Capturing the full dynamic range of a scene is one of the biggest difficulties in landscape photography. I’m willing to bet that the majority of you have at one time or another struggled with either the sky being totally blown out (overexposed) or the landscape pure black (underexposed)
Getting a well-exposed image where both sky and subject look good is at times impossible. Particularly when there’s a great contrast between the bright sky and dark landscape. Therefore, we have to look at other solutions in order to capture the full dynamic range.
Shooting multiple exposures is one of them.
Keep reading and you’ll learn exactly how to deal with high-contrast scenes where capturing a well-exposed image is challenging.
When Do You Need to Capture Multiple Exposures?
Camera technology is rapidly improving and its dynamic range capabilities are far greater than what they were only a few years ago. However, even the best cameras struggle to capture details in both a bright sky and a dark landscape at the same time. This is something that most sunrise or sunset photographers are painfully aware of.
These types of high-contrast scenes are far less common during daytime photography but they do occur at those hours too.
Graduated Neutral Density Filters (GND) are commonly used to “fix” the problem. These filters are gradually darkened from the top to middle, and transparent from the middle to bottom. This allows you to darken upper parts of the image while leaving the rest unaffected.
Now, the problem with Graduated ND filters are that they darken everything above the filter’s transition. This means that mountains, trees, buildings or other elements projecting from the horizon will be darkened too. These elements tend to be darker than the sky and will be affected negatively when darkened further.
In those cases, capturing multiple exposures is a better solution as it gives you full control of what elements are darkened or not.
What are Multiple Exposures or HDR Bracketing?
Graduated ND filters are easy to use and don’t require any additional work in post-processing but they aren’t always the best choice. The graduated part of the filter is a straight line, meaning that anything above the distinction will be affected.
You’ll avoid that problem when capturing multiple exposures but it will require a bit more time and effort both in-field and in post-processing.
But what exactly does it mean to shoot multiple exposures in order to capture the full dynamic range?
It’s actually a lot more straight forward than what it may sound like: it simply means to capture two or more images consisting of different exposure levels (just make sure that the composition itself remains untouched)
The most common method is to capture one image that’s exposed for the landscape, one image that’s exposed for the sky and one image that’s exposed in-between. This leaves you with three files which each have an optimized exposure for one part of the image.
Back on the computer, these three images are merged together using a photo-editor such as Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Lightroom.
How to Capture Multiple Exposures (HDR) in Camera
Before you start adjusting the exposure levels, I want to stress the importance of using a tripod for this specific technique. It is possible to do it handheld but it will create a lot more work for you in post-processing.
The reason we want to use a tripod is because we want the images to be exactly the same besides the changes in exposure. The more movement there is, the harder it will be to merge.
As for capturing multiple exposures in camera, there are 3 main techniques: one automatic, one semi-automatic and one manual.
Two of these require further treatment in an image editing software but one blends automatically inside the camera. Let’s look at the pros and cons.
Method #1: In-Camera HDR Bracketing
Many modern cameras have a built-in function called HDR Bracketing. This function lets you choose how many images you want to blend and how many stops in between each image.
After capturing the series of images, the camera will automatically blend the images and give you a correctly exposed result where both the sky and foreground look correct.
This is the easiest way to capture the full dynamic range but it’s also the method which gives the worst results.
Since the camera calculates the value for each pixel, a typical result will have a lot of noise and washed-out/fake colors. It might also look crispy and over-sharpened.
This should only be done if you don’t have access to a photo editor that allows HDR merging.
Method #2: Automatic Bracketing
The second and most common method of capturing multiple images is by using the semi-automatic bracketing function of your camera.
This function does NOT work with M (Manual) Mode, so you need to set your camera to either Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority or Automatic Mode.
The camera has a button named BKT or AEB (exact name varies on camera brand).
What this function does is change the exposure settings of a series of image based on the values that you have chosen. For example, let’s say that you put the values to be a series of 3 images at 0.3 stops difference.
The camera will then take 1 image that is 0.3 stops underexposed, another which is correctly exposed (using the current settings) and a third image that is 0.3 stops overexposed. You’re able to choose both the amount of images taken and how many stops difference there should be between them.
This is an easy method to use for those that feel most comfortable using a semi-automatic shooting mode.
Note: The images still need to be merged in a photo-editor afterward.
Method #3: Manually Adjust Exposure Values
This is my preferred method since I only work in the Manual shooting mode (call me old-school but I want to have full control over the camera settings) Ironically enough, I find this to be much easier. Though that might come down to habit.
Here’s what you need to do:
- Set your ISO, aperture and shutter speed to the values that gives you the most neutral result (we call this the base exposure) and take a shot
- Decide how many stops brighter and darker you need to capture the full dynamic range
- Increase the shutter speed by 1 stop and capture your bright exposure
- Decrease the shutter speed by 1 stop from base exposure to capture the darker image
This leaves you with three images that are exposed for different parts of the frame. The brighter exposure reveals details in the shadowy areas while the darker exposure brings back details in the bright sky.
