Bear Pond on Mount Mansfield in Stowe, Vermont in black and white

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Hiking to a remote Vermont location

I knew about the existence of Bear Pond for a number of years and finally I was able to visit this remote location.

The pond sits in the spine of the green Mountains on Mount Mansfield and requires a roughly four-hour hike from the base to reach. Bear Pond can be visited by a trail that is no longer maintained so the trek in to it is not for the faint of heart.

It’s a treacherous scramble over moss-covered boulders and down some steep slopes so a partner is essential.

While much more remote than Lake of the Clouds if you can find someone who has been there to use as a guide your efforts will be rewarded. You won’t meet another person there but you will certainly find enough photographic diversity to keep you busy while you are there.

How do we craft an image in one shot with multiple points of depth and focus?

The trick with this image is to make it sharp and in focus from front to back. I chose this particular composition because there was a lot of depth to it with multiple points of interest for the eyes and it really told a story of the location. It showed remoteness and unspoiled beauty but getting it all into sharp focus would be my challenge.

This image has a flow to it where you move from the foreground grass and dead trees to the middle ground logs and finally to the background and clouds in the sky.  First I needed to identify  my areas of concern and how best to get critical focus where I wanted it to be and my best course of action would be to make multiple exposures at various focus points within the image. This way I could choose the best, sharpest images and blend them together manually ensuring that the image is sharp from front to back.

My concerns about the image

  • The foreground – These alpine grasses and petrified trees make for a really interesting foreground but if I place a focus point there specifically it will throw a good portion of the image out of focus. I really wanted this area of the image to be there as I think it really leads you into the rest of the photograph. The textures and shapes are fantastic but I do not want to crop out this section.
  • The middle ground –This area is problematic as there are three different petrified trees all on different planes within the image. If I focus here the fore and middle ground will be sharp but the background will be soft. That is unacceptable to me  as I want sharpness throughout…..I felt anything less would be too distracting for the viewer.
  • The background – If we place our focus here then the fore and middle ground become much to soft and not what I want for my image. Due to the lack of clouds on my visit I want the ones that did happen to float by to be nice and sharp as well as being able to discern what is in the background. I want to see everything in a landscape and my eyes in particular like when things are nice and sharp.
  • Multiple depths in the image – When your dealing with multiple depths for instance where all of the different logs are sitting, It can be difficult to place where you want to focus in the image. You will have to make a compromise somewhere and usually that means something will not be sharp. The depth in the middle ground is my biggest problem here and focus blending will be my choice to overcome it.
  • Wind movement – While the water in the pond was very still creating a mirror reflection there was a very slight breeze blowing across the grass in the foreground. I had to wait for just the right moment for the grass to settle down in order to get my shots without any movement in the foreground. This would make blending the images manually in Photoshop much easier.
  • Interest in the sky – While not a huge concern on the day that I was at this pond their were clear blue skies so I had to make a choice to exclude a good deal of the sky from the composition. I was fortunate that while I was composing some clouds wandered by into the frame and I was able to add some interesting shapes from the sky into the shot. The clouds added shape and form to the reflections in the water and added some calm into the scene.

A three image exposure and focus blend

Generally when I shoot images of this type I make a series of test shots for my exposure values. Sometimes one exposure will work for the entire scene and other times I need to make separate exposures for the highlights and shadows.

Once I have my composition set I will make a series of exposures starting at my bottom focus point and working my way up through all of the middle focus points in a straight line. Generally this is enough to cover sharpness throughout the image but here and there you will always have to make adjustments.

In this case I made a total of three exposures with a focus point set in the foreground, One for the background and a last one for the middle of the pond and the three logs.

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My first exposure with no edits that was made for the foreground grasses and logs.
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My second exposure with no edits that I shot for focus in the middle ground. My focus point was right on the log in the middle of the pond which kept the entire middle portion of the image very sharp.
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The third image I shot in my series for exposure and for focus on the distant background. Notice the dark foreground but the lighter background.

As you can see in the progression of the images the first two are exactly the same with the exception of where I placed my focus point. These two images I used to blend together the fore and middle ground into one image and the last image was blended in for the focus and exposure in the background.

