Photostacking to Capture the Light

When I set up my camera and tripod in anticipation of making a photograph of this beautiful valley in Iceland, I hoped for something better than I ended up with. The sky was mostly cloudy but the sun would peek out through an occasional break in the clouds. As portions of the valley lit up, I would make an exposure; all the time hoping the sun would light up the mountain at the end of the valley and that a blue hole would open behind it. Unfortunately, the sky simply did not cooperate and this was one of the photos I was able to make.

While this photo is acceptable, it wasn’t what I was looking for.

Before I packed it in, I raised my camera, and using a wide angle lens, captured the scene with the blue hole that was high in the sky. That photo wasn’t very good because the blue sky wasn’t where I wanted it in the frame, it had too much sky and the valley was completely shaded.

As I made my photographs, I was thinking about whether I could make the shot I wanted in my post processing by combining the images that I had made.

When I got home I gave it a try. First, in Adobe Camera Raw, I opened twelve images I had made of the valley; all with different places lit by the sun. I made my adjustments,made sure that I had selected all the images and applied the adjustments to all of them. I then clicked on the “Done” button. With those same images selected in ACR, I clicked on Tools,  Photoshop,  Load Files into Photoshop Layers. When all the files were opened, I selected all the layers and changed the blending mode to “Lighten”. By changing the blending mode, all the lightest pixels were exposed so the entire valley was lit up. I liked the final product much better, but all the shadows were now lost. I then clicked on the eyeball next to each layer to see what it was contributing to the entire image. By turning off some of the layers, I was able to bring some of the shadows back into the image. When I found the combination I liked, I flattened the image and the result was much better than the original. Still I wasn’t satisfied.

In ACR, I opened the final photograph I made; the one with the bit of blue sky. I applied the same settings as I had made for the other images and opened it in Photoshop. Next I duplicated the layer by pressing CTRL  J. I then clicked on Window, Arrange,, Tile All Vertically. Now I could see my two images side by side. I took the Move Tool, grabbed the top layer of the image with the blue sky and dragged it to the other image. While holding down the Shift key, I dropped the layer on top of the other image. Holding Shift ensures that the two images are aligned on top of each other perfectly. With the blue hole image on top, I went to the bottom of the Layers Pallet and while holding down the ALT key, I clicked on the Add a Layer Mask icon. Holding down the ALT key created a black mask that hid the entire layer. Next I clicked on the background layer and using the Quick Selection Tool, I selected the sky. I then selected the blue hole layer mask and  hit the DELETE key. That painted the mask white in the selected area and revealed the blue hole layer in the selected area. The blue hole was perfectly placed. (If it had not been where I wanted it, I would have used the Move Tool to position the layer in such a way that the blue sky was where I wanted it.)

I then pressed CTL ALT SHIFT E to flatten the layer above the other layers. I converted it to a smart object and applied select filters from Nik’s Color Efex Pro 4. I then used Nik’s Viveza to make some targeted adjustments to the mountain top, adding the light I had hoped I would get from the sun as well as adding a little saturation.

While I captured the light I wanted via stacking and getting the sky I wanted by compositing the sky from a photo made during the same stop, I still wasn’t completely satisfied with my shot. I liked everything about it except the foreground. I thought it needed more or none at all because I thought that what I had was more of a distraction than a photographic element.

I looked through my images and found another one I made at the same location but at a shorter focal length. I was able to move the foreground from that image to my stacked image and it worked well.

Here is the final result.

This is the image I set out to create. When the sun and sky didn’t cooperate, I took what they gave. When my eye didn’t capture the best foreground, I inserted the foreground from another image. In the end, I created the image I was after.

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