Multiple exposures – the best of both worlds

After the previous photo was posted, questions were raised including, “How did you get so much color from this shot (and I hope your response is not “I took it in BALI”), and how did you stop the sun from wrecking the foreground. Amazing.”

Generally I don’t allow a peek behind the curtain, but in this case I’ll make an exception. Most you know that I don’t use too much manipulation with my photos. I generally try to remain consistent with the way my eyes took in a scene. However, at times it’s more fun to experiment, and to bring an image to the level you experienced it.

This scene at Tanah Lot (Hindu temple) is in a beautiful location. However, any place on the equator experiences very rapid sunrises and sunsets, so you must be ready for the light to change very quickly. In most cases, a camera cannot properly deal with a scene like this – one where the sun is included in the background. You must choose, to have the foreground properly exposed, or the background.

To do this accurately, you MUST use a tripod or some other way of stabilizing the camera. Any slight movement amongst multiple exposures will be very evident in the final image. I would also highly recommend using a cable release or wireless transmitter to activate the shutter. You then would set your camera to take three consecutive photos – perhaps one stop overexposed, one stop underexposed, and one at the optimum exposure. Play around with these settings to find the right one, and if in doubt, take a ridiculous amount of photos, you can throw away the duds later.

The photo below demonstrates this, I exposed for the foreground:

The next shot was exposing for the sky:

I didn’t bother using the middle exposure in this case. Only the over/under versions. Now I used Lightroom for the initial adjustments and then brought it into Photoshop CS3. However, you could easily do this with older versions of PS (without the need for Lightroom).

Open both photos.

Drag one image on top of the other (lined up perfectly of course)

And use a “mask” to paint away the areas from the top layer where you’d like the background to come through. I would work very carefully, zoomed into at least 100% for this part. Take into consideration things like the movement of clouds, water, people, or other objects which may have shifted with time.

Here is what it’ll look like as you work:

The final photograph can take the best of both worlds – the beautiful foreground, and a properly exposed sky. The result may be stunning without being overly exaggerated.

Tanah lot

  • Instead of masking, if you are lazy ass like me, try using “Merge to HDR” in CS2 or CS3 (It’s under File > Automate) and yes, your technique actually has a name, HDR ;).

    Or using Local Adaptation feature. Well, I guess a link to tutorial will help too:

    Hope you’ll find this useful.

  • That is amazing……I would buy this print in a flash!
    Your style has evolved so much in the year I have been reading your blog.
    Wonderful images.

  • Brandon, your technic is so genuine to me. great tips. Thanks

    btw, like always, i have linked to this post from my website.
    hope you dont mind 🙂

  • Avi – great link! Actually, I know about HDR, but generally don’t like the look. I think most attempts that I’ve seen on places like flickr look heavily modified, awkward, and unappealing. I’m not trying to say my technique is better, but I just don’t enjoy the huge HDR craze that I’ve seen on there for the past two years. I think on certain images it definitely has potential to add interest, but often it ends up looking a bit odd.

    Using the PS tool created a very poorly rendered image. I’ll play with this a bit more, but I generally much prefer my “old-fashioned” technique.

    Thanks for sharing that link, though. I’ll go through it more carefully this weekend.

    Here’s what I came up with using PS to do the work:

  • Brandon

    Hi Jenny, actually I sold a print of this today. (and 5 other photos yesterday) This one will be printed 40x60cm this time. If you know my “adrift” photo, I just had that printed at 80x120cm last night. Quite large!

    If you ever are interested in anything, I do sell my work (and reduce prices from my U.S. prices for friends). Thanks for dropping by.

  • Brandon

    Anto – I appreciate the link. Anytime!

  • Brandon, the sky is a bit tone down, eh :(.

    Well, as I said, I am just lazy and sloppy, so masking with patience is not my best virtue.

    Anyway, I had to admit that this HDR things was a double-edged sword (as most techniques anyway – even the simple Polarization) and of course, since we are talking about ‘photography’, we are talking about ‘subjectivity’. Well, still love your work tho. It’s always a pleasure.

  • Aaamaazing tips! Thank you so much for sharing this. I did the multiple exposures (double to be exact) couple years ago :), but i’m done it with old SLR which it’s not a digital camera. i took it manually. So, no digital that time 😀

  • Brandon–I agree; I don’t like HDR generally. Love your photos and your tips! Thanks:)

  • Hmmm…. after reading your technique, now I’m convinced that there is no easy way (a single click of a button) for a nice photo where dynamic range is way too high

    Usually, I use the double exposure technique and combine them in photoshop using masking layer, but without any distinction between foreground and background. Not too good result obviously.

    I thought there is be a better way than have to peep down to pixels and create a separate masking layers just like you explained (it’s hardwork when you have complex sillhoute just like in tanah lot). I guess if you want to have a beatiful photograph, hard work naturally have to come with it! 😉

  • cool trick dude, i’ve done this one a long time ago, but too lazy to do it again with any of my bad photos. lol.

    so what’s been up man? i’m goin to bali early november, any chance you would be there?

  • Morgan


    Just getting a chance to check back in on this and see that you have offered some great advice on how to compose a photo like this. Thankfully I think my low rent camera can actually do the 3 exposures. Thanks and happy thanksgiving.

  • Brandon

    Jerm – sorry I didn’t respond earlier. I’ll actually be in Bangkok at the end of this week. Bali maybe in mid-Dec. Sorry man.

    Morgan – how’s life? Thanks for the Thanksgiving wishes – wish it were better this year.

  • This is really amazing Brandon!
    Say, I noticed that you have several really good shots taken with the 17-40mm on the EOS 5D. How the hell do you get rid of the chromatic aberrations and blurriness on the edges??? i cannot check your images close enough, so I cannot say if you eliminated them completely, but on these images I cannot see any at all. What’s your secret?

  • Brandon

    Hi Kryn, with the 17-40 on a 5D, you do indeed get a bit of blurriness on the edges of the frame, but stopping it down will help a lot. Additionally, keep in mind that you’re not seeing full frame versions of the photos, the blurriness would be much more subtle on these resized images. I don’t have too much of an issue with chromatic abb though – maybe I got lucky?

  • Hi brandon, thanks for posting this useful site. i am a complete idiot when it comes to photoshop. can you briefly explain more after the step “mask”… i find the icon in my photoshop, but i dunno how to wipe out the upper image

  • polia


  • polia


  • polia