Landscape Photography Exposure Blending in Photoshop

by Jan 8, 2021Photo Editing Tutorials

Robin Whalley Landscape Photographer

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Landscape Photography Exposure Blending in Photoshop

In this tutorial I explain how to do exposure blending in photoshop for landscape photography. Although I shoot most of my landscape photography using graduated neutral density filters, I sometimes also use exposure blending techniques. This is usually where filters don’t work well, perhaps because of the shape of the landscape, or the conditions are too extreme as in this example.

Exposure Blending in Photoshop Finished image

I photographed this misty sunrise landscape scene using a 3 stop Reverse ND Grad filter. As I was shooting towards the sun, I also bracketed the exposure because the dynamic range still appeared too high for the camera. By shooting the image 5 times at different exposures I knew I would be able to create a well exposed scene in post processing.

If you struggle to follow the steps in the tutorial, you will find a video at the end demonstrating exposure blending in Photoshop using the image above.

Exposure Blending Landscape Photography

When you decided to photograph a landscape scene where exposure blending might be needed, first decided on the number of exposures you need. Typically, I like to shoot 5 exposures at 1 stop intervals (-2 stops, -1 stop, correct exposure, +1 stop, and +2 stops). As I shoot using RAW format, this usually captures enough dynamic range for exposure blending to work well in most situations.

To capture the images, I like to use the camera on a tripod as this helps minimise any movement between each frame. When you have movement between the frames, you will see ghosting in the image after exposure blending because the objects don’t line up properly.

It’s also a good idea to shoot your exposure bracket quickly and avoid touching the camera between shots if you can. I like to set the exposure bracketing in my camera to automatically take all 5 shots when I fire the shutter once. If your camera has this feature be sure to use it.

Processing RAW Files for Exposure Blending

When it comes to preparing RAW files for exposure blending you don’t need to use all the frames in the bracketed sequence. With an image like the one above, it’s often enough to pick two frames: one for the sky and one for the foreground.

To process the RAW files, it’s important to apply the same settings to all images for adjustments that can affect the position of objects or their sharpness. Typically, you only adjust the exposure (including shadows and highlights) and perhaps the colour temperature for individual photographs.

As well as applying “common adjustments” to all the images you intend to use, you also  need to optimise each image for its intended purpose. For example, if you’re going to process an image to use for the sky, optimise it for that purpose. It doesn’t matter that your adjustments make the foreground look terrible because you won’t see that area after exposure blending in Photoshop.

When you have prepared your selected RAW files, convert them to TIFF images and open them in Photoshop ready for exposure blending.

Exposure Blending in Photoshop

After opening the two images you’re going to use for exposure blending in Photoshop, you need to combine them as two layers in the same image. You can do this by right clicking on one of the images in the Layers Window and selecting “Duplicate Layer” in the popup menu. This displays the Photoshop Duplicate Layer dialog.

Copying a layer to another image in Photoshop

In the Duplicate Layer dialog, enter a new name for the copy layer you are creating (1). You can then set the document (or image) you want to copy the image to (2). After you click OK, you can close the image you’ve just copied. You should also see that it’s been added as a new layer in the Layers Window of the other image.

The next step we need to take to prepare for the exposure blending in Photoshop is to align the layers.

Aligning Image Layers in Photoshop

Before we can start the process of exposure blending in Photoshop, we first need to align the two image layers. This ensures the objects in both image layers line up and avoids the problem of ghosting when we blend the exposures. Be sure to do this even if you have used a tripod to shoot your bracket sequence.

To align the layers, select both layers in the Photoshop Layers Window. You can do this by holding down the Cmd key (Mac) or Ctrl key (PC) on your keyboard whilst clicking the layers.

With both layers selected, click the Edit menu, and choose the “Auto-Align Layers” option. This displays the “Auto-Align Layers” dialog.

Aligning layers in Photoshop before exposure blending

Choose the Auto option and click OK. After a few seconds, the layers are aligned.

Once the layers are aligned you might see a narrow transparent edge around the frame where the images have shifted. If you see this, you should crop the image to remove the edge before continuing. It’s easy to forget to do this.

Masking Layers in Photoshop

The order of the layers in your image isn’t important but I personally like to have the foreground layer on the bottom and the sky layer on top. I can then hide the sky layer using a black layer mask which I then paint on to create the exposure blending.

In the Photoshop Layers Window, click the new copy layer to select it and then add a new layer mask. The new layer mask will be white, but we want to invert it so that it hides the layer. You can do this by clicking the layer mask to select it and then clicking the “Invert” button in the mask properties window. Alternatively, you can use the keyboard shortcut Cmd + I (Mac) or Ctrl + I (PC) when you have the mask selected.

