Photo Tip of the Month: Exposing For Sky And Sea (Dynamic Range Without HDR Software)

You’re at the coast taking photos.  If you expose for the sky, the water, the cliffs, the rocks, the foreground becomes too dark.  If you expose for the foreground, the sky becomes blown out and appears like a white or gray blob.

What to do?  Ask a photographer from the 1850s!

Please click on the photo to see it.  The algorithms for making the photo smaller seem to also make it appear blurry.  Thanks!

Title: The Secret Coast
Info: Nikon D7000, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 with B+W 1.8 ND filter. ISO 400, 8 second exposure, f/14.
Photography: Ken Lee
Location: Los Angeles County, California, USA

You could use a graduated neutral density filter to make the sky darker.  This works very well if the horizon is flat and doesn’t have rocks or mountains.

You could use Photomatix or another kind of HDR software.  A lot of people do.

But if you don’t have HDR software or flat horizons or graduated neutral density filters, all is not lost.  There’s a technique for doing it “by hand” that I believe creates a very natural look and can be done in many photo editors that can create layers, using a technique that was developed well over a hundred and fifty years ago!  Read on, my friend, read on!

Combining two exposures together
One way of dealing with dynamic range is to create two versions of the same photograph. That’s what was done with the photo above, a long exposure photo of eight seconds in which I exposed for the foreground.

Here’s how I created it:

1.  I created two versions of the same photo.  Using View NX 2, which I use for my RAW photos, I created a second version of the photo in which I lowered the exposure slightly, revealing the true colors of the sky.  I don’t make the sky too dark because otherwise the final result can look abnormal.  Maybe -1.0 exposure.  Play around with this and do it by feel.

I could have also used another photo of the same scene altogether that was exposed for the sky, which I’ve done for other photos.  Either way works. Create one exposed for the sky first, name it “sky”, and convert to TIFF. Then change your settings so that it’s exposed for the sea, rename it “sea”, and convert to TIFF.  We’re naming something meaningful simply so it’s easier to spot later.

2.  I combined the two TIFFs together as layers.  In Photoshop CS4, I opened the two TIFF files I had just created.  While viewing my “sea” TIFF – in other words, the photo in which I exposed the photo for the water, rocks, and foreground – I selected “all” (on a Mac, “Apple” + “A”; on a PC, “Control” + “A”), then copied it (Mac “Apple” + “C”; PC “Control” + “C”).

I then clicked on the other TIFF labeled “sky” – in other words, the photo in which I exposed for the sky – and pasted the “sea” photo in (Mac “Apple” + “V”; PC “Control” + “V”).  I could now only see the “sea” photo that was exposed for the foreground only.  The Layers Menu now showed two layers, the background being the “sky” photo. Cool. On all my versions of Photoshop, the Layers Menu has always defaulted to the lower right corner of the monitor in the event that you have difficulty locating it.

3.  I erased part the top layer to reveal the sky. It’s really that simple.  In Photoshop CS4, I selected the Eraser Tool, which should be found on the upper left side in a vertical bank of tools.  I like to use the Brush Tool, altering the size of the Brush depending on what I am doing, and starting off with 100% opacity and 100% flow.  You can change these as you see fit on the upper left corner in the horizontally-oriented taskbar of Photoshop.

So what I did was first select a very large brush, and at 100% opacity, kept erasing to reveal the ideally-exposed sky in the background layer underneath. As I got closer to the horizon or the rock, I made the brush size considerably smaller and changed the opacity to 50% to blend the borders better.

This part is hard to describe and takes some experimentation and patience, as you’ll probably need to zoom in on your photo near the horizon or edges to really see what you are doing.  This is art, after all, and how you do this depends on your taste and aesthetic.  Make sure you keep saving the image as you go in case Photoshop crashes and you lose all your work.  I personally like to blend the area where the water meets the sky a little bit rather than attempting a hard, discrete “line” of erasure.  Again, this is about aesthetics.  It’s art, so do it as you feel it looks and feels best.

When you’re finished, you should have a nicely blended image in which the sky looks like what you remembered, and not a white blown-out blob, and the foreground is nicely exposed as you originally did it.  Blending them artfully with the eraser is key.  Once you do this once or twice, you’ll get the hang ouf it and be able to do it quite nicely.

This technique is seriously old school!
Think dealing with dynamic range like this is relatively new?  Would you be surprised if I told you that Gustave Le Gray were doing this in the 1850s?  That’s right, the idea of combining more than one exposure was pioneered way back when your great-great-great grandfather was just a gleam in his pappy’s eye.  Le Gray combined two negatives for the very same reason I have here, using one negative for the sky and another for the sea, and then combining them into one photo (positive).

Some people have this attitude that this is fake and you shouldn’t Photoshop.  But if so, people have been faking it for quite some time.  No, we’re just exposing for the sky and for the sea.  And I would submit to you that a photo of a sky looking like a white blog instead of the deep blues and yellows that I saw would be unrealistic.

Thank you for reading, and thank you if you comment below!!!

Equipment:  Nikon D7000, Tokina AT-X 116

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