Learn The Art of Blending Images in Photoshop For Beautiful & Natural High Dynamic Range Images.
Blending images in Photoshop is a popular technique used by landscape and travel photographers. It’s also used by photographers doing architecture, environmental portraits, including wedding photographers. So, whether you’re looking to blend multiple exposures from the same place and time, or composite images (replace skies). The tools and tips below and at ADP LumiFlow will help you achieve your goals.
We have created a large number of free video tutorials below. These tutorials show many methods for blending images in Photoshop. We talk about replacing graduated filters in the field with two exposures in Photoshop. How to replace skies, creating perfect selections for blending. Even how to deal with the bright lights of the cities, which can blow out in our images.
Often the blending of images can initially be overwhelming. We also show tutorials on using our automated tools, allowing you to blend up to 7 images. If you’re new to luminosity masks and blending images you may want to start with our video workshop. Our Luminosity Video Workshop teaches you in detail the creation and use of masks in your workflow.
Blending images is typically referred to the combining of two or more exposures in post-production. This is typically done to overcome the limitations in the dynamic range of our cameras.
Dynamic range: is the cameras ability to capture, without loss of detail, all of the highlights and shadows in a single frame.
If a camera is not capable of capturing the full dynamic range of the scene, you will need to bracket your exposures in order to capture all of the details. The best way to ensure that you are capturing all of the details is to use your in camera histogram as a guide.
Exposure may not be the only reason you would blend images, other examples may be:
Throughout our tutorials, we touch on all these topics, with a strong emphasis on the blending of multiple bracketed exposures, and the replacement of skies.
Sometimes, lighting conditions make it difficult for you to correctly expose a scene because the dynamic range of the scene is too wide to be captured by the imaging sensor. In this case you would bracket your exposures and then blend them together in post-production.
Exposure bracketing means that you take an exposure, and then bracket for under (-) or over (+) exposure by a set number of stops. Example: Take an exposure, then another exposure at +1 stop and another at -1 stop.
There are two methods that you can typically use with most modern camera to take multiple exposures, AEB (Auto Exposure Bracketing) or Manual Exposure Bracketing. With Auto Exposure Bracketing you are setting your camera up to automatically take a pre-determined set of exposures. With Manual Exposure Bracketing you are adjusting the settings between each shot. Below you will find the techniques to do either type.
Before you start bracketing your exposures though, you need to determine if you will need to bracket your exposures at all. Turning the live view on in your camera and bringing up the live histogram you can see where the tonal information is for the scene.
Use the steps below to determine how many stops are required for your imaging sensor to capture the entire dynamic range of the scene, ie. where you are not clipping any details in your highlights or your shadows.
After you have determined how many stops there are between the highlights and shadows, you now need to determine how you’re going to capture those images. Below are your two options:
Exposure For Shadows
Exposure For Midtones
Exposure For Colour and Cloud
Final Blended Image
In most modern SLR’s you have the option of how many images are captured in a brackets series (3, 5, 7 or 9) and the amount of stops between exposures from 1/3rd to 2 stops or more. Typically bracketing 1 stop between exposures captures a greater variety of exposures, giving you greater flexibility in post processing on which exposures to use in your final image.
Manual exposure bracketing is a technique used where you take a photo at each exposure setting as you manually adjust the shutter speed.
To take your exposure manually follow the exact same techniques you used to assess the scene. Instead of clicking from the highlights all the way to the shadows:
Using this method ensures you’ve captured the entire dynamic range and minimised the number of shots you’ve had to take. If you choose to use this technique, ensure you have a very stable tripod, this will ensure that there is minimal movement between exposures, as you have to touch your camera between shots.
This is a technique that I have seen some people use, but is not ideal, and provides little to no advantage. This involves taking a single exposure, creating duplicate files and then increasing and decreasing their exposures, so they can all be blended to together. The only benefit of this technique is it will give you the opportunity to practice blending images.
The problem with this technique is twofold:
We’re not always taking images purely for exposure blending, but we want to capture other additional details to use when blending images. These are not limited to, but can include:
These are just a few examples of additional exposures that you may take, to use while combing your photos in post to tell a story. It’s extremely rare that a surreal image you have seen has been captured in a single frame. Many have been captured in multiple frames, using different techniques, and possibly over several hours.
Example: Shooting the sunset on the beach. Take many different exposures to capture the movement of the water, until you have the perfect shot. Then change your exposure and capture the colour and sky. Now you can decide which wave motion works best and blend it with the sky image. This allows you to concentrate on the most important part, the foreground, rather then bracketing for the sky over and over.
The three images on the left are shots of the motion of the water. The shot on the right is the 1 exposure taken for the sky.
