Manually blend your exposures
Balancing shadows and highlights is vital. Manual exposure blending can be a cleaner option than HDR
Exposure blending is a very powerful method of creating life-like images. As incredible as the latest generation camera sensors are, they still cannot match the human eye for dynamic range – the spectrum of detail from the brightest highlights to the deepest shadows. HDR software can effectively blend files of differing brightness, but often there is limited control over the exact blending method and the processing is applied globally. Manually merging files in Photoshop, using layer masks, can offer the answer.
In the field, shoot a bracketed series of exposures, ensuring you capture a good range of shadow and highlight detail. Locate your RAW files, open them in Camera Raw and apply equal lens corrections, noise reduction and sharpening to all, using Synchronise.
Choose a base image
Select an exposure with a mid-range brightness as a base image to work on – usually the shot with zero exposure compensation, i.e. the ‘centred’ exposure. Rename the Background Layer appropriately, to remind you that this image should be at the bottom of the layer stack
Stack your exposures
Open your remaining images over your base image, adding a layer mask to each, while holding down alt, to create a black mask. This will hide the overlaying images, allowing you to gradually reveal the brighter or darker pixels from the over and underexposed images respectively.
Ideally you will have shot landscapes such as this on a tripod, so your images should be identically framed, however to account for any tripod slip, go Edit > Auto-Align Layers and leave the Projection set to Auto. Your bracketed images should now be exactly overlaid.
Work the shadows
With all layers labelled, paint with white on the Shadows Layer Mask to reveal detail in the darkest areas of the shot, with a large, soft brush. Make a selection of edges bordering the sky, to prevent unwanted brightening from ’spilling’ into those areas
Bring back the highlights
Repeat the process on the Highlights layer, using a low-opacity brush with medium flow to gently darken the brightest areas. Here we made a series of brush strokes along the horizon and a couple of circular strokes over the sun, to keep the effect natural.
One of the best aspects of working on layers is that you can easily alter the strength of an effect. Try lowering the opacity of the shadow and highlight layers to around 80% and use a black brush to reduce blending on a local level
Flatten and retouch
Flatten your document (Image > Flatten) and then proceed to make any further retouching adjustments you feel necessary. Your image may lack a little contrast, so light Curves application is commonly necessary. Local colour balancing can also aid depth and is easier to apply at this stage.