When you’re out taking photos and find you have problems with dark foregrounds and burned out skies one way you can balance the exposure is with a Graduated ND Filter. These filters have a grey tint at one end and fade to clear at the other and by placing the grey part over your sky, you’ll reduce the brightness difference between that and the foreground to give you a more even exposure. These filters come in various strengths and the overall effect will change depending on what strength filter you use. However, if you don’t happen to have a Graduated ND Filter to hand, you can recreate the effect in Photoshop. Here’s how:
Copy your image file
You need to make a copy of your image so you have two versions to work with in Photoshop. The easiest way to do this is right-click on the image file in the folder it’s saved it, click copy, right-click in the folder again and choose paste. Re name your files if you want to then open them up in Photoshop. We are working with RAW files so have to open and work on them individually but this tutorial will work with Jpegs too, you’ll just be adjusting your images slightly differently.
Adjust your images
Once you have your file(s) open, you need to adjust the first image until the sky looks to be exposed correctly. By tweaking the Brightness, Contrast and Exposure, we were able to bring more detail back in to the sky but it’s left the foreground underexposed. However, as we made a copy of the image, we can adjust this version so it looks like we exposed for the foreground, leaving the sky bright and then combine both images together.
When you’ve adjusted both images you need to select the Move Tool, click on one of the images and drag it on to the other image. You should now have two layers in your Layers Panel which you can rename if you want to. Make sure the layers are lined up correctly then we are ready to move on to the next stage.
Play with Layer Masks
You’ll notice the top layer is currently hiding the bottom layer so to bring the sky from one shot and the foreground from the other shot together, we need to create a vector mask. To do this, make sure the top layer is selected (it will turn blue in the layers panel) and click on the icon that has a circle sat inside a rectangle in the layers panel.
Next, select the Gradient Tool from the Tools Palette. If it’s not visible click and hold the Paint Bucket Tool and it will appear in a drop down menu. On the menu bar at the top, make sure a gradient which goes from white to black is selected (red arrow) and choose the first gradient option that fades left to right (black arrow).
As we’ve created a layer mask, when we apply the gradient, anything that’s under the black part of the gradient will show what’s on the layer underneath (which in our case is the image we adjusted for the foreground) and anything that’s under the white part will remain as the top layer. As we want to keep the sky from the top layer but bring the detail from the foreground in the shot underneath through, we’ll start with the gradient at the bottom and drag it up towards the top of the image. All you have to do to apply the gradient is click on the image where you want it to start, draw a line and let it go.
You can keep re-drawing the line, trying different lengths, until you’re happy with the way the final shot looks. Your shot is now complete but feel free to adjust the brightness and boost the contrast of the overall shot if you think it needs it.