These images will always need some post processing work in order to blend everything into a smooth, coherent image. I try not to shoot my exposures so far apart that you have to push the processing to the extreme, I just want to process enough to make the lighting look natural and how it was when I shot the scene.

The final look of the image

Once I import all of the images into my computer I always first do the blending and then as my final step I will edit the combined image. I find that it’s easier to do it that way and match the exposure them it is to edit all of them separately and then combine them. In a series of three images like this one or if there are several images I will always break it up into two image chunks so I don’t get lost in the editing process. Most of the images will be so similar that it’s very easy to forget which one you are working on.

Here I took the fore and middle ground images and combined them and once I was happy with the blend I would add in the final background shot and blend that in as well. Especially in this particular shot there are s lot of elements so there was quite a bit of brushwork along with my usual gradient process to get everything looking just the way I wanted to. The final image after processing is what the scene was like and the lighting is accurate. While I don’t always do these exposure blends as at times it’s not necessary but it is a tool that we can utilize.  In  this image we have an example of how to get multiple depths and focus points into one harmonious photograph.

 

A Mount Mansfield reflection at the Lake of the Clouds in Stowe,Vermont

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Summit of Mount Mansfield and reflection with the shoreline at Lake of the clouds.

Hiking to a majestic Vermont photography location

 Lake Of The Clouds is a glacial tarn located on Mount Mansfield in the spine of the Green Mountains.

A glacial tarn is a glacial lake in a circular shape formed by glacial scouring or movement during the retreat of glacial ice.

This location was on my list to visit for many years and finally in 2013 I was able to make the hike and shoot one of Vermont’s most wonderful landscapes.

The hike to the “Chin” or summit of Mount Mansfield takes about three hours and for this image I started hiking up at 3 a.m. to catch the sunrise. I knew ultimately I would probably miss the sunrise by a few minutes and on the day I made this hike there just was no cloud cover whatsoever.

In the end I was ok with the conditions that I had to shoot under as being in the location without another soul around and taking in the silence and majesty of it all was reward enough for me.

Sunrise light and difficult exposures

The scene above on the day that I visited presented a number of challenges. As with any landscape shoot generally they are entirely dependent on the weather and this sunrise was no exception. I am not the fastest hiker when I have 20 plus pounds of camera gear on my back so I missed sunrise by a few minutes but with no cloud cover any color was non-existent from my vantage point. The difficulties in getting this image included…..

  1. The weather- As I mentioned while a little on the cool side for an early morning hike the clouds had dissipated overnight leaving me without much of anything in the sky to anchor the composition. This is the curse of a landscape photographer but not an insurmountable challenge by any means.
  2. The position of the Sun- The suns position was still very low in the sky and being that I was on Vermont’s highest peak meant that parts of the image would be in deep shadow and other parts would be in bright sun. My best course of action was to use neutral density filters, a polarizing filter and to shoot two images for blending later on. It was just really close to impossible to capture the range of light here in one image.
  3. The fragile landscape- The area here is surrounded with fragile and rare vegetation and as such I tread very lightly and try not to disturb the area. My compositions were limited but I knew I wanted a shot of the mountain summit reflecting in the water. In the end I chose this composition as it was a good compromise of foreground interest, giving the viewer a sense of place all while not including much of the sky and with no impact to the environment.
  4. The sky- No clouds meant that I would have to try and include as little of the sky into my composition as possible. I wanted enough to give some scale and to show the brilliant blue color but not so much that the image looked empty. There are times when you can creatively use a blue sky in an image but my personal preference is to not include it in this situation as it wouldn’t add anything to the final image.

How I shot my landscape for an exposure blended image

Exposure blending images can be very easy or very difficult depending on the composition. This situation warranted shooting two images but the difficulty came in combining them as trees and driftwood on the left side extended into the horizon line making a simple composition from the horizon impossible. Essentially I used an angled gradient, lots of brushwork and a lot of corrections in post to get the image right where I wanted it.

