How to Blend Exposures to Enhance Your Composition

How to Blend Exposures to Enhance Your Composition


Exposure blending is a popular technique often used to create high dynamic range photography.

This article is about using the same technique but for the purposes of creating an image that contains all of the elements of a scene that you might not have been able to capture in one exposure.

Of course, we would all like to capture what is in our mind’s eye in one exposure and we strive to do so to reduce the amount of time we spend post-processing. But that doesn’t always work out and blending exposures can be a quick and easy way of creating the image you want.

Here’s an example. I was recently visiting Cape Kiwanda on the Oregon coast and I wanted to make a long exposure image that would show the motion of the water rushing back out into the sea before each incoming wave.

Cape Kiwanda, Oregon, by Anne McKinnell
I started out by taking some fast exposures to discover the composition I would ultimately use. This is what the scene looked like when I first got to the location — in fact, this is my first frame.

I quickly decided on the long exposure technique so I put on my 10 stop neutral density filter which would allow me to make a 4 second exposure in the middle of a sunny afternoon.

The difficulty was that the wave had to be just right and I had to open the shutter at exactly the right moment to get the effect I was after.

Cape Kiwanda, Oregon, by Anne McKinnell
This attempt turned out okay but it wasn’t as dramatic as what I hoped for.

After making this image, I decided that I wanted more foreground in my composition so I used a wider focal length and tilted my camera down a bit.

I made a number of images that were close to what I wanted but the foreground was not exactly as I had hoped.

Then, I finally got the big wave I was waiting for!

Unfortunately the wave was too big and even though I had pushed my tripod down in the sand the amount of water caused my tripod to sink a little while the shutter was open. That wasn’t a problem for the foreground, since it was blurred anyway, but the background was blurred in that image as well.

I spent half an hour making images at this location trying to get exactly what I wanted in camera. That is not a particularly long period of time — often I spend much longer in one location. But since I had the components I needed to make my final image, I decided to move on to other subjects.

These are the two images I ended up combining for the final product.

Cape Kiwanda, Oregon, by Anne McKinnell

Cape Kiwanda, Oregon, by Anne McKinnell

You can see how the rock in the image above is out of focus due to my tripod sinking in the sand.

In post processing, I took both of the above images and opened them in Photoshop Elements. I selected the one with the foreground I wanted, copied it, and pasted it on top of the other image so each image was on it’s own layer. Then I created a layer mask and used the gradient tool to blend the two images together.

Watch this video to see me blend these two images together in Photoshop Elements.

After blending the exposures, I made some final adjustments to contrast and colour to create the final image:

Cape Kiwanda, Oregon, by Anne McKinnell

Remember, photography is an art and you have the artistic license to do whatever you want whether that is documenting a scene exactly as you see it in front of you, or creating something that is different than what you saw with your own eyes using any technique you see fit.

Read more from our Post Production category

Anne McKinnell is a photographer, writer and nomad. She lives in an RV and travels around North America photographing beautiful places and writing about travel, photography, and how changing your life is not as scary as it seems. You can read about her adventures on her blog and be sure to check out her free photography eBooks.

Some Older Comments

  • Marv L Thomas July 16, 2013 11:42 am

    Your timing couldn't have been more perfect. I have just the picture I need to use this on ... right now! Thank you.

  • tanya metaksa June 21, 2013 04:10 pm

    Thanks for a clear and concise explanation of using the gradient tool as a layer mask.

  • Dewan Demmer June 17, 2013 05:08 am

    I have done similar things to this using Gimp. Its a great way of bringing out the best of a image by using multiple images wher eyou are able to pull out and merge the highlights to help enhance.

    In this image I remember I blended the model and dress as I had the images at different exposure :

    This is something that will take a bit of time to get right and layer masks make it so much easier to do, although it is possible to do without a layer mask.

  • digiphone June 14, 2013 03:55 pm

    Digital cameras are mostly universal standard fixed focal length lens, this product is relatively cheap, and now the high profile digital cameras are using the zoom lens.

  • jaycee crawford June 13, 2013 11:25 pm

    NICE <3 awesome video too!

  • Matt Sweadner June 13, 2013 12:14 am

    Thanks - Love it!

  • Brian June 11, 2013 02:29 am

    Thank you, I just learned something new and VERY useful today!!

  • Lanna Emilli June 10, 2013 09:40 am

    Very useful!
    I will try to get some of my old pictures fixed up using this tip! Thanks a lot =)

  • Tina June 9, 2013 06:30 am

    Not everyone uses photoshop elements so with my software, Corel Paintshop Prox4, I would have to figure this out on my own. The technique is intriguing, though.

  • Alex June 9, 2013 03:37 am

    Thanks a lot for this great video!

  • Geoff June 9, 2013 03:15 am

    Nice tips. Thank yo so much!

  • ArturoMar June 8, 2013 05:55 am

    Thank you Anne, there has been so much controversy about changing the content of an image but you expressed that so well and simple, I loved your last paragraph "Remember, photography is an art..."

    Keep doing this contributions please.

  • Carol June 8, 2013 12:23 am

    Loved your clear explanation and demonstration. Thanks so much.

  • Edith levy June 7, 2013 02:10 pm

    That was great Anne. I usually use the brush when I'm use a layer mask. I'll have to try the gradient tool next time.

  • digiphone June 7, 2013 01:53 pm

    First, framing the way the two are very different,Flagship consumer camcorder using LCD or similar electronic viewfinder (EVF).

  • Simon June 7, 2013 08:57 am

    Thank you so much. The video link is great. You made it look so easy!

  • Ron June 7, 2013 04:48 am

    Thanks, nice tip and a clear and good tl follow video!

  • David Coward June 7, 2013 01:28 am

    That's a great tip, Anne. I hadn't thought of using the gradient tool for masking. Thanks!