Updated: Feb 14, 2021
Back in June this year I wrote a piece for this website called Mastering Dramatic Light without HDR. In it I described an approach to high-contrast situations that involved exposing one frame for the highlights and a second frame for the shadows, then blending the two images in Photoshop to achieve good detail throughout the frame. In that first piece I described my procedure for metering the two exposures. In this post I'll show you a simple way to combine the two images in Photoshop. Here once again are my two component images.
The first step is to load the two exposures as layers in a single file in Photoshop. The easiest way to do this is to start from Lightroom. In Lightroom, select both images, then choose Photo>Edit In>Open as Layers in Photoshop. If you don’t use Lightroom, start from Bridge (which ships with Photoshop). Select both images, then choose Tools>Photoshop>Load Files into Photoshop Layers. And if you don’t use Bridge, then start from Photoshop itself. Choose File>Scripts>Load Files into Stack and navigate to the appropriate files. Whichever method you use, the next task is to drag the dark (good highlight) layer to the top of the layer stack if it’s not already there. The Layers panel should now look like figure 3.
Target the highlight (top) layer and add a layer mask to it by clicking the Add Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers panel. It looks like a square with a circle inside it. Be sure your foreground color is white and background color is black. (Press D for default colors of white and black.) Be sure you've targeted the layer mask, not the image itself, by clicking on the mask. Select the gradient tool (hit G on the keyboard). Click the gradient icon (far-left icon in the Options bar). Be sure you click the icon itself, not the drop-down arrow to the right of the icon. Check that you have foreground to background selected. Click and hold in the image window some distance above the shadow line and drag downward into the shadows. Release the mouse. Because you targeted the mask before dragging the gradient, you've dragged out a gradient on the mask rather than the image itself. Essentially, you begin your drag where you want the transition from white to black to begin, and end where you want the transition to end. Photoshop will fill in the mask with solid white above the starting point of your drag and fill it in with solid black below the ending point of your drag. White areas of the mask reveal that portion of the layer to which the mask is attached; black areas conceal that portion. Gray areas partially hide that portion of the layer, allowing some portion of the layer beneath to show through. Figure 4 shows what the Layers panel should look like. Your image should now show the best parts of each layer, with an unobtrusive transition between the highlight and shadow regions. If it doesn’t, just redraw the gradient. There’s no need to hit control-Z to undo the first version. Photoshop will replace the first version with the new one. You can do this as many times as you like.
If necessary, refine the mask by painting on it with either white or black to achieve the final result. Press B to get the Brush Tool. With the mask still targeted, paint with white to reveal more of the good-highlight region. Paint with black to reveal more of the good-shadow layer. Press the backslash key to see a translucent pink overlay of the mask. The pink overlay corresponds to black areas on the mask. Figure 5 shows the completed image.
This approach has two advantages over HDR. First, there's no worry about ghosting, the odd artifact in which two translucent, misaligned versions of the same object appear in the image. All of the flowers come from one image, so there may be motion blur, but there won't be ghosting. Second, the target region of each frame is exposed close to mid-tone. In the good-highlight frame, the highlights are exposed close to mid-tone; in the good-shadow frame, the shadows are exposed close to mid-tone. That means, by definition, that the two images have good local contrast in their target regions. That, in turn, can give the image a very natural appearance. For high-contrast subjects like this image of columbine and Jagged Mountain at sunset, the Rembrandt Solution will often be your best option.
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