We’ve all taken a shot at one time or another, only to find out the image is properly exposed for the sky, but the foreground has gone completely black or the ground is properly exposed and the sky is blown out (all white). This typically occurs when you shoot with your camera on “Auto” and you let the camera think for you. 🙂 What’s really taking place is the camera is choosing either the sky or the ground for your exposure.
One technique for landscape photographers is to utilize Neutral Density Grad filters to bring the brightness of the sky down to a range that can be recorded by the camera’s sensor. There is, however, another way to achieve a similar result without the use of an expensive filter system. This technique is called “exposure blending” and will require a camera, tripod, cable release, Lightroom and Photoshop.
With your camera mounted securely on your tripod, go ahead and compose your scene. Your cable release should be attached to your camera to avoid any unecessary movement during your exposures. I always recommend capturing your images in RAW, so you have the ability to retouch your images later in a non-destructive way. With your camera set to Manual, choose your desired aperture (f stop). Somewhere around f14 should be a good place to start. Next, choose a shutter speed that will give you the correct exposure for your foreground. A faster shutter will keep your clouds from blurring. If you are unsure where to start, take an exposure with your camera set on “Auto.” This baseline exposure should give you a starting point. Since you are shooting for your foreground first, choose a focus point in your foreground to ensure it is nice and sharp. Take the exposure and make sure the foreground exposed properly.
Next, move your focus point to the background or sky. Adjust your shutter speed to a faster setting to ensure your sky is correctly exposed. The foreground should now go dark.
You should have two images now loaded in Lightroom for your basic edits. One properly exposed for the foreground and one for your sky.
Next, in Lightroom 5, highlight both images. Right click on one of them and choose “Edit in” and in the new window, scroll to the bottom and choose “open as layers in Photoshop.” I am using Photoshop CC. Your images will open already stacked on top of one another in Photoshop. Photoshop will attempt to line up your images, but I like to double check it. Do this by holding down “Control”(PC) or “Command”(Mac) and Highlighting both image layers in Photoshop. Next, go to “Edit” ~ “Auto Align Layers.” Both of your image layers should now be aligned and ready for masking.
Select your top layer and add a Mask to it. You will find the Mask icon in the “Layers Palette” at the bottom. It looks like a square with a circle inside. A white square(Mask) should appear next to your top layer. Now select your Mask by clicking on it. With your brush tool… choose a soft edge brush at 100% opacity. You always want to blend at 100% on anything moving…ie, clouds, trees, leaves, etc. or you will have a muddled mess. As you practice, you will find applications where partial blending works great… water is an exception to the “anything moving” rule and can greatly benefit from partial blending.
Now, painting with black(on your white Mask) begin to reveal your sky.
Have fun with it and as you practice and you will find many more applications for this handy tool.
Enjoy and all the best with your Photography. Get creative!