The tools available on the market for blending images is long, but they’re not all created equal. Firstly, before we get into the tools, we need to understand exactly what they are doing. Although there are many options, there really is only two methods, and even they are similar.
HDR software or automated blending tools vary in the algorithms that they use to blend images together, but they all perform the same function. They take your exposures, and bring all of the available data from each into one file. This then gives you all of the exposure information from each of the images, to manipulate in a single image.
Although this sounds good in theory, in practice, editing these files can be challenging. By combining all of the information, often our shadows, no longer resemble shadows, and our highlights no longer resemble highlights. Our images end up with so much detail, that they are overwhelming to view and edit. The other issue that can arise is hyper detail in the midtones, leading to crunchy (over sharpened look), and over saturation of colours. With some effort, you can manipulate the data in order to regain your shadows and highlights, and maintain natural colours.
Some provide preset adjustments that can help in creating in a natural image, with varying success. But, more often than not, you will find yourself fighting the detail.
The second and much more effective and natural method of blending images is to do it manually. The only downside is that it requires a little more effort. But, if you know your way around Photoshop, it can actually be pretty simple. This method of exposure blending gives you the ultimate control over where details are blended.
With manual the manual blending of images in Photoshop, you have the say in which areas of the image get detail added, and not the software. Instead of bringing in hyper detail to all parts of the image, you can apply it where it’s needed. This gives you the ability to create more natural images with greater impact.
This technique involved staking images into layers in Photoshop. Then using layer masks, revealing the areas of each of the images, until you have a final blended image. Of course, you can create the hyper detailed image, by blending in too much detail. But, with some practice, and greater understanding of what you want to achieve, your results will be much more pleasing.
This is the technique that we focus on throughout this article, and the video tutorials provided.
Before you can blend images, you’ll need to stack them into layers in Photoshop. This can be done in one of four ways.
Now all of your images should be loaded as layers in Photoshop.
Misalignment of your images is a result of camera movement while taking your images. Before you begin blending images in Photoshop, you should align them, otherwise you’ll run into difficulty. Below are some of the reasons you may need to align your images:
These are just a few examples. Of course, there would be many times you’ll work in ideal conditions where you won’t need to align your images. Also, you should check your images after aligning them to ensure that Photoshop did it correctly, it is fallible. The easiest way to check is to zoom in on areas of detail and lower the opacity of the layer until you can see both.
To use the automated tool in Photoshop to align your layers, use the following steps:
To key to blending exposures in Photoshop is in the use of layer masks. Through the manipulation of layer masks, we’re able to reveal details on specific layers. This allows us to combine the details from multiple images to create one final image. The tools that we have available to us are limitless, like most things in Photoshop. But, we’re going to focus on a few of the most effective methods to blend images.
Blending images in Photoshop can be as simple as using a gradient filter. This technique is no different to using a gradient filter in the field, except you’re doing it in post-production. In the field, you use a graduated filter to able to exposure for high dynamic range scenes. By blocking the light from the bright areas, you’re able to expose for the shadows and bright areas in the same exposure. Although this can be an effective method, there are reasons it may not be desirable:
The effect of using a graduated filter in the field can be replicated in Photoshop in just a couple of seconds, and requires very little to know post processing skill. The added benefits are:
There isn’t a set order that your images need to be stacked in order to be able use a graduated filter to blend images. You can have the light image on top and dark below, or vice versa. My preference when blending images using this method, is to have the light image on top, and dark below. Use the following steps:
As you see it can be a very effective method of blending images in Photoshop. I still own graduated filters, but I rarely carry them into the field anymore.
This is a very powerful method of blending images in Photoshop, allowing you to bring fine details through from multiple exposures. The great benefit of this method over HDR software, is you get to choose what parts are taken from each image. This allows you to easily keep shadows and highlights in your image, creating images with greater impact.
The order that you complete blending images is up to the individual. You’ll develop your own preferences and methods with practice and time. In this section I talk about the method I typically use to do my image blending.
There is no hard and fast rule about what you blend first, you can either choose to blend for highlights, or blend for your shadows. This means, deal with the highlight areas first, or deal with the shadow areas first. My preference is to deal with the highlight areas first. So,
If using the graduated filter method of blending images would work here, you can use it to blend the images. To purely use luminosity masks, you have a couple of options, either apply a luminosity selection directly as a layer mask, or paint in the areas you want using a selection. By painting you have much greater control and you can choose the area you want to blend. Below are the techniques for each option:
When you apply a luminosity selection to the entire image, it will work similar to using HDR software. It will apply the effect to the entire image. Although it’s not exactly the same, as you do have control over what that mask looks like. So, you can manipulate and restrict the mask to work in the areas you want to affect.
By painting in the areas that we want to reveal, we have complete control. The control is not only on areas that we want to blend, but also how much of those areas get blended.
