Using Lightrooms graduated filter and adjustment brush to correct a landscape photograph

Vermont-Mount Mansfield-Winter-Clouds-landscape photograph
My final corrected image of Mount Mansfield in Winter from a camera raw file.

The initial image capture is only the beginning

When we capture our original camera raw files we need to look at them as simply the start of expressing our artistic vision. We are doing more than  just making an image. We are gathering enough data in our raw files to be able to realize that start into a finished image.

The image editing process is different for everyone but all of the tools are the same. Like in cooking there are a thousand different ways to peel an onion but eventually we get to the same result no matter what method we use.

It is the same for our raw files in that there is no one correct way to get there but by using the power  of our raw files we can come up with a final, polished and corrected image.

How can we get there? What tools do we need to achieve our photographic vision. The answer lies in The graduated filter and adjustment brush in Lightroom.

Camera Raw files are boring

The raw files come straight out of the camera with no processing so what you’re seeing on import into your computer is exactly what you shot. Keep in mind though that unlike a JPEG which is processed in camera, Raw files are flat and boring.

They need processing to bring out all of the best data in the image so a well composed and properly exposed image is essential. While JPEG’s tend to get corrupted over time as they are an already edited image, Raw files can be re edited over and over until your final image emerges. Take for example my original image file for the above image and it’s histogram in Lightroom…..

Vermont-Mount Mansfield-Winter-camera raw file example
View of Mount Mansfield with fresh snow and clouds from a field in Underhill, Vermont
Lightroom-histogram-camera raw file-example raw file image-landscape photography
My example image’s histogram from Lightroom.

Now this is a typical example of a camera raw file as it is straight out of camera. You can see that the image is rather flat with no contrast and there are some issues that need to be addressed in the editing process.

A scene like this can be difficult to shoot as the clouds bounce around bright light at times with the sun popping in and out from behind them. Couple that with it being Winter and the snow being really reflective and you have a pretty tricky exposure situation on your hands.

My Histogram is actually looking really good as the image was exposed to the right just before the highlights would be blown out. This is good as we can pull those highlights in during the editing process without messing up the shadows or making the image to dark. The issues I need to address are easily fixed but do require some time….

  1. The upper portion of the image with the clouds – It’s a little too bright at the top and you can’t really see a lot of the darker shadows in the clouds, Those highlights wash everything out and there isn’t much detail. The blue is washed out a bit as well even though when I shot this it was much closer to what the finished image looked like….That’s the trick really. Making our image look dynamic and just as we shot it without going overboard with out edits.
  2. The Mount Mansfield range in the middle ground – There are nice highlights there but it’s the shadows that are somewhat washed out due to some haze and the fact that in the image it’s snowing on Mount Mansfield itself as I was shooting. It’s really not bad but it just needs some work to make the image more appealing.
  3. The band of trees and forest below the mountain – Again this area is flat and has no contrast. The clouds were casting some interesting shadows in this area and it just isn’t dynamic enough for me. I need to add some contrast and depth to this area as the foreground draws you in and leads you through the trees and to the mountain beyond.
  4. The foreground – This area here is ok but it just needs to be brightened up with some contrast added.  All of the grass sticking out of the snow gets washed out in all of that white so I also would like to see some contrast here as well.

The graduated filter and adjustment brush tools

So we have our camera raw file and I am feeling pretty good about it but I know that this image can be so much better. The main tools that did the heavy lifting on this image were the graduated filter tool and the adjustment brush tool. Both of these tools are great as you can target them to specific areas and use them multiple times within one image.

The graduated filter tool is very handy for corrections because unlike a traditional filter You can spin the tool 360 degrees making it more versatile for correcting landscapes. Manual filters and their holders are a bit more cumbersome in the field so I use them to get my images as close as I can then do more detailed corrections with the graduated density tool.

The other great thing about the tool is that you can use them multiple times in an image where this is not possible manually so it opens up some more opportunities in images that otherwise might not make the cut. I use them quite liberally because I can use one for a clarity adjustment in one area of the image but I can also use one to enhance color in the sky of a sunrise or sunset.

You can selectively use them for different edits just like you ca with the adjustment brush…..While the graduated density tool is used for more broad edits over bigger portions of the image you can use the adjustment brush for more targeted, precise adjustments in select areas to really build on your vision for the final, corrected image.

The adjustment brush work just like any other brush in Photoshop in that you can change its size and use it for specific adjustments in very localized parts of your image. You can also use it multiple times per image so say you want to make an exposure adjustment in one specific area you can just brush the area you want to change then move the appropriate sliders.

Using both tools on our image

Without getting into a very long conversation about my workflow I used three different graduated filters in the image to target the sky, the middle ground and the foreground. The image had a great deal of highlights to contend with and it also needed some contrast and haze adjustments.

