Are blown highlights spoiling your landscape photography? Find out in this tutorial how you can use simple Photoshop effects like a Gradient Fill adjustment layer to get more balanced exposures.
When shooting landscapes, you can overcome the difference in light levels between a bright sky and darker terrain to produce an evenly exposed shot by using a graduated neutral density filter – also called an ND grad filter. If you don’t have one of these, don’t worry – you can reproduce the effect in Photoshop Elements.
The key to an effective ND grad in Photoshop Elements is to use selections, layers and gradients. The gradient will be on a separate layer, so you can easily adjust exposure to restore colours and details that are missing from an over-exposed sky.
In this Photoshop tutorial you’ll learn how to isolate the sky using selection tools, and how to apply a Gradient Fill adjustment layer to this selection. This will help darken the over-exposed sky at the top of the shot while blending it seamlessly with the shot’s correctly exposed clouds lower down.
You’ll also learn how to tint the gradient so that it contains the same colours as the clouds. This combination of subtly blended tones and colours will make the edited sky look natural.
As well as tweaking the sky’s colours and tone, we’ll show you how to make selective tonal adjustments to other parts of the shot to bring out texture and detail. We’ll also use layer masks to prevent the lighthouse from being altered by the gradient layer, and gently tweak its mid-tones with the Burn tool to make it look less flat.
How to rescue blown highlights – steps 1-9
01 Adjust the mid-tones
Open your start image with the blown highlights. Click the Create New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers palette and choose Levels. Drag the grey Midtone input slider right to 0.70. This darkens the photo’s mid-tones, revealing more colour and texture in the over-exposed sky.
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02 Select the sky
The sky adjustment works well, but the land is now too dark. We need to restrict the adjustment to the sky. Select the Magic Wand and set the Tolerance to 41. Keep Contiguous ticked. Hold down Shift and click the sky repeatedly until it’s all selected. Don’t worry if you include bits of lighthouse at this stage.
03 Fill the selection
To select the land choose Select>Inverse. Now click the white layer mask and choose Edit>Fill Selection. In the Fill Layer window set the Use drop-down menu to Black and click OK. The sky will remain in its adjusted state while the land gets restored to its original exposure.
04 Tidy the mask
Press Ctrl+D to clear the selection and then select the Brush tool. Next, click the Brush Preset picker and choose a hard round brush. Set the Size to 25 pixels before pressing D to set the Foreground colour to black. Click the mask and then spray over any affected areas of the lighthouse.
05 Burn in the lighthouse
The lighthouse is a bit too flat. To give it some depth, click the Background layer and choose the Burn tool. Set the Range to Midtones, Exposure to 20%, and Size to 150 pixels. Spray on the lighthouse to darken its delicate mid-tones and bring out its three-dimensional shape.
06 Sample the sky
Choose the Eyedropper from the Tools palette and click a dark patch of moody blue sky in order to sample it. To use the same blue colour that we sampled, click the Foreground colour icon at the bottom of the Tools palette and type in RGB values of 121, 147 and 159. Click OK.
How to rescue blown highlights in your landscape photography – steps 7-9
07 Add a gradient
Hold down Ctrl and click the Levels adjustment layer’s mask to reactivate the sky selection, then click the Background layer’s thumbnail. Click the Create New Adjustment Layer icon and choose Gradient. Click the Gradient preview to open the Gradient Editor and select the Foreground to Transparent preset.
08 Edit the gradient
Tick the Reverse box so the Gradient starts at the top of the frame and fades towards the horizon. Click OK. Drag the Gradient adjustment layer to the top of the layer stack. Set its blending mode to Multiply and Opacity to 30%. The blown-out sky now has added colour and tone, creating an even exposure.
09 Duplicate the Background layer
The lighthouse also stands out more thanks to our digital ND filter, but the foreground rocks lack contrast. You can target and tweak the tones of this area to reveal more texture detail. Drag the Background layer thumbnail onto the Create New Layer icon to duplicate it.
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