Inverted layer mask in the Photoshop layers window

You should now see only the foreground layer in the image.

Select the Paint Brush tool from the Photoshop Tools Palette and configure this to have a soft edge (0 hardness) and use white paint. Set the initial opacity for the brush to around 70% for the first pass of painting.

Making a Photoshop Luminosity Selection

We now need to create a Luminosity Selection from the foreground image (where the sky is too bright). This is what we use to paint through to create the exposure blending for the sky.

The exposure mask we need to create is called a Lights 1 mask. This usually works well for most exposure blending examples. If you have a luminosity masking panel like Lumenzia (affiliate link) or TK Actions you can use it to create the Lights 1 selection. If you don’t have one of these panels, you can use the following method.

RGB channel in the Photoshop Channels Window

Open the Photoshop Channels Window where you will see the RGB channel as well as the individual Red, Green and Blue channels. Hold down your Cmd key (Mac) or Ctrl key (PC) and click the RGB channel with your mouse. You should then see the marching ants indicating the active selection.

This is a Lights 1 selection.

Painting the Exposure Blending

Click the black layer mask on your sky layer in the Photoshop Layers Window to select it. Using the white paint brush at 70% opacity, paint over the sky where you want to blend the exposure. This will apply the white paint to layer mask in the areas where you paint to reveal the sky exposure.

After a few passes of the brush, reduce the opacity to around 30%. Use this to paint on the transition zone where the sky and foreground meet. Don’t worry about painting over the area of the ground as it helps with the exposure blending.

After a few brush strokes, change the brush colour to black. You can then paint over the transition zone again, but this time it hides the sky layer. Make a couple of passes with the brush and then clear the selection. Because we are using a lower opacity, it doesn’t completely cover the previous brush strokes but instead helps to blend them.

Finally change the Opacity to around 10% and paint on the layer mask in the transition area of the image to help blend the exposures together. As you do this continue switching between black and white.

Here’s what how the finished layer mask looks.

exposure blending layer mask using a lights 1 luminosity selection in Photoshop

Refining the Exposure Blending in Photoshop

After exposure blending the two layers in Photoshop, you may find the image looks a little flat. This is a common problem which we can correct using the Levels Adjustment. What’s important when doing this is to apply a different Levels adjustment to each image layer as they won’t require the same correction.

To add the first levels adjustment, select the foreground layer in the Photoshop Layers Window. Then add the Levels adjustment layer from the Photoshop Adjustments Window or using the “Layers | New Adjustment Layer” menu option. You should see the new Levels adjustment added to the Layers Window immediately above the foreground layer.

After adding the Levels adjustment, set the black, white and midtone Levels to enhance the foreground image contrast. Because the foreground image is on the bottom of the Layers Window and the Levels layer is immediately above this, the adjustment only affects that layer.

Next select the Sky layer and add another Levels adjustment layer immediately above it. This time, we need to create a Clipping Mask with the new Levels layer to restrict its effect to just the Sky layer. To do this right click on the new Levels layer in the Photoshop Layers Window. In the popup menu select the “Create Clipping Mask” option which clips the Levels layer to the layer immediately below it.

You can now apply your levels adjustment to refine the sky in the image. This completes the exposure blending in Photoshop and you’re ready to apply other enhancements to finish your image.

Exposure Blending in Photoshop Finished image

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Photoshop Exposure Blending Video

To help you following the exposure blending steps in this tutorial I’ve published the following video on YouTube.

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You can also watch this video on my YouTube channel. I publish a new video every week, often based on subscribers’ requests and feedback. Subscribe to my YouTube channel now and be sure not to miss future videos.

Summary of Exposure Blending in Photoshop

Exposure Blending in Photoshop can be extremely helpful when photographing landscapes, especially when the scene exceeds the dynamic range of your camera. Initially the process can seem complicated but with a little practice you will soon master it. The most important steps in the process are:

  • Process your RAW files for blending with the same adjustments but then refine each image (tone and colour) to suit its purpose.
  • Merge the images for blending into a single image as separate layers.
  • Hide the top layer with a black layer mask.
  • Use a Lights 1 luminosity selection to blend the exposures together by painting onto the layer mask.
  • Apply independent Levels adjustments to each layer to refine the exposure blending.

This tutorial has explained exposure blending in Photoshop using luminosity masking. If you want to learn much more about how to edit photos using luminosity masks in Photoshop, my Luminosity Masking course can help.

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