Exposure Blending using Luminosity Masks
Although this is fairly old post in the digital ages, it’s still one of the most popular on my website. For more detailed and advanced video tutorials for post-processing with luminosity masks and a FREE sharpening and print panel visit my website here.
1) Foreword and preparations
As promised a few months ago in my blog post about Luminosity Masking Techniques, here comes another tutorial on how to blend multiple images. This tutorial builds upon the knowledge from my previous tutorial and requires some knowledge about how to create (custom) masks, working with layers and other basic techniques within Photoshop CS6. Now, some people refer to the technique with blending via luminosity masks as “HDR”, others as “manual blending” or “extending the dynamic range”. All of these would the suitable and you will see me using probably all three of them in this tutorial.
I only use this technique on some occassions. It is extremly time consuming and needs to be done perfectly in every step of way. Going back is not always as easy as with processing of a single RAW file. The reason for blending basically lies in the fact that today’s cameras are not able to reflect the entire dynamic range the eye can see. You have probably experienced this while photographing a beautiful sunset. The sky has great orange colors but the foreground is completely dark. This could potentially create a beautiful silhouette but might not be the intended result. Alternatively, you could just work with one single exposure and remove the shadowy areas and increase contrast with a few sliders. It will probably do a fine job and in small size the difference might not be as noticeable. However, any change to image will result in the loss of quality. By blending original exposures, the quality of the final print remains on the highest possible level with no sacrifices to image quality.
With this technique, I hope that I will be able to teach you on how to extend the natural dynamic range of your camera. As described in my previous tutorial, it does not matter what camera you use. A bracketing function certainly comes in handy but you can also do without. Most important, as always in landscape photography is light and composition.
2) Preperations in Lightroom
My starting point is once again Lightroom. Currently I use Lightroom 4 and the same principle should apply to at least the newer version LR5. Let’s say you have your 3 bracketed exposures and every single one reflects on perfect part of the image. Highlight all three of them in Lightroom, then Right Click and Open as Layers in Photoshop. In this example I have taken a 5 bracketed exposure but have decided that 3 exposures will do to get the result I want to. I rarely use more than 4 bracketed images to achieve the final result.
3) Align and sort your images
Once the images have opened up in Photoshop, the first thing you want to make sure is, that the images are prefectly aligned. Although I use tripods in 90% of my shots, there can always be a slight shift. Wind, sand, water, etc can have an impact on the photo. Highlight all layers you want to blend, then click “Edit” and “Auto-Align Layers…”. I find that Photoshop usually does a pretty good job in “Auto” mode. So, I recommend trying “Auto” first and going back and trying something else in case that won’t work. Note, that this is a crucial step and absolutely necessary before proceeding with anything else. Your blending might end up with overlapping parts and this can’t be easily reversed – at least not to my knowledge. I had to start all over again a few times, simply because I forgot to align my images in the first place. Particularly annoying if you worked on an image for a couple of hours only to find out that you have to do it all over again.
Now that all photos are nicely aligned, I usually order them to make the blend easier. Depending on the image, I start with darkest or brightest image on top. In this case, I put the darkest image on top, simply because I found it easier to blend in the lighter tones later.
4) Create your custom masks
Now comes the tricky part. Blending the actual images. The darkest image is my starting point and I intend to firstly blend the “regular” exposure (what my camera told my was the “correct” exposure). Instead of creating a pre-definded masks I want to pick and choose myself, which parts I want to blend and which I don’t want to blend. There are some moving parts in here such as the palm leaves, which make it even more difficult. I start by creating a white mask next to the darkest images. Then I create all Lights Masks and all Darks Masks from the TK Actions panel (Click here to visit Tony Kuyper Photography.). Since this is a pretty dark scene and I intend to blend the lighter parts, I choose the Super Darks masks and invert the selection to get the lighter parts of the image selected. With the selection highlighted I start to carefully brush in the changes as desired.
The following image shows the blending process with the first two images. Already pretty good results but a bit too dark and not enough contrast.
To get a balanced image the way the eye saw it I have to blend one more image. The last image will mainly effect the sand, boat and bushes on the left hand side. The sky and water looks pretty good already and just need some light tweaking later on.
I do so by creating another masks. Now, the original “light image”, was bit too bright for my liking, so I will be creating an off-center midtone mask and carefully brush in the changes, as I desire.
Again, by darkening the areas in the foreground the layer underneath will come through. If you look closely, you will see that not the entire foreground is black. I brushed in with less strength in the brighter areas to increase contrast. At this level we have successfully blended three different exposures. However, it still lacks some contrast and “pop”. In the following steps, I will continue to process the photo using various techniques from Tony Kuyper’s luminosity masking techniques.
5) Further Processing
My first thought here is to increase contrast. Many of my images live of strong contrast paired with something special to make them “pop”. To increase contrast I use my favorite luminosity masks technique – off-center mid-tone masks. To create the custom masks, I start by clicking CMD+Lights masks. This will highlight 50% of the lightest areas in the image. Then I subtract the Bright Lights by clicking CMD+ALT (you will see a “-“ appear with the cursor) and create a new masks by creating an adjustment layer. In this case, I created a Curves adjustment layer and increased the blacks and whites on both ends.
In the next step, I do basically the same with the darks masks. I create another off-center mid-tone masks and increase the darks, which actually result in less contrast, but I will deal with this later. For now, the image is still a bit too dark.
After brightening some of the darker areas of the image, I want to start to give it some “pop” by creating a “Smart Glow” using the TK Actions. Smart Glow works very well with orange and red colors. Sometimes, this effect can be very strong and needs to be toned back a bit. Therefore I simply reduce the opacity of the layer to 85% and also paint with black over the entire bottom part of the image in the Smart Filters masks, since I only want the effect on the sky, nowhere else.
The following two layers are a curves and a levels adjustment layer. The levels adjustment layer is again an off-center mid-tone mask. However, this time, it is a very wide mask, meaning I have included almost all parts of the image except the very brightest and the very darkest areas. Increasing darks and whites again helps to increase contrast.
The curves adjustment layer on top of the levels adjustment layer only effects the lighter areas of the beach and the boat, helping to further lighten and increase contrast in these areas as well.
By now the image looks pretty good to me and only the very last step of image sharpening is required before it goes into print. To make life easier I simply choose to work with the TK Actions Cloud Sharpening. Since the sharpening itself is a bit too strong for my liking, I again simply adapt it to my needs by reducing the opacity to 60%. Et voila – the image is ready for print.
6) Publishing for optimized web viewing
This is a crucial step for me, as most people will get in contact with my work through the web first. Again the TK Actions web sharpening actions do a pretty good job. Simply resizing the image will result in less overall sharpness and the image will look different than on your screen or when printed, thus I can only highly recommend to use Tony’s web sharpening actions – huge difference.
I hope this tutorial was helpful to you in understanding how I process my photos. Not all of them are processed in such an intense manner as this particular one, but some situations simply require the right tools, time and effort to reflect the true scene. If you are interested in using Tony’s Action Panel for Photoshop please use the following affiliate link to buy the Panel. Thanks. (Click here to visit Tony Kuyper Photography.)