The first image here that I shot was made for the shadows. Because of the suns position the shadows were hard to bring up in a single exposure and as you can see the highlights are quite extreme. While not blown out they did allow me some wiggle room for my exposure blend……

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My second image was made to control the highlights which were on the bright side with no cloud cover. Imagine a line from the top left corner of the image to the bottom right corner of the image and this is how I made my blend….Blending the best parts of the highlights and shadows along that imaginary line.

This is one of the reasons why this blend was on the difficult side as generally I try to have a clear horizon to make the stitching easier. In this image because of the composition I could not use a straight up and down gradient. The gradient to blend the images would have to be at an angle and this meant some more complicated brushwork would be needed. The highlight image exposure was pretty accurate to the conditions…..

 

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You can really see the difference here in this image for the highlights and how much shadow there was in the left side compared to the right. With no easy way to get a single capture I had to shoot two and correct the lighting for both and try to match them as close as possible to the original scene. Both of these files are original, straight out of camera files that did need a lot of post processing. It really is amazing that camera raw files have such a tremendous amount of information that can be pushed to create a striking image.

Work with what you are given

After all is said and done you often times need to just work with whatever conditions present themselves.

Knowing that I would not be back to this location for a long time I made the best choices I could to come home with something exceptional.

With a three a.m. start time and a three hour hike up coming away with no images was not an option.

Words cannot describe what it feels like to be in this location early in the morning with no people and not much in the way of sounds. It’s one of those Vermont locations that can be a crap shoot in terms of weather but the experience of being there and seeing the peak of Mount Mansfield rising above the water just cannot be missed.

 

Exposure Blending for Landscape Photography: A Guide for Beginners

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The final, completed exposure blend of two images, One image shot for the foreground rocks and another image shot for the background horizon and sky.

Like learning anything in photography, Exposure blending requires a ton of patience and time to become familiar with the process. Everyday as we are out shooting our images we are confronted with the challenges of bright skies, dark foregrounds and how to best balance each into a single photograph. My own journey into exposure blending actually started with focus stacking and getting a tack sharp image from front to back. This naturally evolved into exposure blending and typically for me a mixture of the two so that I have one image that is sharp throughout with an exposure as close to what my eye was seeing as I can get.

You might first ask yourself, “Couldn’t you use filters to achieve the same effect?” The short answer is yes you could and I do use filters quite often in my work however there are times when the light is changing rapidly and I have to move from composition to composition fairly quickly and I don’t want to be messing around with filters taking up valuable time. Another thing to remember is that anything you put in front of your lens like a filter or multiple filters can at times add in a bit of softness that isn’t always desirable. You could also argue for doing HDR photography but for me personally I abandoned the HDR process a few years ago because I never really liked the look of it in Landscapes.

Now there are multiple ways that you can do this for sure but I wanted to show beginners an easy way to start learning the process. I have done blends with only two images and some with several images and no image is ever the same. The key is to set yourself up with a good set of initial captures and if you nail this part then the processing can become like second nature after a bit of practice. A word of caution in doing these blends is sometimes they just do not work because of focus “bloom.” Focus bloom happens when you have two images where you focused at two different points and if you look at the images side by side parts of them will not align.

As a beginner trying out this technique I would start with images where there is a clear break between the foreground and the horizon. This way you will have an easier time with the blend and then you can work your way into more complicated ones. As you can see in the final image above there is a clear, dominate foreground followed by a break with the water and then the horizon and sky at sunset. There isn’t anything from the foreground intruding into the horizon line which can complicate the blend.

The following should be taken as guidelines because there is a thousand ways to peel an onion so to speak within Photoshop. The process can vary from image to image and each image, each composition will present it’s own challenges. This is my process when I first start out to make a blended image but each image rarely follows the same path. Some work and some don’t but I hope that this at least starts you on the path to a better well rounded image!

1. Pick your candidate images.

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The two selected candidate images that I used for my exposure blend side by side in Lightroom.

As you can see in the two images that I chose for the blend the image exposed for the rocks has a blown out sky and the image exposed for the sky has the rocks much too dark. A common problem especially at sunset but by combining the best parts of each we will get a natural looking image that will be exactly what my eye was seeing. In this composition I shot a series of several images covering all the focus points I could on the rocks and on the horizon.

