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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

This Article Features Photo Zoom

To simulate a graduated ND filter, click the Gradient drop-down to edit the gradient (Figure 4). Use the Neutral Density Filter Presets for this technique, so if the Default Presets are showing, click the little arrow icon and choose Neutral Density. When using the presets, I usually start by using the Neutral Density Preset, but depending on the image, I may use any of the other presets. After choosing a preset, notice that the top portion of your image is darkened and the bottom remains unchanged. At this point, you also may want to go back and fine-tune the position of the effect and Scale percentage.

Figure 4

Figure 5

Seeing The Effect
The next step is to change the Gradient Blend Mode to Soft Light. After choosing Soft Light, you can see the full graduated ND effect. One of the benefits of using Soft Light is that it also intensifies contrast. You should notice a slight increase in contrast in the lighter portions of your image. Changing the Opacity and Scale and even the Neutral Density Preset allows you to further fine-tune the effect to your image (Figure 5).

With a little practice, you'll become proficient with feathering and shifting your mask selection. However, if you're not happy with the selection, you always can go back and refine your mask.

Figure 6
To refine the mask, click on the mask to select it and then right-click and choose Refine Mask from the drop-down. Increase or decrease the Feather and Shift Edge until you have a transition that's seamless and that you're happy with (Figure 6). Finally, adjust the Opacity setting to the density effect that you like. Depending on the image, I find that an Opacity setting in the range of 20% to 50% makes for a realistic transition.

Benefits And Limitations
This technique isn't without limitations, though. While it's great for adding density to your highlight and midtone areas, it can't be used to fix blown highlights, and it's not a recovery tool. The technique won't enhance image data that isn't there. Depending on the image, I find the technique to have a workable range equivalent to about one or two stops. For a contrasty scene having a wide dynamic range, your best bet is to get the exposure right in the field using a traditional graduated ND filter or use another processing method, such as HDR or double-processing a RAW file.

Despite the technique's limitations, using the Layer Style and Layer Mask features in Photoshop to simulate a graduated ND filter can make a subtle, yet dramatic difference in the look of your images. Think of it as another tool at your disposal in the digital darkroom. After learning this technique, you can decide for yourself whether to leave your one- or two-stop graduated ND filters in the car on your next landscape photography outing.

Ansley Johnson is a self-taught photographer based in Georgia. You can see more of Johnson's work at ajphoto.zenfolio.com.


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