Improving My Best Photo

March 17, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

Final blended image.Time Blend of 3 Images, 16 mm Final Blended Image of 3 Exposures

A few days after Thanksgiving in 2017, I went out before sunrise to one of my favorite locations for taking photos of the Spanish Peaks. That morning I witnessed the most beautiful, incredible sunrise I have ever seen, and I was able to capture it with my camera! The image above shows the scene as I remember it that morning as I stood beside my Jeep for an hour watching the colors develop in the sky and waiting for the sun to break over the horizon in the gap between the mountains.

Time Blending

I previously wrote on this blog about how I missed the composition for the pre-dawn images I captured that morning. Fortunately, as sunrise approached, I reframed the scene in the camera and got the shot with the little oak tree in the foreground as the sun appeared in the gap between the Spanish Peaks. This photo of the sunrise has been my favorite, and, writing this post in March 2019, I still regard it as my best landscape image hands down. However, I've always preferred the incredible colors in that pre-dawn sky to the bland white clouds that were there when the sun finally appeared. I've also known that the image needed some work in Photoshop to clean up a few details before it could be printed, but I just haven't had the inclination to invest the time working on this image. Recently I decided to frame a print of this image to hand in my office, so I finally have the incentive to spend some time on it in Photoshop. I also realized that I could combine the sunrise image with the pre-dawn image to create a time blend composite of the scene showing the incredible drama in the clouds with the splendor of the moment of sunrise. This post is about that process.

Time blending is an exposure blending technique used to combine two or more photos of the same scene that were captured over an extended period of time. In this case, I have blended two images, one captured during the blue hour before dawn as the approaching sunrise created some fantastic color in the sky and a second image captured 40 minutes later at the moment the sun appeared over the mountains. Because the gap between the Spanish Peaks is at about 9,000 feet in elevation, by the time the sun was high enough in the sky to be visible, all of the color was gone from the clouds.

Image Workflow

The workflow for this image started with the selection of the base exposures to be blended. The selection was easy for the sky exposure-the colors peaked about 15 minutes after I got my camera set up and starting taking photos, so I just used the photo with the most impressive sky. For the foreground with the sunrise, I actually picked a different photo than the one I used for the original edit. I love the sun star in my original image, but the lens flare resulting from shooting directly into the sun was almost overwhelming. An image captured just a few minutes earlier when the sun was not fully above the horizon did not have nearly as much flare, but also did not have as prominent of a sun star, but I decided the improvement in overall image quality was worth the loss of the light streaks around the sun.

Base Exposure for Sky16 mm, f/5.6, ISO 100 Base Exposure for Sky
16 mm, f/5.6, ISO 100

Both of the base images are HDR digital negatives generated from a set of 3 bracketed exposures shot at 2 stops apart. It may seem unusual to use HDR composites as the base images, but the HDR images were much cleaner than any of the single exposures. I prepared both images in Lightroom with global adjustments for exposure and contrast. I consider these images to be half-developed leaving plenty of room for further adjustment in Photoshop after blending. The sunrise image also suffered from some severe edging and some chromatic aberration along the crest of the mountains because of the intensity of the sun.

Base Exposure for Sun and Foreground16 mm, f/22, ISO 100 Base Exposure for Sun and Foreground
16 mm, f/22, ISO 100

Because the twilight image was shot with the camera at a slightly different spot, I had to stretch the image and mask out the mountains and foreground before blending. I set the sky as the bottom layer with the foreground sunrise image on top, then used a luminosity mask with an additional gradient mask to fade out the sky and reveal the underlying twilight image. This mask also required some additional painting to let in more of the sky layer.

Once I had the two exposures blended, I decided to try adding in the more prominent sun star from the later exposure. I'm really not very experienced with exposure blending in Photoshop, so this part was tricky and took a few attempts to get right. In the end, the sun star is less prominent that I had hoped, but the alternative was the introduction of more lens flare. The sun star was added using the Luminosity blend mode with careful painting in of just the light beams.

Sun Star Exposure16 mm, f/22, ISO 100 Sun Star Exposure
16 mm, f/22, ISO 100

I used several of the tools built into Jimmy McIntyre's Raya Pro panel for Photoshop to improve the blended image including the details enhancer and chromatic aberration removal. To remove the severe edging on the mountains, I used a Blur layer and just painted in a mask along the edge of the mountain.

I said at the beginning that I wanted to create an image that shows the scene as I remember it. Blending in the incredible twilight sky with the moment of sunrise helped to capture a lot of that feeling, but the image still needed a little bit of magic. To create the effect I wanted, I used another Raya Pro tool called "Magic Green Lands" which is basically an action that adds in every conceivable over the top enhancement effect to the image in Photoshop. Needless to say, it must be used with restraint, and when done so, can add in some very nice glow and drama. I applied with a setting of 30%-probably too much but I want this image to really have a magical feel.

I finished the image with some noise reduction, sharpening, and a light vignette in Photoshop, then added another vignette and some saturation adjustments in Lightroom. The final image is at the top of this post and will soon be hanging on the wall of my office. I am really happy with the way this image turned out-I hope you enjoy it too.

Photoshop Adjustments


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