Discover the secret of exposure blending. In this tutorial we’ll show you how to combine photos to improve skies and achieve perfect balance in high-contrast scenes.
The eternal conundrum of landscape photography is how to balance out exposure between land and sky. Skies are typically much brighter than land, so expose for the sky and the land will be too dark. Alternatively, expose for the land and the sky ends up being too bright.
A graduated filter can come in handy by restricting light from the sky. But grads are a little limited in that they only offer a horizontal blend.
In all but the plainest compositions, the horizon isn’t horizontal: there may be mountains, trees or anything else jutting upwards. So how do we get a balanced exposure across sky and land?
One option is to use a tripod and take two or more exposures, then use an exposure blend technique and combine the images to create a single, perfectly balanced scene. Take a look at our two start images here.
One was shot at 1/2 sec so that the land looked right, the other at 1/30 sec for the sky. (A constant aperture of f22 was used in both, so that depth of field is consistent.)
By layering one image on top of another, then controlling which areas in each image are visible with a mask, we can balance out the land and sky. We’ll show you how to combine photos just like this in our tutorial below.
Along the way, we’ll encounter key Photoshop skills, from Camera Raw editing and opening images as smart objects, to layer masking, selective tonal control and sharpening techniques. So carry on reading to master the delicate art of exposure blend.
How to combine photos for perfect exposures (steps 1-9)
01 Open in Camera Raw
Download our start files and follow along! Open Adobe Bridge and navigate to our two blend_before tutorial files. Ctrl/Cmd-click on them both to highlight them, then right-click and choose Open in Camera Raw. Once open, click the Select All button at the top left of the interface. Now any changes we make to the colours will affect both files at once.
02 Correct the colours
Go to the Toolbar at the top and grab the White Balance tool. This lets us fix white balance by remapping all the colours around a neutral point of our choosing. Click over the dark water at the bottom left to set the neutral point, then tweak the Temperature and Tint sliders to about 7000 and +12.
03 Improve the land
Go to the film strip on the left and click the blend_before01 image to deselect the other file. Set Exposure to -0.25, Highlights to -40 and Clarity to +40. Next, grab the Targeted Adjustment Tool from the Toolbar, then right-click and choose Saturation. Drag upwards over the grass to boost the greens and yellows.
04 Adjust the sky
Click on the blend_before02 image, then zoom in to the sky. Go to the Basic panel and set Contrast to -27, Shadows to +63 and Clarity +15. Once again, grab the Targeted Adjustment tool and drag upwards over the blue sky to increase the saturation of the blues. When you’re happy, click the Select All button again.
05 Open as Smart Objects
Hold Shift and note how the Open Images button at the bottom right switches to Open Objects. Click this to open both files into Photoshop as smart objects. By opening the files this way, we have the option to send them back to Camera Raw at any time by double-clicking the thumbnail in the Layers panel.
06 Copy the image over
Once both files are open in Photoshop, go to the blend_before01 image. In the Layers panel (Window>Layers), right-click the layer and choose Duplicate Layer. Go to the Destination: Document settings in the dialog box and choose Blend_Before01 as Smart Object, then click OK to copy the layer over.
07 Add a layer mask
Close the Blend_Before01 file. In the Layers panel, make sure the blend_before01 file is highlighted, then click the Add Layer Mask icon at the bottom. Next, grab the Brush tool from the Tools panel. In the Tool Options at the top, choose a soft-edged circular brush tip and press 5 to set the brush’s Opacity to 50%.
08 Reveal the darker sky
Use the ] and [ keys to resize the brush tip so that it’s fairly large. Press D to reset the colours to white and black, then press X to flip them so that black is the foreground colour. Now zoom in closer to the sky and paint with black to gradually hide the light sky, revealing the darker sky on the layer below.
09 Finish the mask
Continue painting black on the mask to reveal the darker image over the sky. Press 2 for 20% opacity then paint over the tops of the mountains to gradually darken them too. Try to keep the blend between the tones looking natural. If at any point you go too far, simply press X then paint with white to reveal the lighter image.
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