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How-to's Software Reviews

Unraveling the Mysteries of Digital Image Blending

Larry Anderson (mnbuilder49)

Keywords: digital, postprocessing, adobe, photoshop, blending, dynamic_range, tutorial, guides, tips_and_tricks

Extended dynamic range images cannot be done with a single exposure. However they can be dealt with various tools and methods. The first, since film times, is to use Graduated Neutral Density filters. They do work very well under most conditions, however, as you move up to wider diameter lenses the kit becomes bulkier and more expensive.

The second tool is your own camera. In-camera image blending is now available in most modern bodies. Just make two images, one shooting for the highlights and another exposed for the shadows. Doing this, locking focus at hyperfocal distance, in aperture priority and on a sturdy tripod eliminates depth of field and focus variations.

The third set of tools are specialized HDR software (like Photomatix Pro), always recommended for extreme wide dynamic range images, and Plugins (that you will need to buy).

The fourth tool is Photoshop, and there are two methods: The Painted Layer Mask, (the most laborious and time consuming), and The Layer Mask (my favorite, that will be presented here).

This is the LAYER MASK process:

STEP 1. In Photoshop, open a bright version of the image. In the sample image there is detail in the coal car but the smoke is blown out.




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Preston Moochnek RPh. (massulo) on December 27, 2019

Donor Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Laureate Ribbon awarded for winning a Nikonians Annual Photo Contest Ribbon awarded for his win in the 2018 Best of Nikonians Images Annual Photo Contest

Great work around larry

Celeste Brunell (cbrunell) on December 20, 2019

Thank you! This is a clear and easy-to-follow explanation.

David J. Murray (dajomu) on January 12, 2018

Just for the record, the article says to create a VECTOR mask in step 4, but I believe it should be a regular pixel-based mask (which certainly works). Otherwise it's a nice technique if you are looking for a quick blend. Some hand editing of the mask afterwards is often worth doing, to bring back brightness in any areas that are impacted more than desired.

Pavel Bernhauser (palob) on November 29, 2013

This kind of masking lowers contrast in whole image. Usually, it is not necessary to have blending activated on whole image. So it is worth to spend another minute to select parts of mask where blending is not needed and delete it (to make it black). If done through selection it is useful to Refine edges to avoid abrupt boundary to black area. In this particular case I would probably selected elliptical area around steam, inverted selection and applied Refine Edge, then deleted selected region. There is another useful trick - it is not needed to make a mask from bottom layer. It can be also top layer or even single channel, where contrast between blown out and normal areas is highest.

Bernard Yomtov (byomtov) on November 29, 2013

Great idea, Larry. I never would have thought of it, but am eager to apply it. Thanks for taking the time to explain it.

Larry Anderson (mnbuilder49) on November 27, 2013

Awarded for his high level skills in various areas, especially in Interiors Architecture, Landscape and HDR Photography

Hi Neill This train runs between Durango and Silverton in Southwestern Colorado

Neill Graham (NDGraham) on November 27, 2013

Larry, you are the Man! Your instructions put together pieces I have been trying to understand for the 10 years I have been into digital photography and Photoshopping. The result you produced here is exactly the transformation I've been trying to figure out instead of taking HDR shots which I can only get to work on stationary outdoor subjects. Thanks very much for sharing your know how with us. Really great photo, too! Where did you ever find a real steam engine in operation?

Karen Willshaw (Marjani) on November 27, 2013

expert in ocean scapes and underwater photography

Larry, thank you so much for an easy to understand technique and it looks so easy and quick. I can't wait to give it a go. Best "fishes" Karen

Alan Brunelle (SupraDad) on November 25, 2013

Great post - and thanks for explaining the "why it works" in the comments above. It's always helpful to know "why" and not just "how".

Richard Luse (DaddySS) on November 24, 2013

Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded for  his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017 Ribbon awarded for his generous contribution to the 2019 Fundraising campaign

Thanks Larry, I'll have to give it a try!

User on November 23, 2013

Found this technique on another site and have been using it for years with great success. Works best with 16 bit TIFF. I use it for those events and shoots where I cannot or do not use a tripod and need more dynamic range. Since I am mostly interested in street photography, this is often. If I have a tripod I usually bracket and maybe use Photomatix or hand blending to pull in more detail if I need to. Still, even with bracketed shots I sometimes use this technique. NIK Color Efex's Pro Contrast and Tonal Contrast filters are a great combination for this technique too.

Larry Anderson (mnbuilder49) on November 23, 2013

Awarded for his high level skills in various areas, especially in Interiors Architecture, Landscape and HDR Photography

When you put a layer mask on a layer anything that is white on the mask reveals what is on that layer. Anything that is black hides what is on that layer so what is on the brighter layer will be revealed. Copying the brighter layer onto the mask creates white in the areas where it is the brightest and black where it is the darkest so it is revealing the brightest parts of the darker image and hiding the darkest parts of the darker image. The midtones come out as gray on the mask which acts as a gradient to partly reveal the midtones of the darker image. Applying the blur to the mask helps to smooth out the transition of what is revealed and what is not. After you have clicked on the background layer to reveal the blended image you can return to seeing and editing the mask by holding down the alt key and clicking on the mask. Then you can change the amount of blur applied to the mask. Sometimes you get some really strange effects when there is no blur applied.

Larry Anderson (mnbuilder49) on November 23, 2013

Awarded for his high level skills in various areas, especially in Interiors Architecture, Landscape and HDR Photography

This is done with one image. I use camera raw in photoshop to adjust the exposure of the image to create the darker and the brighter layer.

Tim Marchant (timpsm) on November 22, 2013

I wouldn't have figured this out on my own - thank you Larry. Is it the same image opened twice, or do you use the blur to mask the subject motion (assuming the two captures are from a bracketed sequence), or have I gone off the track? tim

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on November 22, 2013

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

What I liked the most was that it took him under 2 minutes to do the above example ;-)

Ron Lacy (Rondo5570) on November 22, 2013

Larry- Thanks for the technique. I have tried it a couple of times and it works. Sometimes have to correct some CA where at the blend borders and sometimes get some strange colors that have to be adjusted, but it does work. I don't understand why it works. Can you help me understand why a 40 px GB works for this? Thanks again and I appreciate your post. Ron

Stan Jacox (km6xz) on November 22, 2013

Awarded for his in-depth knowledge in various areas, including Portraits and Urban Photography

Thanks Larry, I just tried this technique after reading your instructions and it really works well with a single D800 image also. I took a scene that had a lot of deep shadows and boosted in PS and blended according to your instructions and it created an image that has a very interesting traits, appearing more dramatic, that does not look the same as simply boosting shadows. Tine for more experiments.