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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Enhance Your Landscapes


How to use Photoshop Layer Masks and Layer Styles to simulate a graduated ND filter without the drawbacks of an actual filter


FINAL IMAGE

One of the greatest challenges in outdoor photography is properly exposing for contrasty lighting conditions. It often can be difficult to capture detail in both the highlight and shadow portions of an image because digital cameras are limited by the dynamic range that the camera sensor can record. With landscape photography, it's common for the scene being photographed to exceed the tonal range that the camera can record, and exposure often is a compromise between exposing for detail in either the lighter or darker portions of the image. This ultimately causes an underexposure in the shadow portions or an overexposure in the lighter portions of an image.

Traditionally, landscape photographers turned to graduated neutral-density (ND) filters to help tame the broad tonal range of a scene. Many times, using a graduated ND filter was the only way to create an exposure that would hold detail in both the highlight and shadow portions of an image. Graduated ND filters have potential drawbacks, though. A full set of quality filters and a specific filter holder are expensive, and the filters are time consuming to set up, which can be frustrating when lighting conditions are rapidly changing. Also, graduated ND filters don't work well for all scenes and may darken portions of an image that don't need darkening, sometimes leaving signs of filter use.

While the graduated ND filter always will be a staple in a landscape photographer's bag, digital technologies have made great advancements with regard to image processing and the ways of handling scenes with high contrast. Today, landscape photographers have many options when it comes to handling high-contrast scenes. We've all tried HDR, double-processing RAW files and manually blending exposures in the digital darkroom, and these techniques all produce excellent results when used properly. Often, the results are better than using a real graduated ND filter in the field.

One drawback, though, to using these techniques is that they're sometimes overly complicated for images that only need slight tonal adjustments. It has been said, "Just because you can doesn't mean you should." Do you really need to double-process a RAW file or manually blend two exposures, which results in only in a one- to two-stop change in the lighter portions of the image? You can use a more simple method to achieve the same effect and spend less time in front of your computer monitor.

In this article, I'll show you how to use the Layer Style and Layer Mask features in Photoshop to simulate the effects of using a graduated ND filter, which will darken and intensify specific brighter tones in your images. While not overly complex, the technique is flexible and has a subtle, yet dramatic impact on your images.

Easy Mask Selection
Before starting, I should mention that I use a Windows-based computer, so if you use a Mac, substitute the Command key when I mention the Ctrl key and the Option key for the Alt key.


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