Combining Different Exposures in Photoshop

Some photos – especially photos that include a sky and a ground – lack the blessing of having all elements in the image exposed perfectly. More often than not, the sky will be overexposed or the ground will not have enough exposure, leaving you with an image not representative to what your naked eye saw that day. If you have the ability to produce two entirely different exposures of the same scene, and have Photoshop at your disposal, then you are quite the lucky photographer. In this tutorial, I will show you an easy way to blend exposures so that you can have a perfectly exposed image that captures the true beauty of the photo you intended to create.

Ideally, you will want to have two different exposures that were auto-bracketed out in the field with a tripod. You could just adjust the exposure of one single RAW file and save two copies, but two entirely different images to work with would be best.

1. Open both images in Photoshop and choose which image you would like to be your base. For the example photo, I chose to use the foreground/clam shack image as the main file. Once it is chosen, bring up your other file and click CTRL + A to select the entire image, then CTRL + C to copy it. Now return to your base image and press CTRL + V to paste it (Figure 1); Photoshop should automatically paste your other image on a new layer right on top of your base photo.

Combining Different Exposures

2. While holding down the ALT key, click on the “add layer mask” icon located in your layers palette toolbar to add a black masking layer, which will allow us to blend in the layer to which the mask is applied to (Figure 2).

Combining Different Exposures

3. With your Brush tool (keyboard shortcut: B) set to 100% Opacity and having a foreground color of white, begin to brush the areas you want to blend. Depending on what the subject matter is in your photo, expect to adjust the Hardness level a few times. In the example image, I used a 0% Hardness level for the sky and treeline, but when I started to blend in the sky where it meets the roof of the clam shack, I switched to a small brush size set to a Hardness level of 90% so that there was very little blending of the layers (Figure 3). If I did not, the transition between layers would be too gradual and the image would look unnatural.

Combining Different Exposures

After adding some finishing touches in post process, this is the end result:

Combining Different Exposures

Exposure blending is meant to be an invaluable way to obtain images that have a variety of different exposures, but at a much higher level of control than if you were to blend these images with HDR. This technique can be applied to any genre of photography, not just landscapes. This method can help fix those dewdrops on a flower that were inadvertently overexposed, or even the underexposed background of your most recent portrait can benefit greatly from this highly customizable way to expand your limitations on photography.

Christopher O'Donnell Christopher O’Donnell is a professional landscape/portrait photographer who lives on the coast of Maine. When not scouting for new locations or spending time with
his “sons” (his two yellow labs), he is a freelance writer who authors photography course work.

Website: christopherodonnellphotography.com

Christopher O’Donnell

Read more great articles by Christopher O’Donnell on his website or follow him on Facebook and Twitter. You can also add him on Google+ and 500px.

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What Our Readers have to say

  1. Mike says:

    I like the technique of blending images of different exposures to obtain the final image. The problem I have is that in the example above the water is NOT reflecting the dramatic clouds.

    In that respect the image looks contrived.

  2. Hi Mike,

    I see your point, but if you look at the two original, straight-from-the-camera images at the beginning of this tutorial, you can see that the clouds really aren’t reflected in either images. This is due to two things:

    1. the ripples in the water break up the reflection.

    2. if you see in the water where the sun is reflected (where the flowers meet the water), most of the dramatic cloud formations are located above that point, which is part of the water not seen since the plants block it. Still, I can see some clouds reflected in the water around where the sun is, but not much since it is still broken up by the ripples.

    I do see your point, but not every body of water is like glass; when you get ripples, the reflection is heavily distorted or even non-existent.

  3. Felipe L.B. says:

    I wonder how you have done the final step – when you equalizes the colors in the photo. Can you explain this?

  4. Friend of Mike says:

    I think mike was just trying to look for something in the photo to be critical about. Its one thing to offer supportive criticism about an image but its something entirely different to call someone’s photo contrived.

    Mike was simply looking for a reaction, which he received. But he also made himself look like a immature, sad, little school boy in the process.

    I like the technique, thanks for sharing.

  5. ArianaMurphy says:

    Great article, Christopher. Thanks for taking the time to share! Can you tell me please, if these layering and brush options are available in Photoshop Elements?

  6. Matt says:

    Hi, I’m trying to combine two photos of a temple I shot. However, when I try to combine the different exposures of the temple they are not exactly the same shot so the buildings to not line up exactly. Is there anything I can do to fix this? Any advice on blending the underexposed (no detail in the building) temple into the sky so that you can only see the overexposed (detail and color in the building) temple?
    Thanks

  7. Kevin says:

    Matt

    If you lock one layer – then select both – go to edit align layers – this will align them according to what you select.

    Once done you may have to crop because images might not overlay perfect but it should then allow you to merge with images aligned – of course it all depends how close the two images are – if they were taken about the same spot

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