Exactly how many images you need to capture the full dynamic range depends on how big the contrast is between sky and land. I recommend keeping an eye on the histogram to know when you are avoiding under- or over-exposed parts.
The next step is to take our images and blend them together in post-processing.
Merging Multiple Exposures in Post-Processing
The in-field techniques explained above are arguably the easiest part of creating images that are well exposed from bright to dark. The real work begins in post-processing.
Also here there are a few different methods to do it. Some are better than others but often it comes down to personal preferences.
Below I will show you how to blend the images in both Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop. It is possible to do it in other photo editors too and I suggest you do a quick Google search to see if it’s possible in yours too.
There are also HDR specific programs such as HDR Efex Pro in the Nik Collection that are made specifically for this purpose. While many of the HDR programs are good, I often find that the results look over-processed and grungy. It reminds me of the old Photomatix days (those who know, know).
How to Blend Images in Lightroom
Merging your HDR images in Lightroom is much easier than in Photoshop but it does have certain limitations. This technique is great for beginners but not so much for those that want to very best results.
That being said, Lightroom has improved during the last years and the results are getting better and better. Best of all? It’s really easy.
- Select the 3 (or more) images that you want to merge together
- With the images selected, right-click o none of them choose Photo Merge -> HDR
- Adjust the settings as you prefer
- Click Merge
Lightroom will now take a minute (or 10 on my slow computer…) to blend the selected images and create a new file. This new file is well-exposed in both the landscape and sky, and is the result of your effort in the field.
The new image is ready for you to work further on.
How to Blend Images in Photoshop
Photoshop also has a similar function for automatically blending images but that’s not what we’re going to look at now. That function is more or less the same as what we just did in Lightroom.
We are instead taking a quick look at two different methods. One for the beginner and one for the intermediate. Having a basic understanding of Layers and Masks in Photoshop is highly recommended before giving these techniques a go.
Let’s start with the easiest way of blending images in Photoshop:
- Open two or more images as layers in Photoshop. Make sure that the darker exposure (exposed for the sky) is placed on top.
- Select all layers and align them by going to Edit -> Auto-Align Layers… then choose Auto and click Ok
- Add a black layer mask to the top layer. This will conceal the dark exposure and reveal the layer beneath
- Select a white brush with 0% hardness and 50% opacity
- Select the black layer mask and with big strokes paint over the sky using the white brush. You’ll see that the sky exposure is revealed in the areas you paint
- Continue this process until the sky is looking good
That’s how easy it can be to blend layers in Photoshop. However, this method is less accurate and the results can get quite sloppy when you’re dealing with a lot of elements in or around the horizon.
You see, it can be hard to avoid painting over edges when using the brush as explained above. Painting over edges will in this case mean that you also darken parts of the landscape.
To avoid this, you can create a selection of the sky that prevents you from accidentally affecting already dark areas too. The easiest method is to simply select the sky using the Quick Selection tool or Select -> Sky but the most precise method is to create a Luminosity Mask.
Since we’ve got dozens of articles (as well as an in-depth eBook) about using and creating Luminosity Masks, I’m going to make this simple and show how quickly you can blend an image using a Luminosity Mask panel such as Raya Pro:
- Open two or more images as layers in Photoshop. Make sure that the base exposure (exposed for the landscape) is placed on top.
- Select all layers and align them by going to Edit -> Auto-Align Layers… then choose Auto and click Ok
- Add a white layer mask to the top layer by clicking the Add Layer Mask icon in the Layers Panel
- Create and select Brights Luminosity Maks using the InstaMask panel in RayaPro (you can toggle between the different brights mask until you find the one that best targets the overexposed parts of the sky)
- With the Luminosity Mask selected use a black brush with 0% hardness and 50% opacity and start painting over the sky. This will reveal the sky exposure in the selected areas.
What this allow you to do is precisely paint in the well-exposed sky without having to worry about accidentally affecting parts of the landscape too. This was a simplified step-by-step but I suggest taking a look at these videos from Jimmy McIntyre to learn more about perfectly blending images without haloing or other artifacts.
The Dynamic Range capabilities of modern cameras are drastically improving and you’re able to recover a lot of details by simply using the Exposure Slider but it’s still a long way from perfect.
There are many scenarios that simply have too big of a dynamic range. In those cases, capturing multiple exposures and blending them together in post-processing is the go-to solution.
It requires some extra work both in the field and in post-processing but the results are amazing. It allows you to capture details in both dark shadows and bright highlights.
This is a technique that’s commonly used by photographers to overcome exposure issues. Are you ready to take advantage of it too?
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