automatic HDR creator. I have been happy doing it in PS7 for a while now: http://dlensphoto.blogspot.com/ I will have give this specific technique a try now -- thanks for posting!

  • Chantal October 3, 2008 01:20 am

    HDR is the black velvet poster of the photography world. Tacky tacky tacky. Multiple exposures is interesting sure, but get over the ugly cliché that is HDR.

  • Nathan October 3, 2008 12:52 am

    Great feedback everyone and I'm glad some of you got something out of it. Merging multiple exposures with layers in Photoshop is my most commonly asked question, so I thought it relevant to choose this to share. I look forward to seeing your results. Maybe send it to nathan@nathanpask.com as I would be keen to see how you get on.

    I just want to clarify for those who didn't like this tutorial, I wasn't trying to make an HDR image. It was simply using the PRINCIPALS of HDR and creating a more realistic result. If you want an HDR result, use PhotoMatrix or any one of those applications. This was to create something entirely different. And as I mentioned, there are many ways to get the same or similar results, however this method has served me well and this is how I do it. If you think there is a better way, then I am all ears and I await you taking the time to write a tutorial of your own accordingly and look forward to learning something new.

  • Embassy Pro Books October 2, 2008 11:33 pm

    Thanks for the info, i will try this very shortly on some photos. Your photo came out great!

  • Chris Oquist October 2, 2008 05:42 am

    Great tutorial Nathan! Nice explanations and a really well thought out workflow. I'm going to use this later on a bunch of bracketed shots I did in China last month.

    I really don't understand the deal with people giving someone a hard time for putting up free helpful content that took effort to put together..

    With regard to this controversy on here about whether or not this is really HDR - isn't the point of high-dynamic range imaging to combine several exposures and extend the range beyond that which is possible for a camera to record? Whether that's done with software or manually shouldn't have any bearing on anything.

    I'm throwing a link to here up on my blog tonight if that's cool with you.

  • Teewinot October 2, 2008 03:23 am

    Amazing work Nathan! This is one of my favorite shots of yours. :) I didn't know it was an HDR and as far as I'm concerned, that's a good thing! Sometimes HDR is way over-done and I think you did this one just right. Thanks for sharing your workflow here.

  • The Floating frog October 1, 2008 08:59 pm

    I'll support Sime by saying HDR's main aim is to produce a photo with High Dynamic Range. Automated software like Photomatix makes this process simple with some great features for managing the output. This tutorial is doing the same, it's just more of a manual process. So Jonas, your an idiot if I'm straight with you, try learning the concept behind HDR.

  • Sime October 1, 2008 08:50 pm

    @Jonas... Sorry, where are your results?

  • Jonas October 1, 2008 12:15 pm

    This tutorial sucks! Learn to use Photoshop dude! This isn't HDR. I feel sorry for the peeps you hoodwinked by calling this HDR.

  • Sathish October 1, 2008 11:33 am

    Great tutorial. I admit that I first saw this technique on Lumninous Landscapes and have used it a couple of times
    I have found out that this works best when there are clearly defined borders/edges which delineate the different exposure regions. I have had some complex multiple exposures where the only way to go was using the built-in merge function, or using a HDR tool

  • Greeblie October 1, 2008 10:53 am

    I use PS elements, and I don't think I can do layer masks so the "destructive" method mentioned by Luke Gedeon would have to work for me. Is it possible you could make the original files available for download so I might preactice the technique? Or one similar?

  • mike October 1, 2008 09:53 am

    The only thing I'd add to this excellent layer-masking tutorial is the alignment step, even when taken on a good tripod. CS3 has this under Edit > Auto-align layers if you want to do it automatically, or temporarily set a low opacity to nudge the top layers around manually.

  • Sime October 1, 2008 09:33 am

    Thanks, great tutorial... I certainly need all the help I can get with Photoshop!

  • Luke Gedeon October 1, 2008 09:07 am

    Oh, cool! Thanks.

