HDR Photography Using Layer Masks and Hand Blending Techniques in Photoshop

This isn’t meant to be a step-by-step tutorial on how to do hand-blending HDRs. Every situation is going to be different. I’m just going to show you how I process most of my landscape pictures.

What is HDR?

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. Since your camera can not replicate what your eye sees, you need a way to capture what you saw and translate that to your monitor or hopefully a nice big print hanging on your wall! You can do this by buying a GND (Graduated Neutral Density) filter, but honestly I’m too cheap and I don’t mind spending a little more time in the “digital dark room”, processing my photos. You can also use software, like Photomatix, but again I’m too cheap and prefer using Photoshop (CS2).

How to Start?

You need a good tripod…period. Without a tripod, you’re going to have a tough time blending the different exposures together into one, seamless picture. I always plan on taking two exposures, one for the highlights and one for the shadow details. Other times, you’ll need to use more, depending on your conditions.

For this example, I selected Mammoth Peak at Sunset and I used 3 different exposures (1/4, 1/8 and 1/30 seconds) to start with. I opened all three photos into Photoshop.

Exposing for the Shadows, 1/4 sec
Exposing for the Shadows, 1/4 sec
Exposing for Midrange, 1/8 sec
Exposing for Midrange, 1/8 sec
Exposing for Highlights, 1/30 sec
Exposing for Highlights, 1/30 sec

I then created one master file by using the Shift Key/Move Tool you can drag each image ito place and it automatically aligns them together. In this case I started with the last photo and moved the other two into the third. Make sense so far?

Working with Layer Masks

Showing the Layer Masks
Showing the Layer Masks

One of the best tool when your editing a photo is using Layer Masks. To apply the masks, first click on the top layer and then click on “Add Layer Masks” on the bottom of the Layer Palette. On the middle layer, I used the Gradient Tool to create a GND. On the top layer, I started of with the Black, soft round (Hardness 0) Brush Tool at 300px. Occasionally, I decreased or increased the size of the brush using the [ ] on the keyboard. I also vary the opacity if needed. Just remember, Black hides (masks) it and White shows it. If you make a mistake, change the brush to White and re-paint the area you don’t like. That’s the beauty of Layer Masks!

Looking at the image to the right, you can see the masks. The black is 100% hidden or transparent on top of the other layers. The gray portions are semi-transparent and white is 100% visible on top of the other layers.

The Final Result…

Mammoth Peak at Sunset

I hope you have a better understanding on how Layer Masks work and how you can create a realistic-looking HDR. As usual, feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments. Happy shooting!

Mike Matenkosky

Mike is a Central Valley California landscape and nature photographer whose subjects include scenes from Merced County, Yosemite, SeKi, and the eastern Sierra. He is currently living in Atwater, CA.

The text and photographs are © Copyright Mike Matenkosky (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from Mike Matenkosky.

1 Comment

  1. Photomatrix is like 35 bucks now.

    I’ve bought it… haven’t used it yet… considering it for architectural shots…


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