© Moose Peterson

Youíve prepared all night, cameras loaded, batteries charged, route selected and sunrise time checked and rechecked. You head for your locale with only the stars, lighting your way. With a flashlight in your mouth, you set up your tripod and double check every setting for the tenth time. The stars are slowly replaced by dawnís early light and you see your planning has panned out. In front of you are the Grand Tetons, below you, the Snake River and painted across the heavens are magical clouds. Oh, this is going to be good!

You look through your viewfinder and double check the vision in your viewfinder to see if it matches the one in your heart. Everything seems to be lining up perfectly as the light of day brings life to your vision. Then, the magical clouds over the Tetons begin to blow to the south. They take on an even more elegant sweep as they slowly move away from the peaks. By the time the light kisses the tops of the Tetons, the clouds are to the south and out of the frame. You take the photo in the viewfinder of the Tetons, walk very quickly behind you to get a clear shot of the clouds and take a photo of them. As you pack up your gear, you take a certain satisfaction that youíve accomplished everything you set out to photograph.

ďWait just a second,Ē youíre probably saying. ďHow can you be satisfied when you missed the shot? You photographed the Tetons with bald skies in one image and just a sexy cloud in another.Ē The satisfaction comes from knowing your craft, having an imagination and the talent to make it all work together. You know that within a few minutes youíll have the perfect image to print and 16 mount on your wall. If you donít see how thatís possible, then you need to read on to learn the tools so you too can have the same satisfaction. Itís all about matching your vision to reality.

Capturing the Vision

It all begins with a vision, an image in the heart and mind that you want to match up with what you see in the viewfinder. Itís called photography. I canít stress enough that you need to get it right, right from the start. That means when you take the photo, youíve taken it as perfectly as you can at that moment. That should mean itís a completed photo, you donít need PhotoShop to jackhammer a bunch of pixels to fix something that should have been done at the point of capture.

In order for this technique to work seamlessly and not making up for camera mistakes in the digital darkroom, you need to do certain things. Weíre photographing sunrise for example, that means we have the warm colors of sunrise to deal with. In order to match up the colors of two different images, we need to match exposure in both. You need to shoot with the same f/stop so focus and DOF are constant in all the images. Iím not going into the howís and whyís of these in this piece, but you can ďmake upĒ for not doing this in PhotoShop, it just takes time and skill you might not have. Thatís really all there is to the technical side of this technique, be a photographer.

The hard part of this technique for many is following the imagination. Youíve got to work outside the box, literally. Youíre going to have to look at the scene, the reality and then look at the scene with your imagination and use your camera and digital darkroom skills to combine them. In this example, we donít want bald skies so by just turning to our left and walking twenty yards, we can fill the bald skies with a click, of the shutter and the mouse.

If Iím making this sound way too easy, donít worry, because it is. In the digital age, this technique is very simple to learn, master and apply whenever needed. Because once you have the two images, hereís what it takes to finish off your visual story.

Creating the Reality to Match the Vision

It all starts with your workspace. I canít emphasize enough the importance of a calibrated workspace. Iím working on a Wacom Cintiq 21UX. It is calibrated with Gretag Eye One, which I depend on since I work visually. This makes the rest of the process a snap!

Step One

Step 1:
I shoot RAW files so I need to process my images in Nikon Capture 4.2. Having done it right, right from the start, processing takes only a few clicks. Using the White Balance dialog, I set the WB to match the event, in this case an early sunrise. With these two images, Iíll set the New WB to Calculate Automatically, knowing how the D2X/Hs works and what I like. Using the Advance Raw dialog, I set the Sharpening to Medium High and Color Mode to Mode II (Adobe RGB). Itís essential you process both images using the exact same settings and then do a Save As TIFF RGB.

Step 2:
Open your two images you just processed in PhotoShop (all these steps are with PS CS). The goal is to combine the sexy cloud with the Tetons, no problem. Tap the V key, which brings up the Move Tool. Click on the Cloud image (so itís active) and drag it over to the Teton photo.

Teton PhotoTeton 2

Just that easily, youíve merged the two photos and made a composite! The rest is just finishing touches to the process.

Step 3:
Close the cloud photo (Ctrl or Cmd W) so just the combined photo is open. This saves you memory space. Tap the F key for Full Screen mode. This gives you a gray background, which permits your eye from being fooled by other background colors. Looking to the right to the Layers palette, youíll see there are now two layers present, the Background layer, which contains your photo of the Tetons and Layer 1, which PhotoShop automatically created for the cloud photo you dragged over. Weíre going to rename the layers so we can easily talk about them.

Step 3

Double click on Background layer and name it Tetons. Double click on Layer 1 and rename it Clouds. With the Cloud layer active (the box is colored/dark), set the Opacity for the layer to 70% (Opacity is found right above the layer, to the right). Tap V so you have the Move Tool and move the Cloud layer so itís positioned exactly where you want it over the Tetons. With that accomplished, bring the opacity for the Cloud layer back to 100%.

Step 4:
Youíre now going to create a Layer Mask in the Cloud layer. This is done by simply clicking on the Add layer mask icon at the bottom of the Step 4layers palette (the bullís eye icon). This creates a layer mask in the Cloud layer (the white box to the right of the photo icon). We need to fill this mask with black, which will conceal the Cloud image for a moment. There are two ways of accomplishing this. The easiest is to hold Step 5-2down the Alt (Option) button as you click on the Ad Layer Mask icon. The second method, first be sure your background color is black (black
and white box to the far left, bottom box should be black), then hold down Ctrl (Cmd) and tap Making sure the correct layer is active (layer yellow highlight in this case) click on Opacity and set it to 70%) As soon as you click on the Add layer mask and that mask is filled with black (either method), the image you dragged over the other image disappears.

Step 5:
Weíre now going to paint back the clouds into the sky. Making sure the mask in the Cloud layer is active, tap B for the Brush Tool. You want to use a soft edge brush. Paint with about a 20% Opacity. By simply tapping the #2 key on the keyboard, youíre at 20%. Weíre going to paint the clouds back into our photo. Our mask is black (black conceals) so we need to paint with white (white reveals). Be sure your foreground color is white and then just start painting in the clouds. Nothing you do is permanent, so donít freak out about mistakes. You can erase your last paint stroke by either Ctrl / Cmd Z or by painting over the spot with black (tap X and then paint over the mistake).

Step 6:
Slowly paint the clouds back in. Working with the small increment of 20%, it will take a number of strokes to paint everything back in. Every left click on the mouse will reveal another 20% of the cloud layer. If you look at the layer mask in the Cloud layer, you will see it first with swipes of gray and then eventually some of the mask will be white, which means youíve revealed 100% of the cloud photo.

Finished Photo

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