Now these initial edits really improved my image however I performed four corrections with the adjustment brush to really make the image pop and take care of some of its flaws. One edit was made for some of the highlights in the clouds, another was used for the mountain to get rid of the haze and add in some contrast, Another was used on the middle ground forest and trees to add contrast and another was used on the foreground to bring out the contrast in the grasses and add some pop to them.

Essentially my workflow goes from a starting point which is a landscape preset I use on all of my images as an overall first step. I then hone this some more with some basic edits again to the overall image and then I dial in more concise edits with the graduated filter tool and the adjustment brush.

Some images require more and some less and it all depends on where I want to go with the final outcome. Editing is as subjective as wine tasting and how we best utilize the tools at out disposal. This image was quite flat to begin with and originally I made a really nice black and white out of it but I also felt the color version was quite nice as I love the blue color in Winter scenes. Lightroom has a lot of powerful tools including ones that may be overlooked and the graduated density tool and adjustment brush can really help to lift your images from boring to exciting.

Still Waters

Vermont-Sunrise-Lake Champlain-Burlington
Clouds with sunrise light over Lake Champlain from Oakledge Park in Burlington, Vermont.

*If you would like to purchase a copy of this image it can be found right here!

It is amazing how you can look at the sky one minute and say to yourself ” Damn not much is going to happen there for sunrise” and the next minute something magical happens. Such was the case early one morning when I was exploring some new compositions at Oakledge Park in Burlington, Vermont. I spend a great deal of time here as the park is very close to my home but it offers easy access to a wealth of compositions. I was looking for something I had not shot before when I came across this scene. The sky looked like it was just going to be a big wall of blue when this cloud started to develop just as the sun was rising above the treeline behind me!

This beach straddles a bike path that runs along the Burlington shoreline and this image is at one end of the beach. It is a small little area with a gnarly old tree and some reeds and at first glance wouldn’t look like there is much to shoot. The lake levels fluctuate throughout the year and they were on the low side when I shot this making the composition possible. The great part about shooting this area is that as the water levels change there are new shooting possibilities for an adventurous photographer. As this cloud formed and moved through the area it was kissed just at the right moment by the rising sun from behind me. The light was just beautiful the way it was highlighting the cloud and I was glad I was there to see it!

This is a composite image of two shots that I made for exposure and sharpness. The foreground was in some deep shadow and I really wanted to see the reeds and rocks so one exposure was made for this area while the second was made for the cloud and sky. I blended them together in Photoshop and did my final edits in Lightroom, Matching the tones together and doing some basic edits. The relative stillness of the water added a tranquil feel to this image the mood in the image was just right for a morning shot.

Exposure Blending for Landscape Photography: A Guide for Beginners

Lake Champlain-Sunset-Burlington_Vermont
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.

Lightroom-Exposure blending-Vermont
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.

Photoshop-exposure blending-candidate images
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.

Exposure blending-Photoshop
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.

Photoshop-Layer mask-Exposure blending
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.

Gradient-Photoshop-Exposure blending
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.
Photoshop-Gradient-Exposure Blending
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.
Gradient-Photoshop-Exposure Blending
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.

Gradient-Photoshop_exposure blending
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.

Brush palette-Photoshop-exposure blend-tutorial
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.

Exposure blend-Tutorial-photoshop
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.

Lightroom-Exposure blending-Tutorial
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.

Exposure Blending-Lightroom-tutorial
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.

A Beginnings End

Lake Champlain-Vermont-Sunset
Shoreline of Lake Champlain with clouds at sunset.

This small section of rock get photographed often and I have shot it myself a few times. The rocks here are not particularly large and it’s only several feet back from this spot to land. What you don’t see is that under normal circumstances I could stand in this channel  almost up to my waist! Steady rains and snow melt since the early spring have kept the lake fairly high and good foreground elements are a bit hard to find right now.Even here in this shot the approach is under water so I had to do a bit of jumping to be able to make this shot.

The sunset was a tough one but not unmanageable. All of the good cloud action was pointed away from the sun so i had to make a decision about whether to include the area where the sun was setting or not. Ultimately I chose to not include this area and instead focus on This really good bank of clouds off to the left of the sun. I had been waiting a few weeks to have some decent cloud cover to reflect the sunset light and on this night I was not disappointed.

Processing these blends can be a challenge at times, The trick is to make the blend seamless and as close to what my eyes were seeing as possible. The easy part is stitching the two frames together but the hard part is getting everything looking natural. This always requires brush work in Photoshop and cleanup with the adjustment brush in Lightroom to add the final polish to the piece. I had a tiny spot of sun flare on the water in this one but it wasn’t enough to be distracting so I chose not to spend extensive time to remove it.

Image Data: ISO 100. 17mm. F11 @ 1/80 and 1/6.