From these images I inspected each at 100% to check for sharpness, alignment and overall quality. From this series I chose the best two that I wanted to work on. It really starts to get complicated if you have compositions where there is a middle ground you want to blend in or when there are elements in the composition that are not completely straight. In this instance we have a nice, pleasing foreground that is common along Lake Champlain and some nice color and clouds as the sun is setting on the horizon.

At this point we will not be making any corrections to the two images until they are merged together and imported back into Lightroom. I don’t want to edit twice and it’s easier to clear up any lighting inconsistencies between the two images in Lightroom. We just want to make sure the images are sharp where they are supposed to be and that the two will line up correctly when layered together.

2. Export your candidate images from Lightroom to your computer as TIFF’s at 300dpi with a bit depth of 16 bits. I generally will label the images as foreground, middle ground, back ground, etc. as the more images you have the more confusing it can become when you are blending. This is a personal choice so you should do whatever is easiest for you.

3. Import into Photoshop.

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My two selected images open in Photoshop side by side.

Here are the two images side by side and open in Photoshop CS2. (CS2 has all the tools you will need for an exposure blend and I am cheap. Adobe makes CS2 available as a download on their site for free!) Using the foreground (lighter image with the blown out sky) as the bottom layer I will click on the move tool and while holding down the shift key I click  on the darker background image and drag it into the lighter image. By holding the shift key you ensure that the dark image will snap to proper alignment directly over the lighter image.

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The two images layered on top of each other in Photoshop for exposure blending.

Now that we have the layers on top of each other we can begin the blending process. You can chose to duplicate the bottom layer but in most cases all I want is the final merged image…I have backups of the originals so most of the time I am ok with not duplicating the first, bottom layer. Occasionally a composition will be easier to blend with the lighter foreground as the top layer and in that instance I will go ahead and duplicate the bottom layer and move it on top of the darker sky layer. It’s a fluid process that is never the same.

The final thing that I want to do to prep this image for blending is to add a layer mask to the top layer. In the layers palette click on the add layer mask icon and add the layer mask to the top layer. The layer mask will allow us to use the gradient tool to blend the two images together as well as to do some brush work later on.

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The two images in Photoshop with a layer mask on the top image.

4. Using the Gradient tool to blend the two images together.

Select the gradient tool in the tools palette and the gradient editor will pop up at the top of the screen. Click on the rectangular bar the goes from solid color to transparent and in the window that opens you will be able to fine tune the gradient based on your images.

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The gradient editor window where you can fine tune the fade of the gradient based on your images as well as change the style of the gradient.
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The gradient bar will appear at the top of the screen where you can adjust opacity and the ability to reverse the gradient if needed.
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Here I am setting the gradient to fade at roughly 2/3rds of the way in the image.

In the presets area at the top of the gradient editor window you want to select the foreground to transparent box. This will allow us to fade from one image to another on the layer mask on our top layer. You can move the sliders for the gradient to change the position of where the fade begins and in my images I set more of a hard edge gradient with the fade starting about two thirds of the way into the image. My composition is roughly two thirds foreground so I can use this as a starting point and tweak as necessary. My blend mode is normal but I have set my opacity at 80%. The opacity is key because here I don’t want the rock layer to show through at 100% because it will have too much light showing which would not be natural. Instead I lower the opacity and later I will brush in light from that layer in small quantities until I get the scene to match how my eye was seeing it. Remember I shot several images at different exposure values and the layer with the bright rocks gives me enough light to play with to blend the two images into a realistic whole.

When you select the gradient tool the cursor will turn into crosshairs on the screen. Here you have a choice to draw a freehand gradient or if you hold shift while clicking and holding the left mouse button you can draw a perfectly straight gradient which is what I did here. With the crosshairs starting at the very bottom of the image on the layer mask of the top most layer and holding down the left mouse button I will draw upwards on the image right about in the middle of the cloud layer and then release the key and the mouse. It is at this step that you will see the two images start to blend together.

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The image with a gradient applied to blend two exposures together before I start to brush in some light from my light rock layer.