Regardless of how many images you have, the image blending process described below, is the same for each one. The premise for the remaining images, is to blend in that parts that you want from each of the images.
Using the blend if function in Photoshop to blend images is comparable to using luminosity masks. In fact, the way the blend if function works, is identical, and will assist in keeping your files sizes down as you don’t create masks. The upside, is also the downside. Because you don’t have masks to work with, manipulate and modify, you don’t have complete control over the areas blended.
The easiest way to understand how it works, is to open a couple of bracketed exposures as layers in Photoshop. Once they are open, double click on the grey area of the top layer, to the right of the image and mask if there is one. This will open a pop up window called “Layer Style”.
At the top of this window you’re going to see items such blending modes, layer opacity, fill, etc. These are no different to the options you have for each of the layers in your layer stack, so I won’t discuss them. At the bottom of the window there is a section that starts with a pull-down menu called “Blend If”.
This pull-down menu allows you to blend your images based on specific colour channels, or RGB. Different colour channel, can often give you a better starting point for some blends, depending on what you want to achieve. The Gray option is the standard selection and incorporates all of the Red, Green and Blue channels.
Underneath the Blend If function, you’ll find two sets of sliders titled “This Layer” and “Underlying Layer”. These are the sliders that you use to tell Photoshop how you want the layers to be blended.
The left side of the sliders represents the shadow areas, and the right side represents the highlights.
In each of those bars, you see two sliders, a black and a white slider. If you look closely at the sliders, you’ll also see a thin white or black line down the middle of them. You actually have the ability to break that slider into two pieces. When you slide a slider, it starts to blend, with a hard edge. If you reach a point where you want that edge to start smoothing out with cleaner transitions, you need to split it.
Holding CMD or ALT, left click on the slider. This will break the slider into two pieces. Now when you slide the inner of the two pieces, you’ll see the blending start to have smooth transitions. If you touch the two broken pieces back together, they will re-join and slide as one.
Now that you understand how the tools actually work, you can start using the sliders to blend your images.
As I mentioned previously, this will use that tonal information through your image, and blend it. You don’t have the ability to pick and choose, you can only choose the tonal range.
As you can see there are many ways to blend images in Photoshop. Each of them has advantages and disadvantages. Ultimately, you will need to decide what works best for you and gets you the results that you desire. The best starting place, is to practice, try different techniques and methods, ensuring you understand what is happening. Through understanding, you can tackle just about any problem that you encounter.
Find below many hours of free tutorials on blending images in Photoshop. Regardless of the techniques you prefer, you’ll find tutorials covering your area of interest. In our 2 image blending series, we cover multiple methods to achieve the same results. Some of the topics you’ll find covered are:
For tutorials related to using luminosity masks more broadly in your workflow visit “The Complete Guide To Luminosity Masks“.
A complicated blend, with two completely different exposure and coloured images. We use advanced techniques to create a perfect blend, and deal with strong halos around the trees.
In this tutorial I cover two examples of blending 3 exposures. The first deals with an image with bright highlights, the second a set of images with dark shadows.
By combining different methods of mask creation in ADP LumiFlow, we’re able to create a specialized mask. We show you how to combine mask creation methods, creating a perfect mask.
In this instalment of the image blending series, I focus on using graduated filters in Photoshop. This is a very power method, that replaces the need to use graduated filters in the field.
There are many way to use luminosity selections when we’re blending image in Photoshop. In this tutorial, I use zone system masks to help make selections allowing more control over blending.
There are 3 methods of automated exposure blending built into ADP LumiFlow. It’s a very quick tool for blending up to 7 images and can often give great results, speeding up your workflow significantly.
Image blending is one of the most popular techniques used by landscape photographers to deal with exposure. This tutorials series shows many of the blending methods they use.
Taking cityscapes in the blue hour can create some very dramatic images. The lights of the city can cause issues with exposure. This tutorial show how to deal with the very bright lights of the city.
Exposure blending is one of the most popular uses for luminosity masking. The blending process can be quite complicated when you’re working with bracketed images, and even harder with panoramas.
In this episode we complete a 3 image photo blend. Peter presented an issue, having difficulty with the blending process, with 3 exposures, 2 stops apart.
The complexity in replacing the sky in an image can differ greatly depending on a few things. In this case Dennis asked us if we could help with a challenge.
By taking two exposures in the field you can replace graduated filters. Create perfectly blended image in post, in a simple step, give you much better results.
The blending of multiple exposures with luminosity masks can be easy. Using the techniques that I show in this video tutorial, you can blend 3 images or more.
Through blending of multiple exposures, we create beautiful high dynamic range images naturally. This tutorials works with the difficult tasks of working with extremely fine details in tree leaves and branches.