Photoshop tutorial: HDR using layer masks

This is the third post about High Dynamic Range -HDR- after
1. Dynamic range optimization: Showing how to maximize the dynamic range of your picture.
2. Merge to HDR explained: Explaining how to use Adobe Photoshop CS2 merge to HDR feature.

This tutorial explains, step by step, how to achieve HDR pictures using layers and layers mask in Adobe Photoshop. It is the method I use and prefer and Daniella did a amazing job writing down this tutorial.

All images in this tutorial are copyrighted to Daniella, and I am using them with her permission.

Make sure to click on each image to see a bigger version.

1. Bracket your exposure: This tutorial begins in the field while taking the picture and not in the digital dark room. Start by taking 2 or 3 shots of the same scene, with the camera secured on a tripod, one exposed for the highlights and the other for the shadows. More for tips on how to deal with such situations, please read Tips on shooting good landscape .

Here is the result side by side..first the 2 original images and the last is the blended one:

2. Put both images in one: Open both images in adobe photoshop, then take one of the image and use SELECT ALL (CTRL+A), and COPY (CTRL+C).


After that go to the other image and PASTE it (CTRL+V).
Photoshop paste the image first image into the second one and put it on a new layer on top as shown below.


3. Create a layer mask
To create a mask, simply click on the “ADD LAYER MASK” icon at the bottom of the layer palette.
A white mask will appear right beside your top layer image on the layer palette.
The color swatch on the tool palette will switch to black and white.
With the black color you will render things transparent while the white will render it opaque.


4. Create a digital Neutral Density filter: To make things go faster, use a gradient from the black and white to quickly set the transparency, this is exactly the effect a Neutral Density filter would have done for you.
For most pictures the digital ND filter should be refined with the brush tool later.

That way you have a fast quick setup. As you can see on the layer mask now, the top of the mask is now white and the bottom black. That means that the bottom is now transparent, revealing the image on the bottom layer.

N.B.: Depending on the order in which the images (bright and dark) are loaded you might have to inverse your mask, for that make sure the mask is selected and then SELECT ALL (CTRL+A) and INVERSE (CTRL+I).


5. Refine your mask: To refine this and create a better mask that will follow precisely the shadow part and highlight part of the scene, use the brush tool to paint the layer mask in black or white depending if you want a certain area transparent or opaque.

N.B.: Also experiment using brushes with different shades of gray, since in some transitional regions you might neither want complete opacity nor transparency but rather a blending of the two exposures.


Now you can see the final layer mask painted with the black to reveal the underlaying image. this let you control exactly what you want reveal and what you want to hide.


Here is a zoom on that layer mask, where you can see what is totally black is transparent and what is dark gray is semi transparent, what is white is opaque.


That’s it your done, here is the final image


This post is part of a series of posts, please also check Tips for creating HDR layer masks using threshold and Tips for creating HDR layer masks using levels and Tip for refining the HDR mask

Once again I would like to thank Daniella for allowing me to use her images and text in this tutorial.