Landscape photography is all about capturing detail throughout the scene, and to do this you need to get exposure right. But in most cases where a sky is included, the land will be darker than the sky, especially if you’re shooting at dawn or dusk. To get the best results you need to balance the light, either by using a graduated filter or by exposing multiple frames for different parts of the scene so that you can later blend two photos in Photoshop.
For the image above, we captured two frames that allowed us to get a correct exposure for both the land and sky. With these frames we could blend two photos in Photoshop and achieve the same results as we would have if shooting with a graduated lens filter.
There are a few advantages to doing things this way. Not only can you blend two photos with different exposures, you can also combine two white balance settings to warm the foreground, and apply sharpening just to the areas that need it most.
Here, you’ll perform the majority of your tonal edits in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), before using Photoshop CS to combine the two exposures with a Layer Mask.
This type of workflow utilises the different strengths of each program, as ACR is the best choice for tonal control over raw files, while Photoshop CS gives you the option to combine more than one image, something that can’t be done in ACR.
Along the way, we’ll show you a host of useful tips, from precise sharpening in ACR to tweaking a gradient mask with Levels.
How to blend two photos in Photoshop
Step 1 Open your files
The easiest way to open raw files into Adobe Camera Raw is through Bridge. Find your two exposures in Bridge, then hold Cmd/Ctrl and click on each file. Right-click on them and choose Open in Camera Raw. Jpeg and Tiff files can be opened in the same way.
Step 2 Correct lens distortion
Next, you need to click Select All at the top left of the display, then go to the Lens Corrections panel. Click on the Profile tab and check the Enable Lens Profile Corrections box. This will automatically detect your choice of lens and adjust the level of distortion accordingly.
Step 3 Remove marks
Grab the Spot Removal tool from the top toolbar. Make sure Type is set to Heal, then zoom right in to the image and click and drag a small circle over the mark in the sky to remove it. Move around the image, removing any other similar marks in the same way.
Step 4 Make tonal tweaks
Double-click the Hand tool to zoom out to full screen, click on your foreground exposure and select the Basic tab. Set Exposure to +0.80, Fill Light to 10, Blacks to +30, Contrast to +50 and Clarity to +15, then drag Temperature to 7000 to warm the tones of the rocks.
Step 5 Sharpen gently
Double-click the Zoom tool to zoom to 100%, then click the Detail panel. Set Noise Luminance to 20, then click Sharpening. Set Amount to 40, Radius to 1.3 and Detail to 25. Zoom out, hold Alt and drag the Masking slider for a greyscale view. Set it to about 13.
Step 6 Boost the sky
Click on sky_before, then go to the Basic panel. Set Exposure to +0.25, Fill Light to 10, Blacks to 10 and Clarity to +40. Set Temperature to 5500 and Vibrance to +20, then move Saturation to +10. Finally, click Select All, hold Shift and click Open Objects.
Step 7 Combine your images
Your two files will open as Smart Objects. Go to your original sky exposure, right-click the layer and choose Duplicate Layer. In the Duplicate Layer box, choose Destination Document: ‘your original foreground exposure’ as Smart Object and hit OK. Close the original sky image.
Step 8 Check the alignment
Click on the Blending Mode drop-down and choose Difference to see if the two layers are aligned. Zoom in to the rock edge, then grab the Move tool and use your keyboard arrow keys to nudge the top layer until the edges on both layers match exactly.
Step 9 Set up a gradient
Change the layer Blending Mode to Normal, then click the Add Layer Mask icon. Grab the Gradient tool, then click Preview to access the Gradient Editor. Choose the first Foreground to Background preset and make sure the Linear Gradient style is selected.
Step 10 Blend the layers
Hit D to reset to white and black, then hold Shift and drag a line from the horizon down to about a third of the way up from the bottom of the frame. It can be difficult to judge the size and position of the gradient, so try again if you think you can do better.
Step 11 Tweak the gradient
You can use Levels to control the blend area of the gradient mask. With the Mask thumbnail highlighted, go to Image>Adjustments>Levels. Drag the midpoint slider to the left or right to shift the blend area of the gradient up or down. Here, we’ve set it to 0.83.
Step 12 Hone the mask
Grab the Brush tool and choose a soft-edged circular brush. Hit D, then X to set foreground colour to black. Press 1 to set Opacity to 10%. Paint over the top part of the rocks to gradually hide the darker tones and reveal the lighter rocks underneath.
Step 13 Reveal the detail
Hit the X key to switch your foreground colour to white, then paint over the lighter areas of sea to reveal more of the top layer and give more definition to the water. Toggle the eye icon of the top layer off and on by clicking on it. This will help you to judge the blend.
Step 14 Final tweaks
Click the Create New layer icon, then grab the Sharpen tool. Set Strength to 15% and make sure Sample All Layers and Protect Detail are checked. Paint over the rocks to selectively sharpen areas, then make any necessary tonal tweaks in Adjustment Layers.
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