Digital blending has become a popular technique to achieve a realistic and natural-looking HDR by combining bracketed shots into a single image with the help of luminance masks in Photoshop. It’s an advanced technique that can take some time to master, and that is why beginners shy away from it. But there is also a quicker and a rather unrefined way to blend bracketed shots in Photoshop. I have made this tutorial for beginners who would like to experience the power of exposure blending. And all that without the need to spend hours learning and understanding about digital blending using luminosity masks. In addition, when you have a limited time, a quick and easy solution is always the most appealing. By the way, exposure blending and digital blending are the same thing. So let’s get started.
Step 1 – Open Bracketed Shots
Now let’s assume that you have already taken bracketed shots on-location. It’s time to open in Photoshop. In most circumstances, you only need 3 shots in total. It’s because modern DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, in fact, most digital cameras of today are very good in capturing a decent amount of information between shadows to highlights. But in case you were wondering what those 3 bracketed shots should be, they are:
- The base exposure (usually at camera’s metered settings),
- an underexposed shot (at -1EV), and
- an overexposed shot (+1EV).
For this tutorial, I have an image of the beautiful Museum of Islamic Arts in Doha, Qatar. Here are the bracketed shots I’m using. All shots are at 1 stop exposure difference.
In digital blending, the most important step is to choose the correct exposure as a ‘base’ exposure. An acceptable base exposure should contain an adequate amount of information in shadows and highlights. It should ideally cover the complete midtone range and a decent amount of shadows and highlights as well. All the missing detail in shadows and highlights is recovered from the overexposed and underexposed shots.
Step 2 – Load your shots into Stack
Go to File>Scripts>Load Files into Stack (see below).
A dialog box “Load Layers” will appear. Click on the “Add Open Files” button. You may also check the “Attempt to Automatically Align Source Images” to let Photoshop correct any alignment issues between the bracketed shots. Be warned that sometimes this option does not work very well and may result in misaligned shots but give it a try, and confirm by zooming in at 200% to see if images are aligned perfectly.
Step 3 – Arrange the Layers
Once Photoshop is done with loading the shots into a stack, you should have 3 layers in your document. Name them correctly and arrange them properly like in the image below.
Step 4 – Extracting Shadows from +1 (shadows)
- Turn off the visibility of your underexposed, that is, -1 (highlights) layer. So you only have the base and +1 (shadows) layers visible.
- Double-click on your +1 (shadows) layer to open the “Layer Style” dialog box.
- In the “Blend If” area (see below), press alt + left mouse click on the area in red circle shown below. That should split the little white triangle on the right side of the grayscale bar into two smaller triangles. As you do that, the number above the bar (which is 255 by default) will also split into two number separated by “/” as shown in the snapshot below.
- Move the left part of the white triangle all the way to the left so the value shown above the grayscale bar shows “0”.
- Move the right part of the white triangle a little to the left until the value shows “164”
Note: The “blend if” values will always vary from image to image. You have to experiment to determine the values that would give you the smoothest transition between the midtones on the base image and the shadows on the +1 (shadows) layer.
Here is the result of the process on my image.
Left: Base shot only | Right: Base shot blended with +1 (shadows)
With just a few clicks, I was able to extract the shadow detail I wanted from my overexposed shot (+1 shadows), without having any effect on the rest of the tonal range.
Step 5 – Extracting Highlights from -1 (highlights)
- Turn on the visibility of your -1 (highlights) layer also, so now all your layers are visible.
- Double-click on your -1 (highlights) layer to open the “Layer Style” dialog box.
- In the “Blend If” area (see below), press alt + left mouse click on the area in red circle shown below. That should split the little black triangle on the left side of the grayscale bar into two smaller triangles. As you do that, the number above the bar (which is 0 by default) will also split into two number separated by “/” as shown in the snapshot below.
- Move the left part of the black triangle to the right until its value is “75” above the grayscale bar.
- Move the right part of the black triangle to the left until its value shows “225” as shown in the snapshot.
Note: The “blend if” values will always vary from image to image. You have to experiment to determine the values that would give you the smoothest transition between the midtones on the base image and the highlights on the -1 (highlights) layer.
Here is the result of this process so far on my image.
Left: Base shot blended with +1 (shadows) | Right: All 3 exposures blended
And that’s all
I have been doing all my exposure blending using luminosity masks in the past, and that is a tedious, time consuming and resource-hungry method if you are working with high resolution Raw images. But I’m glad to have learnt this quick and easy way of getting a simple exposure blending completed in just a few minutes. You may not get the perfection that is possible with the good old LM (luminosity masks) blending method, but in most scenarios, I believe this method to be very valid and useful.
Finish with Style
I like to add a finishing touch to my image with Nik Color Efex Pro, and therefore I recommend you try that out as well. It’s free after all. And in my honest opinion, Nik plugin set is the most powerful plugin I have ever used for Photoshop. With a bit more editing using Nik Viveza and Color Efex Pro, you can easily improve the results and bring a pop to your images. Here is my final result after some Viveza, Color Efex Pro and sharpening.
Huge difference, right? It’s not at all complicated and all you need is some time to experiment with the “Blend if” section to get a sense of how it works. In time, you will become a master at making digital blended shots without luminosity masks.
I hope this tutorial will help many of you struggling to create more polished images that you can be proud of. Let me know what you think about this tutorial. Did it help? Is there anything missing? As always, I welcome my readers to provide me with their valuable suggestions on what topics they’d like me to cover in the future and I will do my best to cover them.
Happy shooting everyone and don’t forget to share it with your friends and Subscribe to the email list.