In this post I just wanted to run through some techniques I use for landscape images. In particular I have made a return to blending images manually to create high dynamic range (HDR) images. Let's start by taking the initial and brightest image of four shots taken at different exposures to create the final HDR image. Primarily this image gets the exposure of the rocks in the foreground about right (not perfectly).
I now paste in a second image where the foreground-midground is about the right exposure. Apply a layer mask to the whole image and select Control/Command I to invert the mask making it all black. Paint with a white brush into the areas you want to restore from the first layer. In all of the following images when we paint with white or black I use the opacity setting to feather the adjustment. You can set the opacity to a higher value say 40% when covering large areas but reduce it down to 4-5% and paint strokes to gain control over the smaller more detailed areas you are working on.
Paste in the third image which is exposed for the mid-ground. Again apply a layer mask, invert it to all black and then paint in the areas you want to restore from the previous layers.
Finally I put in the sky layer and repeat the layer masking process.
I am now going to apply a level adjustment filter to the whole image but adjust it until I like the brightness of the rocks in the very front of the picture. They are a bit bright in the image above. Again I apply a layer mask, invert it to make the mask all black and then paint in white where I want to show the levels adjustment on the foreground rocks.
Next I am going to apply another levels layer but this time adjust the levels to bring out some more detail in the hill in the distance. Again, use a layer mask, inverted and painted white where I want the levels adjustment to show through. This is quite a subtle change and may not show up very well on the screen.
Now it is time to bring out the colour a little more by applying a vibrance and saturation adjustment layer. I am only going to increase vibrance and saturation in the sky though by again applying a layer mask, inverting it and painting white where I want to vibrance and saturation settings to show through.
I'm not happy with the colour of the rocks right at the front, they are a little blue given the colour of the sky so I am going to apply a colour balance adjustment layer to redden them a little. Again add the adjustment layer and change the values to give the colour balance you like, add a layer mask, invert it, paint white where you want the adjust values to show through.
Greens! Always a problem with digital photos for some reason and here is no exception. They are just a little to vibrant and need toning down. Same process - add an adjustment layer (vibrance and saturation), add the layer mask, invert and paint in white to show the adjustment. Again it is only a slight change and difficult to see on the screen.
Now just to finish up the overall light and dark areas of the image we are going to use a layer to dodge (lighten shadow areas) and burn (darken highlights). Create a new layer using the Layer->New->Layer menu option. Change the mode to Overlay and select the option that says Fill with Overlay-neutral color (50% gray)
Darken any areas by painting with a black brush, lighten areas by painting with a white brush. In the image below I have mainly just lifted some of the shadows on the far hills and darkened the water on the sand in the middle of the image.
Nearly there! I have a couple of dust spots to remove in the sky and there are a couple bits on the far hills that keep catching my eye. I create a new blank layer and then use the healing brush and clone tool to remove dust spots and clone out the small bush in the middle of the far hills. There is also a small dip in the hills which does not really show up on this small image which I have cloned out.
One last bit now. I sharpen the picture to give a bit more contrast to the edges using a high pass filter. First I create a composite of all of the layers we have added using the Control+Alt+Shift+E (Command+Option_Shift+E on a Mac). This creates a single layer based on all of the layers you select (select them all!). I then turn off the visibility of all the layers except the new composite. Hit Control+J or Command+J to create a duplicate layer. Then add the High Pass filter (Filter->Other->High Pass). Marvel at the grey picture you are now left with!!!
Play around with the sliders to get a good edge definition and when you are happy set the blend mode of the layer to something like soft light.
This is not meant to be the be all and end all of how to create a manual HDR image. It is more designed to show how adjustment layers and layer masks can be used to manipulate the image. The important thing to note is that this is completely non-destructive to the original photos. To revert to your original simply delete the adjustment layers. The other nice thing is you can go back to any layer and alter it. If for example you decide there is too much saturation in the sky go back to the sky saturation adjustment layer, open it up and change the settings. The mask is still in place so on the non-masked areas will be affected.