Sometimes when you’re out on a shoot, no matter what you do you just won’t be able to get the shot you need in one single exposure.

When there are dark shadows and bright highlights all in the same scene it can often be outside your camera’s limitations to capture it all in one shot. To see what I mean, read my previous post The “Camera Doesn’t Lie” Myth.

Grad filters can help and are very often enough to control the over-bright skies, but if you don’t have any, or you do have filters but the sky is still way too bright, you’re next best option is to shoot two exposures and then blend them in photoshop.

I have a great simple solution when it comes to blending two exposures in photoshop which I can’t wait to tell you about, but first I’m going to run you through how to actually take your two exposures in the first place.

How to shoot 2 “bracketed” exposures

For the purpose of blending two shots together using my Fake Grad Filter Technique you will need to start with two photos.

The first one will be exposed correctly for the foreground and the second will be exposed correctly for the sky. When you expose the same photo twice (or more times) at different “brightnesses”, this is called “exposure bracketing”.

So how do you do this? 

There are a number of options on your camera like Auto Bracketing and Exposure compensation but they require some guesswork by the camera to decide what the correct exposure actually is, so for this tutorial I’m going to tell you how to do it using your camera in Manual mode.

Initial camera settings

Once you’ve flipped your camera into “Manual” mode, you’ll have full control over the three main exposure settings.

  • ISO
  • Aperture
  • Shutter Speed

You should start off by setting your aperture to around f8-f16 (generally considered the best range for landscape photography) and setting your ISO to 100 or 200.

This will leave you with only the shutter speed to ultimately control how brightly exposed your shots will be. Depending on how bright the scene is, you’ll have to play around with the shutter speed and take a few test shots until you find a relatively “normal” exposure.

So, with your ISO and aperture fixed, dial your shutter speed in to a value such that your foreground is exposed as well as it can be and you can see detail in the shadows.

Once you’re happy with the exposure of the foreground you can take your first shot.

Foreground exposure

ISO 100 | f8.0 | 6.0 sec
Note: Foreground rocks are exposed well and you can see most of the detail, but the sky is too brightly exposed and much of the colour is lost

Next, all you need to do is dial your shutter speed down a few notches so that your next shot will be darker than the first but so that the sky is correctly exposed.

I’m fond of the “trial and error” method when it comes to figuring out the precise settings I will need to use. Some people will use a light meter to measure the exact amount of light so that they know the exact setting they need to configure on their camera, but this really is overkill.

Just dial your shutter speed down a few notches, take a test shot and see what the sky looks like in the photo – so what if it takes two or three test shots!

It’s always a good idea to refer to your histogram too in these situations, not just the actual photo on your cameras LCD as it can tell you a lot more about how well a shot is exposed than the photo can. I use both.

Sky / background exposure

ISO 100 | f8.0 | 2.0 sec
Note: The sky is exposed much better and you can see the colours coming through in the clouds but now the rocks in the foreground have become too dark


Next steps…

I’ve included the photo’s above as an example so that you can see the difference changing the shutter speed from 6 seconds to 2 seconds whilst keeping the other settings the same has on the resultant pictures. It should help you visualise what I’ve been talking about so that you can replicate the results for yourself.

These shots are virtually straight out of the camera (I corrected the wonky horizon lol) and I’ll use them as a starting point in my next tutorial.

But for now, if what I’ve explained in this post is new information to you what I want you to do is go out and take action on the steps described to create yourself two bracketed exposures and get ready for my Fake Grad Filter Technique tutorial.