Making great shots out of snapshots

Nothing to do with over-processing a single photograph. Rather, I am referring to a technique known as exposure blending, where two or more exposures of the same composition are used to create the final image. I use it mainly for interior design, exteriors and commercial spaces, although it can also be very useful for landscape photography.

Every winter I spend some time in the alps and I love to shoot buildings that I find particularly inspiring.
As an example, here you see my exterior shot of Villa Kofler Wonderland Resort, a beautiful hotel in Campitello di Fassa (Trento, Italy).
The shoot was also an opportunity to meet the owner Mr. Ivo, who made history as a climber in the area and showed me some absolutely stunning pictures of frozen waterfalls he took with his phone the day before!

Back to the main topic, I blended 10 exposures to compose the final image below.



Before I show you those 10 exposures, please have a look at a comparison between an average shot I took that day and the final image I pulled off from my entire shoot.

 Move the vertical slider left or right too see a complete 'Before' or 'After'. 

To me, the image produced by blending several exposures is far more compelling than the average one.

Exposure blending comes in handy in quite a few scenarios. For one thing, no matter how great the dynamic range of your camera is, there will always be scenes that exceed it, so that you end up clipping either the highlights or the shadows, or both. Clipping means that parts of your image become completely white or completely black, so that no information can be recovered from them.

When this happens, you are left with only two options:

  1. Take a single shot, with a combination of aperture, shutter speed and ISO that produces a good compromise.
  2. Take several shots (e.g. normal exposure, + 2 stops, - 2 stops) and blend them together in some way.

To get good results using the first method, you need to have a camera with an amazing dynamic range.
It goes without saying that such cameras tend to be expensive and, no matter how good, the result will always be some sort of compromise.

The second method has the potential to lead to perfection and is all about producing a single shot by combining two or more exposures. It also allows for much cheaper gear, as your camera does not need to have such a great dynamic range.
Several tools are available and HDR software is one of them (HDR stands for High Dynamic Range). These programs are usually easy to use, but there is a tradeoff as they do not provide full control over the final result.

If you do want to have full control (guess what? I do!), you are better off using exposure blending. 
The tradeoff here is that exposure blending requires a fair bit of post-processing. To tell you the truth, it sometimes involves a lot of post-processing, especially if you are blending a lot of images.

What you need to do is brush in and out parts of different exposures to compose a blended image in Adobe Photoshop or similar software, using masks to control what parts of each shot are going to be revealed in the final image.

There is actually more to exposure blending than simply being able to produce high dynamic range images with full control. For example, I love to take several exposures of the same composition at different times of the day. For my final image of Villa Kofler Wonderland Resort, I kept shooting the hotel for 1.5 hours, as natural light and artificial lights changed their intensity and quality from before sunset until it was completely dark.

While this is not intended to be a tutorial on exposure blending, here is a tip: if you are planning to get a final image as a blend of several exposures, it is important to shoot those exposures with that precise idea in mind.
What I mean by this is that you should expose for a single feature at a time, ignoring entirely how under or overexposed all the other elements of your composition are going to be in that particular shot, since you will expose them correctly in a different shot.

Now have a look at the bunch of snapshot-looking images I took to produce the final image of this hotel in the Italian Dolomites: 

 
Exposed for the mountain and nothing else.

 
Façade (pretty dark) + some artificial lights.

 
Façade, + 2 stops over (nice white!).

 
First artificial lights appearing on balconies.

 
Balcony lights + Christmas decorations.
 
Artificial lights again.
 
Terrace and artificially lit façade.
 
Best exposure for the sky.
 
Lights/shadows (electric blue sky not good).
 
Restaurant lights (sky pitch black, not good).

 

If you consider each shot in isolation, they all look pretty average at best. Nonetheless, each exposure had a precise purpose and was key to the final result.

I always stop shooting exteriors once the sky gets completely dark. Also, I am not at all a fan of electric blue skies. With no exposure blending planned, I would not have taken the last two shots in the sequence above.

Here is the final image again:

I reckon the result I achieved with exposure blending is well worth the extra time spent shooting and post-processing the images.

Cheers,
Enrico

I had no clue what I was doing with my camera...

 
 
... and neither had my camera, of course!
Back in 2011, all I could do was grab a camera and set a high shutter speed to capture fast moving subjects. I did not know what aperture was, I ignored the effect of ISO on images, depth of field was a mystery to me. Overall, photography was not something I was into.
At the same time, I did love the pictures some other people were taking and, deep inside myself, I wished I could achieve the same results. This is probably why one cloudy day in October 2015 I decided to learn more, A LOT MORE about photography and the software to post-process my images.
 
One of the most important thing I have learned is the following:
 
In order to capture the maximum amount of data from the scene you are shooting, make sure your camera is set to save the images in RAW format rather than JPEG.
 
JPEGS are fine if you do not plan to have maximum flexibility in post-production, to do things like opening up the shadows, bring down the highlights or set the white balance. If you think your straight-out-of-camera JPEGS are unprocessed, clean files... well, I hate to break it to you but you could not be more WRONG. A lot of automated post-processing is performed by your camera according to the manufacturer’s specs and it all happens before you even see the photo for the first time on your camera’s LCD!
So, here comes the point: why should you let your camera do the post-processing for you? I would rather do it myself according to my taste.

Look at the unprocessed picture below:
 
PICTURE STRAIGHT OUT OF CAMERA
 
The right eye of the bison is not clearly visible (too dark!), the white balance is off (too much yellow and orange) and the composition is not very convincing, with the subject in the dead centre and that bit of an adult bison on the left hand side of the image, which I now find distracting. Also, filling the frame a little more by cropping the image would help make the bison calf stand out.

Now look at the post-processed version of the shot:
 
POST-PROCESSED PICTURE
 
Isn’t it a much more compelling shot?
RAW files are notoriously very neutral and they definitely require some post-processing. Personally, I do not feel like I retouched my image in a negative sense - i.e. making it unreal. Rather, I think I made a better use of the data that my camera sensor was able to collect.
Of course, if I had known more about photography back in 2011, I could have captured much better images in-camera. But truth is you cannot change the past! At least, having followed the advice to shoot RAW, I was able to recover and sometimes literally salvage some of my shots, such as this bison calf that I encountered during my first visit to Yellowstone National Park in 2011, well before I could dare to call myself a photographer.
 
Cheers, Enrico