Image Stacking for Landscape Photos: Use Layers to Tackle High Dynamic Range Images

Image Stacking for Landscape Photos: Use Layers to Tackle High Dynamic Range Images

For a landscape to be truly spectacular, you’ll want the sun in the frame so you can observe the interplay of lights and shadows. The issue is that this puts unrealistic demands on your camera’s sensor. A common solution is to take several images at different brightness levels. But how do you combine them? Auto HDR doesn’t always work. So for greater control over your results, there is a manual process you can use to ensure your results are exactly what you want. 

In this article, I’ll show you several tricks that are useful for complicated landscape scenes that go beyond the realm of an ordinary photo. You’ll learn how to tackle a large dynamic range, as well as other potential issues such as lens flare caused by light reflection inside the lens.  

Shooting 

To get the maximum quality from our landscape shots, we will use what’s called exposure bracketing. Auto exposure bracketing is a camera setting with which one press of the shutter takes several photos at varying exposures. I usually opt for three shots, and in extreme cases five. Some cameras allow an even greater number. If you are not sure, it pays to take more pictures and then choose a few for stacking later.

Look for the Auto exposure bracketing (or AEB) function in your camera’s menu. Its location depends on the camera you are using. To avoid shifting between shots, it’s a good idea to use a tripod and a delayed shutter of several seconds. Shooting in RAW is a must in order to get the maximum amount of image information from each shot. 

Image Stacking for Landscape Photos
First series of photos taken using exposure bracketing

Since the images will be stacked anyway, we can make the actual shooting easier by taking a second series of shots with the sun covered. You can cover it with your finger. This eliminates the sun’s reflections in other parts of the image. 

Image Stacking for Landscape Photos
A second series, this time with the sun covered

Of course, with this method, the part of the photograph with the sun is unusable. It will be covered by an image from the previous series of photos. If something doesn‘t work right and the second series of shots don’t blend in correctly with the first (the camera or something else shifted), just go with the first series. 

Initial processing of RAW files 

If you are used to significantly altering your images, it is better to wait until the stacking of the images is complete before making a majority of your adjustments. This means there is no need to significantly edit the RAW file in the Develop module. The most important adjustment to make is to set a reasonable-looking White Balance that is the same for all images. If necessary, deal with the image’s biggest issues at this time. 

With default RAW settings, you may encounter a situation where the dark parts of the photo blend into a solid black blob lacking any detail. These dark parts can be missed by the software, so the safest thing to do with RAW files is to lower contrast to -20, for instance. Contrast will be added back later so don’t be alarmed if your photo looks dull. 

Additionally, if you find like me, that your lightest images are still too dark in certain areas, you have no choice but to increase the exposure.

I chose these three images for stacking: 

Image Stacking for Landscape Photos
Series of photos shot using exposure bracketing

The Editor and layers

Next, we work in the Editor module. It’s best to begin with the open file that will be used as the bottom part of the finished photo. This is almost always the lightest image. Then, using the Paste from File command in the Edit menu, add a second photo that is one degree lighter. Now, the layers panel should look something like this:  

Image Stacking for Landscape Photos
Step 1: Prepare your layers. After you add a layer, it is automatically named “Layer 1,2,3, etc.” Here and in all future steps, I rename the layers by double clicking their name.

If the layers are in the wrong order, drag them to where you want them. 

We will now work with the top layer. First, add a mask that completely covers it. Right click the layer and select Mask – Hide All. The mask is automatically selected (there is a white box around it). Other operations like painting or filling the mask will be done to the mask and not to the image itself. 

Image Stacking for Landscape Photos
Step 2: The mask for the top layer is prepared and selected

Select Paintbrush from Drawing Tools and use it to paint white in the areas you want to make visible. This darkens the image as a result. It’s best to use a brush with a large Diameter (up to 999, depending on the image resolution), low Density (10% or less), and Spacing around 5%, to speed up the painting process. Painting using a graphics drawing tablet is easier, but the mouse will do since great precision is not required. 

