Learn to Master Exposure Blending

There is an often used technique where you process a single Raw file a number of times with different exposure settings to get the most out of the various elements in the image, and then layer them in Photoshop and you selectively mask each one to only reveal the best of each exposure for each layer. It is a simple, but effective way of producing a final image where all the elements blend together in a much more balanced final image.

Here, we take you through the process with a sample image shot on the North coast of Tresco in the Isles of Scilly.

Step 1 – The original single Raw file was opened in Adobe camera Raw. The image’s settings were adjusted so the foreground rocks revealed as much detail as possible. This image was saved as a jpeg called ‘rocks’.

Step 2 – The Raw file was then adjusted so that the sea and the white water spray and highlights were as well exposed as possible. This was saved again but called ‘sea’ this time.

Step 3 – Once again, the Raw file was adjusted. The exposure was decreased so the sky was darker but with enough contrast in the clouds. This version was saved as a jpeg named ‘sky’.

Step 4 – Finally, it was decided to create one last jpeg called ‘sky 2’ which was darker still than the previous version. This meant there was a deeper blue sky to use at the top of the image.

Step 5 – In Adobe Bridge, select the four jpegs and then go to Tools > Photoshop > Load Files into Photoshop Layers. The four images will be loaded into Photoshop in one document and stacked in individual layers.

Step 6 – In our example, we have ordered the images with the ‘rocks’ layer first, then ‘sea’, next is ‘sky’ with ‘sky 2’ at the top of the stack.

Step 7 – Turn off the visibility of all the layers except the ‘rocks’ base layer. Each subsequent layer will be masked to let a specific portion of each layer show through and blend with the base ‘rocks’ layer.

Step 8 – Make the ‘sea’ layer visible. Whilst pressing the Alt key click on the Add Layer Mask icon to add a black mask to the ‘sea’ layer. The ‘sea’ layer will become blocked by the mask, but we can start to reveal areas of this image in the next step.

Step 9 – Click on the ‘sea’ mask thumbnail to activate it. Choose a large soft white brush and start to paint white in the areas of this layer you want to be visible. As you paint white on the mask, more of the sea and spray will be allowed to show through.

Step 10 – If you press the Alt key and click on the mask thumbnail for the ‘sea’ layer, you will be able to examine the mask on its own more clearly. Press Alt and click the thumbnail again to revert to the normal view.

Step 11 – If you want to remove any areas you’ve just painted white, hit X on your keyboard to toggle the foreground colour from white to black, and paint black over any white areas as you wish. Press X again to go back to white.

Step 12 – Make the ’sky’ layer visible, and using the same approach as the previous steps, add a mask and paint on the mask where you want the better exposed sky to show through.

Step 13 – If you view the mask on its own, you can see the areas in white that are allowing portions of the sky and the rocks of the ‘sky’ layer to be visible. Anything in black is effectively blocking the image.

Step 14 – Finally, we come to the ‘sky 2’ layer. As in the previous steps, add your mask to this layer and paint on the mask with your soft, white, brush to reveal more of the darker blue sky at the top of the image.

Step 15 – Your document will now comprise of four layers. Each different exposure has been masked to allow the best of each to show through and what you see is a composite of all four layers.

exposure blending 2

Step 16 – If you compare this to the original Raw file, you’ll see that with a few different exposure adjustments at the processing stage, you can create a blend of images that gives you a well-balanced final result.

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Mark Frost

Mark started work as a commercial artist during the good old days of Letraset, spray mount and having to process your photos at a local chemist. Having discovered his passion for photography, Photoshop and the wonders of digital image manipulation, he has not looked back. He is well on his way to owning more cameras than he’s had hot dinners.

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