7 Steps to Perfect Exposure Blending

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A final exposure blended image. The sky is vibrant, yet not overexposed and the building and foreground are properly exposed and sharp.

At some point, everyone who takes a photograph outside runs into the following dilemma. Overexpose the sky to have the ground correctly exposed or expose the sky correctly and underexpose the ground. You lose either way. And a lot of the solutions to this problem are pretty bad too. There’s graduated neutral density filters that can be expensive, cumbersome, and difficult to use with only decent results. Then there’s HDR which can leave your final image looking soft and fake after a sometimes long and complicated process. Don’t fret though.

There is a good solution.

Exposure blending is taking the same photo more than once with different exposures and blending those photos together in a software like Photoshop to get the best parts of each image. No more choosing between overexposed sky or underexposed ground. You can have both and still have a high-quality image.

The images need to be aligned, so use a tripod if you can. Changing shutter speed is the best way to get the different exposures without changing other aspects of the image. The following images are what I used to create the final exposure blended image above. 

Building Sunrise sky exposure

In this image the sky is correctly exposed, but the building is underexposed and won’t look sharp.

Building Sunrise building exposure

In this image the building is correctly exposed and looks much sharper, but the sky is overexposed.

So how is exposure blending actually done? Let’s get into Photoshop and see in 7 easy steps.

Step 1. Open the Images in Photoshop

Open your two (or more) exposures as layers in Photoshop. I like to do this by importing the RAW files into Lightroom Classic (doesn’t work in new Lightroom) first and adding them to Photoshop from there. Once imported, just select both images, right click, and select “Edit in > Open as Layers in Photoshop”. I prefer this because once the blending is done in Photoshop, the completed image automatically goes back to Lightroom when you save the Photoshop file. This makes my editing workflow faster because I always edit my images in Lightroom. 

How to open the images in Photoshop from Lightroom Classic.

​To open directly in Photoshop, select “File > Scripts > Load file into stack”.

load images into photoshop

How to open the images directly from Photoshop.

Step 2. Make Sure Your Images Are Aligned

​This step is crucial. If your images are not aligned exactly, the final image will be off. You may have bumped your tripod or moved the camera slightly by pressing the shutter button too hard when getting your exposures. Every pixel needs to be perfect. Luckily, there is a simple solution. In Photoshop, just select “Edit > Auto-Align Layers” and choose “Auto”. That easy.

After clicking this, just make sure “Auto” is selected and click ok.

Step 3. Add a Layer Mask

​This step is simple. Place the sky exposure on top, select that layer, and select “Layer > Layer Mask > Hide All”. A quicker way to do this is to press “alt+L > M > H” on your keyboard. This will mask out the entire sky layer and leave the building + foreground layer in view.

This is what you should see after the layer mask is created.

Step 4. Select the Sky Using "Quick Selection Tool"

Time to get that sky back. Select the “Quick Selection Tool” from the left-hand toolbar (or just press “W”) and select the sky so that the marching ants (moving dotted line) roughly surround the sky. If too much becomes selected, remove the excess using the minus version of the tool. 

Quick Selection Tool Marching Ants

What the marching ants should look like.

Step 5. Invert Colors and Delete Selected Area

Now all that needs to be done is to invert the colors on the left-hand toolbar and press the delete key. This will remove the portion of the layer mask in the selected area revealing the sky from the sky exposure and the building from the building exposure.

Click the highlighted area to invert the color. The black square should be to the left of the white square like the image.

​Then press “crtl+D” to deselect the selected area.

Exposure Blended Image

What the image looks like after deleting the sky portion of the layer mask and deselecting the selected area.

Step 6. Touch Up with The Brush Tool

​The quick selection tool is great but won’t get you 100% of the way there. To finish blending, select the Brush tool from the left-hand toolbar (or press “B”) and fix the areas that the quick selection tool missed. You will need to invert colors again so that the white box is to the left of the black box. You can zoom in on the image by pressing “alt” and using the scroll wheel. This makes touching up much easier.

Step 7. Save and Edit the Photo

Start by selecting all layers, right clicking, and selecting “Flatten Image”. Make any edits you wish inside Photoshop (I used the “Spot Healing Brush Tool” to remove the power lines, some signs, light poles, and the fire hydrant. Then I fixed the areas the Spot Brush failed with the “Clone Stamp Tool”. Finally, I fixed the perspective distortion and pressed “ctrl+S” to save the image.

If you started in Lightroom, the final Photoshop image will automatically go there for more editing. If you didn’t start in Lightroom, select “File > Export > Quick Export as png” to get the completed image. 

Pre Lightroom Building Sunrise Final

All done in Photoshop. The exposure blending is complete. On to Lightroom for final touches.

​Have you ever taken a picture, looked at it, and thought, “That isn’t what this looks like. It looks so much better in person”. You are not alone. Those starting pictures I had did not reflect what I saw the morning I took them. Even after the exposure blending it still didn’t have the pop it had in real life. Here are the Lightroom settings I used to get the final image to reflect the splendor I saw that morning.

After a crop and those settings were applied, we finally get the image from the beginning of the article. It wouldn’t be possible without exposure blending. 

​Thanks for reading! I hope you found the article useful. Let me know in the comments below!

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