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One of the nice things about shooting with the camera that can shoot camera raw files is that you have access to a lot more information than the file. Of course, you can create multiple exposures from the same raw file, doing one exposure for shadow detail and another exposure for highlight detail, and then you can combine them. But what if you're shooting with a point-and-shoot camera, or a camera that doesn't shoot camera raw? Well, you can still get the benefit of capturing additional information by combining that information to a single composite file. All you need to do is set your camera to bracket mode so it takes two or more exposures, at different settings to capture the amount of detail that you want to combine.
So, that's what I've got here. We've got two files here, one captured for shadow detail and another captured for highlight detail. Now what we want to do is combine the two and create a better composite, where you have detail in both the shadows and highlights, better than what you would do if you've just taken a single shot. So, I've got these two images selected in Bridge. To combine them, I'm going to use a kind of a cool tool inside Bridge called Combine layers or Load Files into Photoshop layers. I'm going to the Tools menu in Photoshop and then choose Load Files into Photoshop Layers. And what Photoshop has done now is combine those two separate files into a single document, each image on its own layer.
It uses the filename as the layer name. We can go ahead and change that if we want to. I'll go ahead it up for now. One thing we want to make sure of is is as we look at these two layers is that they're aligned, so they're in exact registration. If I turn the top layer off, you'll see that there's a slight shift when I turn these layers on and off, as you can see that, and this wasn't on a tripod. It was just handheld, which is cool. It doesn't actually need to be all that precise. Of course, you might get slightly better results if you did use a tripod, but Photoshop can even correct this misalignment issue for us as well. I'm going to select the two layers in the Layers panel just by holding down the Shift key and selecting the two layers by clicking on them, then under the Edit menu is a command called Auto-Align Layers.
I'm going to go ahead and choose that. I'm just going to go with the Auto setting. Click OK. And Photoshop will arrange these layers and even stretch them or distort them to match if necessary. So, now when I turn that top layer off, you'll see that there isn't that geometric shift as you'd turn the layer on and off. So, they're now perfectly aligned. They aren't the exact same size. So, things had to shift a little bit in order to make that happen, so let's crop that. I'm going to press the letter C for the Crop tool. I'm going to go ahead and drag out a crop boundary that's within the overlap of the two layers there, and that looks about right. Good.
We'll go ahead and position that and then just press Enter to lock that in. Okay, so there's my composite. Now, what I want to do is get the sky detail and the sand detail of the bottom layer to show up where the light sky is, but I still want to keep the shadow detail of the rafters underneath here. So, if I turn off the top layer, you can see what I'm talking about. There's the better looking sky and the sand looks a little bit better because it's not blown out or is hot. So, let's turn that top layer back on. So, how am I going to do this? I want to hide all of the sky in this top layer and hide all the bright sand in that layer as well.
So, how am I going to do that? Well, first let's go ahead and deselect these layers. We'll click on the top layer to select it. You might think of trying out the Magic Wand tool, right? So, let's switch to the Magic Wand tool, and we can start Shift+Clicking in the sky area. You can see it's not doing a very good job, so I keep Shift+Clicking and then I accidentally click somewhere else. So I am like, ugh, I don't know what's selected anymore, so I don't want to do that, Command+D. It's just too much work. I am now going to attach a layer mask to this layer and start painting in all the area that I want to mask? That's too much work too.
It turns out that every layer in Photoshop has a built-in layer mask waiting for you to tap into. It's just waiting for you to discover it. Here's how you do it. Let's get our Move tool here. I am going to go ahead and double-click on the thumbnail of that top layerand this brings up this dialog box called the Layer Style dialog box, specifically taking you to the Blending Options portion. And the thing that we want to notice here are the Blend If sliders down at the bottom of the dialog. What you have is a color ramp or a tonal ramp, going from dark to lights, blacks to whites. And what this is saying is on this layer, the one that we are working on, any tonal value that I move these sliders to should go away.
They should hide themselves and become transparent. So, I'm going to take the white slider and start dragging it to the left. And you'll see what's happening is I'm revealing the sky and the sand of the layer underneath. Well, how is that happening? Let's go ahead and click OK. And I'll turn off the bottom layer to show you what happened. It actually literally punched a hole through that top layer, where all those bright pixels were on that layer and made them transparent so that it could reveal the layer underneath it in its place. We can go ahead and double-click on the thumbnail again to bring up the Layer Style dialog box.
The great thing about the Blend If sliders is that they are non-destructive. It's not a permanent change. You can always come back here and fine- tune and adjust the sliders even further. Now what this is saying is that there are tonal values on this particular layer from 0 black to 255 white and when I move the slider to a particular number, let's say 160, it's saying everything that has a tonal value of 160 or brighter, so between 160 and 255, you should just hide yourself. Go away, you become transparent. And then everything that's below 160 all the way down to 0, you stay 100% Opaque.
So, this is what I mean by every layer has a built-in layer mask. You can make pixels just disappear or become transparent based on their tonal value. Now this is a very hard edge, right? It's going from 160 and above is off, and everything 160 and below is on. You may want to create a blend, a transition zone, so it's not just a harsh edge between the two. To split to the edges so to speak or split the sliders, what you want to do is hold down the Option key or Alt on Windows and then click on the slider and you can split them. So, now you can create a range between what's hidden and what's revealed.
So, everything that's 185 to 255 is going to be completely transparent. Everything that's 160 and below is completely opaque, and then everything in between 160 and 185 is creating a gradient of opaque to transparent within that range, so you get a much smoother edge between what's masked and what's not masked. I'm going to go ahead and click OK. And we will turn that bottom layer back on. And I get my final composite result. So, here's the original layer turned off where you see the dark wood, the dark sky as well, and the sand detail looks a little bit better.
Turn that back on and now you've got the best of both exposures. So, when in doubt, to set your camera to bracket mode, take a bunch of shots, and you can do this technique with more than two frames. If you need two, three or four, you can combine in this way as well. So, just a really quick, easy, cheap way of getting a better-looking image even with a point-and-shoot camera.
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