Optimize RAW files twice—once for highlights and once for shadows—for a better tonal range
3. Merge the two versions. Next, these two processed versions of the original image need to be put together. Place both in your work area in Photoshop so that they overlap, but you can see something of both images. One image will be added to the other image's file, creating a new layer with that first image over the second.
The photo that goes on top should also be on top in the work area. Which one goes on top, though? This really depends on the photo and how much of each photo version needs to be combined for the final shot. If you find out the photo you put on top doesn't work there, it really is no problem to delete that layer and move the once-bottom photo on top of the first image.
In this case, I decided to move the dark, highlight-optimized image over the light, shadow-optimized image because I thought I might get better results by keeping a lot of the darkness and gradually bringing in the lighter image. Whenever you're gradually bringing in another image, you're usually best with that one on the bottom.
When moving these photos, people really get mixed up if they don't do this exactly right. It isn't hard-it just requires a little precision:
• Select the Move tool at the top of the toolbox.
• Press Shift, then click on the top photo and drag it so the cursor goes all the way onto the second photo. You know you've gone far enough when you see the cursor change shape, and a black selection line appears around the second photo.
• Release the mouse button, then the Shift key. Shift lines up the moved image exactly so both images match.
• A new layer appears with the moved image in it.
In Photoshop, you can add a layer mask to any layer. The layer mask makes the merging of the two images much easier. You can do the merging in a program like Photoshop Elements, but you have to erase the top layer rather than use a layer mask (which is like a nondestructive eraser). So in this image, I added a layer mask to the top layer.
Now you "remove" the top layer (block it) by using the Brush tool to "paint" black into the layer mask:
• Black in the layer mask blocks the visibility of the layer. You can paint white back over areas to bring the visibility back.
• Use a large, soft brush—the Options bar under the menus lets you choose size and hardness (zero-percent hardness is very soft).
• You must be in the layer mask, or you'll paint on the photo itself. Click on the white box in the layer in the Layer Palette to be sure.
• Paint the top image in and out, changing brush size, changing color from black to white. You can also change the opacity of the brush in the Options bar to do less than 100-percent painting.
This work creates a mask for the layer that allows the two layers to blend. Be careful of edges of the blending—they can make a photo look awful if they stand out. It takes some practice and changing of the brush size to blend the edges well.
Finally, flatten, crop, size and sharpen your photo for use. In this image, I cropped some of the foreground because it didn't really add anything to the photo. This shot was made with an Olympus Zuiko Digital 8mm full-frame fish-eye lens, which gives the dramatic, curving perspective.
Once done, you have an image that optimizes tonalities rather than compromising them because of camera limitations. This technique offers a lot of potential for photographers who want to get the most from an image and make it really come alive.