Image Stacking for Landscape Photos
Step 3: Select Paintbrush from Drawing Tools

After painting the mask, your image may look something like this:

Image Stacking for Landscape Photos
Step 4: Paint the mask to make only the part of the top layer that blends into the lower layer visible. On the right, the preview shows what the mask looks like.

Curves and grouping

At this point, you might find that the transition between layers is already very good. However, at other times, not even the subtle edges of the mask are enough and the bottom layer noticeably spills over into the dark areas of the top layer. 

One option is to adjust the top layer using curves from the Adjust menu – Curves. However, it’s better to do this operation non-destructively so the curves can be adjusted again in the future. 

Instead of using curves from the top menu, I usually add a Curves adjustment layer from the Add Layer drop-down menu on the right.

Image Stacking for Landscape Photos
Step 5: Add a curves layer

You need to make sure the curves layer is in the right place. That is, right above the layer that is to be adjusted. If it is not in the right place, drag to move it. 

But be careful! – It isn’t noticeable just yet, but if you move points along the curve (double click the layer icon to open a window with curves settings), you find you’re adjusting not only the middle layer, but the rest of the layers below it too. That is not what we want.  

Fortunately, there’s a handy solution: Select both the curves layer and corresponding image below it. Then right click and select Group. Aside from the group, nothing has noticeably changed in our picture. This is because the group is purely organizational for now. However, the layers are treated as if they weren’t there. This can be changed by selecting the group and changing the Layer Blending Mode from Pass Through to Normal

Image Stacking for Landscape Photos
Step 6: Group and change blending mode to Normal

Now the program first prepares the layer separately – including its graphical elements, curves, and any other layers – then, it puts the result in its place. The curves only affect the layers in the group below them. 

By slightly adjusting the curves, you get a small amount of lightening without overexposing and therefore a better transition between layers.

The same process for the next layer

Use the exact same process to add a third layer containing an even darker image that will be used around the sun, where the previous layer was not enough. 

Again, paste the layer from a file, assign a mask to it, paint the mask, and fine-tune the group’s curves. The result should look something like this: 

Image Stacking for Landscape Photos
Step 7: All three photos with masks painted on. Aside from the sun itself, all overexposed areas are gone.

Final global edits

Once we have a foundation with a large range of highlights and shadows in one shot, it is time for the final edits. These final edits depend on each photographer’s own taste. I’m going to continue working with the curves adjustment layer. I put it on top of the rest of the images and adjust contrast. Additionally, I add an adjustment layer to enhance the colors. I increase Vibrance and tweak White Balance since my photo looks overly green. 

Image Stacking for Landscape Photos
Step 8: Perform global edits. These edits don’t need to be grouped because they affect everything below it. It’s done here for clarity’s sake.

Final local edits  

Global edits may not be enough to get the best result. Editing contrast globally has its limits and increasing it may be a detriment to other parts of the image. Curves can often be a solution to this issue when used with a mask to limit their effect on certain areas. It’s up to you whether you put the curves layer on top so that it affects everything below it, or if you insert it into one of the groups so they affect only those layers.

Image Stacking for Landscape Photos
Step 9: Perform local edits. Even here, the adjustments done to the lower layer don’t need a new group because only the layer below it is affected. Again, it is shown here for clarity’s sake.
Image Stacking for Landscape Photos
Done! This is what the photo looks like after editing.

It gets easier with practice

The final image with a large number of layers may seem intimidating, but take it as more of a demonstration of all the adjustments available to you. By no means are you required to use all of them. On the other hand, creating layers like these is not complicated and as soon as you get used to the process, you’ll get to your finished product in no time.

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AuthorVit Kovalcik

I’ve been a freelancer since early 2012; photography is my living. I acquired my photography experience, both inside and outside the studio, during the previous years—when I was working all day and taking pictures every evening and weekend. I don’t have just one clearly defined topic; I like photographing people, but also cityscapes and landscapes.

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