  • Reznor October 1, 2008 08:52 am


    Yes, there is a difference. A mask can be edited any time, erasing parts of the picture destroys the pixels. Masking is non-destructive editing, the pixels are still there, they're just invisible. Erased pixels are gone. You can get them back with the history brush but if you close the file, the history is gone and you have no way to recover the pixels.

  • Luke Gedeon October 1, 2008 07:11 am

    So what is the difference between using a mask and erasing to transparent?

    After you finish laughing at my question... I am curious. Is their a difference in usability or results?

  • The Floating Frog October 1, 2008 06:54 am

    A simple technique to understand and master. This is the ideal work flow if you have several shots of the same source with different exposures. I'm just getting into photography and find I'm taking a lot of photos that just don't cut the mustard, the ones that work really well are usually sole shots so I can't use this technique unfortunately.

    However I duplicate the layers and work in areas using the Layer Mask and play around with the levels section at a time. Eventually the photo comes together and is merged down to complete the job. I find this approach more flexible for a beginner like me, though once I advance a little I'm sure your technique will come in handy.

    Thanks again, I'm sure this tutorial took a while to write and appreciate the detail in your explanation.

    The Floating Frog

  • Greg October 1, 2008 05:46 am

    Great and thorough tutorial, thanks for taking the time. One thing I've noticed when isolating the sky in my mountain pictures is the dark like where the mountain and sky meet. I'm curious to find a good technique on softening that transition.

  • Traverse Davies October 1, 2008 04:07 am

    By and large HDR is not about creating perfect exposure, it is about creating exposure that goes beyond the range possible in nature. It is an artistic technique, not a retouching technique.
    Having said that, I am often not a big fan of it... but this tutorial is about something other than HDR, it is about fixing exposure issues.

  • Adrian October 1, 2008 03:47 am

    Nice tutorial, nice looking final image. One tip and a comment: To turn your background layer into an unlocked normal layer without having to duplicate, alt-double click the layer and it will unlock.

    On your final image, the transition between the sky and the mountains looks a little bit rough to me; you might try using the blur tool on your layer mask to blend things in a little more.

  • Ray Hennessy October 1, 2008 03:03 am

    Great tutorial. I've been using this same method for many years and I also find that the more layers (exposures) you use, the less precise you have to be when masking with the brush. If there is a big difference between layers when you mask them is can easily halo. With more layers at closer exposures I tend to use a larger soft brush and it can sometimes be faster and more seamless.

  • Will October 1, 2008 02:37 am

    Great tutorial... very simple and easy to get good results.

    I often use photomatix to increase the detail in highlights and shadows. Here are a few of my HDRs's (all of them combine 3 to 5 bracketed shots):
    The skill is trying to make them look like they aren't HDR!

  • Jair October 1, 2008 02:29 am

    Thanks.. Great Tutorial.

  • Roland M. October 1, 2008 02:15 am

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but this technique is also called "Exposure Blending".

  • Nick October 1, 2008 02:10 am

    This isn't quite the same as HDR, its essentially masking using Photoshop and whilst okay for things such as replacing the sky with a better exposed version is not the same. Working on a more complex image would take forever and still not give exactly the same results.

    As for the majority of what I suspect you are referring to when you say "Does the final result look pleasing to the eye? The jury is out for a majority of it as far as I’m concerned. " is those overblown HDR images where there's a halo/glow around everything. If presented with a properly done HDR I doubt you'd even realise it was one.

    Still, its a good tutorial on combining layers using masking.

  • marshw October 1, 2008 01:41 am

    This type of article is why I joined DPS. Thanks for once again reinforcing a great decision on my part...

  • Reznor October 1, 2008 01:40 am

    Been using this technique before even anyone knew what HDR is. Much more natural look but sometimes quite a lot of work, especially when complex objects are in the shot that are hard to mask. Sometimes masking-plug-ins like Vertus Fluidmask or something like that come in quite handy.

  • matt October 1, 2008 01:27 am

    Great work. Love photoshop tutorials. To me though you could have done without the middle layer. Look forward to trying this out myself.