In this image above you can see the two images in the layers palette, the layer mask on the top most layer and the gradient applied to the layer mask blending the two exposures together. Remember to set your foreground color to black…”Black conceals and white reveals.” In my case the opacity of the gradient is at 80% so some of the light rock layer is now showing through on the sky and horizon layer. Here though we are not quite perfect…The sun is to camera left and we need to brush some more light into the rocks to clean up and balance the exposure. In this image you can see that I have my brush tool already selected in preperation for painting with the brush tool. Same thing applies to the brush tool in that you need the foreground color set to black. By doing this we are concealing the dark rock layer and letting the lighter layer come through when we use the brush tool on our layer mask. There are some obvious inconsistencies which will be taken care of in lightroom on the final stage of our image edits.

5. Use the brush tool.

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The brushes palette in Photoshop with my chosen brush selected.

Next I want to brush in some more light from the bottom most light layer into the top layer to get a better match between the blended exposures. This will allow me to have an image that is as close to what I was seeing as possible. I have chosen a soft edge brush at 300 and using the bracket keys I will make this brush larger or smaller while I am painting. I always begin by setting the opacity of my brush anywhere from 15% to 30% as a starting point. I always try to paint in small amounts rather than large because I can layer the painting to get a more natural effect. There is no secret to this part of the process and it will take a lot of practice to master. Again with my foreground color set to black and being careful around the rock edges I slowly paint in light from my light exposure layer revealing more of the rocks and balancing the exposure. If you look in the layers palette of the image below you can see how the layer mask has changed from a solid mask and where I have painted in the light from the bottom layer. I also don’t paint in a uniform manner to better mimic how the light is falling on the rocks. There will be portions of the rocks that are darker and do contain some shadows so here is where you have to practice, have patience and use your best judgement.

There are some subtle differences between the before image and this one but again we will be importing this into lightroom for the final edits. Images like this are a bit more difficult because of the sharp edges of the rocks so great care must be taken around the many jagged edges, This is another reason why I paint in with a very low opacity, Any mistakes you make may be imperceptible to the viewer but you can always switch the foreground color to white and paint back in with the darker layer. This image is now right where I want it to be…From here I will flatten the image and export as a TIFF file to my computer for importing into lightroom.

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My blended image after painting to revel portions of the lighter layer below the dark layer. Here I am cleaning up any exposure issues with final edits to be done in lightroom.

6. Import into Lightroom for final edits and fine tuning.

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The final blended image imported into Lightroom and before any edits are made.

Here I have imported the image into Lightroom and at this point I will inspect it for any flaws and corrections that need to be made. There are several that jump out at me right off the bat such as the sky is a bit too dark for my taste, A crop is needed to get rid of a small amount of the blue sky above the clouds, straightening of the horizon and a general exposure adjustment to name a few. This image required multiple uses of the graduated filter (5 to be exact) to better fine tune the exposure but some images don’t require much work at all. First off I use a landscape preset in lightroom as a starting point for my corrections. It take care of about 70% of the corrections and includes a contrast, clarity, vibrance and saturation adjustment along with a lens correction and chromatic aberration adjustment. After I apply my preset I then fine tune the corrections with the ones I listed above…Straighten any horizon issues, cropping if needed, white balance and tweaking the lighting with the graduated filter and the adjustment brush. Here I don’t want to get into every single little edit I made as each image should be evaluated on it’s own as to what corrections should be made to it.

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The before and after view of my blended image in Lightroom.

If I had to sum up the process in a nutshell it would be Chose your composition, Shoot several images covering the exposure range and your focus points, chose your candidate images, Use the gradient tool to blend your images together and fine tune with the brush tool and then perform your final touch up edits in Lightroom. The final image is balanced and has a much better exposure then I could get with just one image. Again I wanted to present an easy way to get into exposure blending and one that would be easy to follow and understand for beginners. Hopefully this will start you on your way into the many doors that exposure blending can open in your images and allow you to get some images that maybe you thought were never possible!

-On a side note I have done some research on exposure blending and please note that this is not the only way to achieve this result. There are numerous ways to do this and my particular way works for me. It’s also an easier way for a beginner to start learning about processing exposure blended images. There is now right or wrong way but this tutorial can be used as a jumping off point in learning more complex blending techniques.