Exposure Blending in Lightroom

In this Lightroom Classic lesson, we’re going to take a comprehensive look at how to blend exposures in Lightroom and create the highest-quality image possible.

The ability to expand the dynamic range of your camera without sacrificing quality will open up so many creative doors for you. “Without sacrificing quality” is the key, and is what sets Lightroom apart from the plethora of other programs out there today.

Exposure blending is not about creating an overcooked, over-saturated image for that instant “wow” factor…It’s about creating a higher-quality photograph by pulling in every bit of detail that you saw in the field. If you understand that concept, you’re already way ahead of the learning curve.

(And if you don’t, watch the video lesson above).

Hope you enjoy this, and remember to grab the video download for later reference.

How Exposure Blending can Improve your Landscape Photographs


Reducing Noise for Astrophotography and the Night Sky

Night and astrophotography (or any other low-light photography) come with an increased risk of added noise as opposed to photographing under ample daylight. This article explains the true cause for this apparent increase, and some simple steps you can take to improve the quality of your low-light photographs. 

Without getting too technical…

Noise becomes more visible when there isn’t enough available light to expose your image properly…whether that be the entire frame or only certain parts of it. 

This is why many landscape photographers prefer to “expose to the right” (ETTR), so that any deep shadow in their frame is captured with MORE light…which gives you LESS noise and more detail and color.

Even if the highlights start to blow out a little, your overall detail will be of higher quality since you can recover more from highlights than shadows. 

Now when photographing under “normal” light (i.e. ample daylight), this isn’t a concern since your shutter speed can be fast enough where there is adequate available light to expose your shadows properly.  

However, when the lights go out…your shutter speed slows down in order to capture more light hitting the sensor. And since you’re photographing VERY deep shadows with little light to render that detail, your shutter speed can be quite  long to capture a usable image. 

And when the sensor is exposed to light for long periods of time, it heats up….and this increased “activity” makes the noise in your image more apparent. 

So when it comes to night and astrophotography, you’re working in an environment that will introduce a LOT of noise (deep shadows/low light +  long shutter speeds). 

If you want to reduce the amount of noise in your image, you have two options: 

  1. increase the available light, or 
  2. shorten the shutter speed.

Since we typically have no control over the available light (light painting at night will only affect the immediate foreground), we need to speed up the shutter in order to limit how long the sensor is working…and that is where ISO comes in. 

But first, what is noise?

Before we continue, you should read my in-depth tutorial on ISO. There are many misconceptions about (1) how ISO affects noise, (2) the role it plays in the exposure triangle, and (3) your quest to expose your photograph properly…

So unless you’re 100% solid on ISO, please give that tutorial a quick look through. 

In a very broad analogy….you can think of noise as static noise, or the “snow” that appears on old television sets when the signal is not strong enough for the set to receive all of the data clearly.

Sometimes, the signal is strong and there’s no visible noise…

And other times, the signal is weak or there is interference that is preventing the television from receiving all of the data. When that happens, static appears…which fills in the missing data. The weaker the signal, the more noise is visible.

When applying this analogy to photography, the “signal” would be the amount of LIGHT – the strength of the detail being received by your sensor (and thus creating your photograph), and the “noise” would be the LACK of available light to render that detail properly for your given settings: shutter speedaperture, and ISO

When the light (signal) is low, that noise becomes more apparent…and you have to “tune” your camera settings to compensate and find the right balance for the clearest signal (or balance of light) with the least amount of apparent noise…much like you would with a television antenna. 

This is why noise is more apparent in your deeper shadows – the signal, or light, is not strong enough to be clear…so noise will fill in that missing data.

The more available light in the field, the stronger the signal is…which means that you have more leeway with your settings without having to compensate for that distracting noise.

IMPORTANT NOTE: As stated in my beginner’s guide to ISO…increasing your ISO setting does NOT increase the sensor’s sensitivity to light. This is a common misconception that has been widely circulated. 

The sensor can not absorb more or less light based on your ISO setting; that’s a static amount and will not change. The only thing you can control is how much light HITS the sensor (the volume of light that enters through the lens). 

Instead, when you increase your ISO, you are increasing the brightness of an image artificially. You are NOT allowing more light to hit the sensor, but rather giving it a boost. The trade-off: more noise.

However, contrary to popular belief, the source of this added noise is NOT from increasing your ISO (at least not exclusively).

ISO is NOT the cause of digital noise for low-light photography.

This may be a bit jarring to read, as many think that bumping up your ISO is the actual cause of added noise. In a way, this is correct…but only when working under optimal lighting conditions. 

When it comes to night and astrophotography (and extended exposure times), we need to explore the root cause a bit further if you want to find the correct settings for minimal noise. 

The real cause is the LACK of available light + a long shutter speed. Yes, the act of increasing your ISO is what makes the noise more apparent since you’re brightening the image artificially… but that’s not the actual SOURCE of your noise. 

This difference is especially important to understand for night photography since you will inevitably have areas of deep shadow no matter how long your shutter speed is. If there’s absolutely no light reflecting off of that area, then there’s nothing for the camera to pick up. 

The result? Those deep shadows will be VERY noisy when you bring up the brightness in post-processing. 

Reducing Noise For Astrophotography -  CreativeRAW

For example, in this image here, the shutter speed was well over 300 seconds due to the lack of available light. It was taken at night, and the moonlight was filtered by a layer of clouds….so there was very little light for the sensor to pick up, no matter how long it was exposed. 

Notice how noisy the deeper shadows are (especially in the corners) when looking at the original raw file:

Reducing Noise For The Night Sky - CreativeRAW

I would have had much better detail if I increased my ISO and sped up the shutter a bit. 

So the goal here with low-light photography is to not ALWAYS use the lowest available ISO setting, but rather use your ISO to bring up your shutter speed enough so that you’re not heating up your sensor (and thus amplifying noise). 

Correct: More light = less noise. 

Incorrect: Low ISO = less noise. 

Here’s the takeaway point: You can not apply daylight methods to low-light photography since you do not HAVE to use extended shutter speeds…and thus heat up your sensor and produce noise.

When photographing at night, do NOT keep your ISO at 100. Using 1600 or even 3200 can give you much better results by reducing your exposure time. 

So why does increasing ISO for daylight photographs (or when there is ample light) also increase noise?

Here’s the difference. 

When you’re photographing during daylight, you are using your ISO to brighten up your imabe so you can (1) use a smaller aperture and/or use a faster shutter speed.

And both those methods actually REDUCE the amount of ambient light that is hitting your sensor. 

Going back to the television analogy: you’re weakening the signal coming through.

So when you increase your ISO, your camera needs to balance out the exposure triangle…so it either closes the aperture and/or speeds up the shutter speed. 

Both of these adjustments reduce the amount of light entering through the lens…

And as we’ve already learned, less light equates to MORE noise. 

Here’s the takeaway point: Increasing your ISO is just a catalyst for more noise. The CAUSE of added noise is the restriction of light. 

Brightening the image up by increasing your ISO is just making that added noise more apparent. 

At night, however, the conditions are much different…

The goal here is to bring in as much light as possible to properly render the detail…not because you want to increase the shutter speed or use a smaller aperture for creative effects. 

Here, you’re simply trying to hit the sensor with more light because you’re already underexposed (by a lot). 

And the only way to achieve that is by increasing your ISO…

Which will speed up the shutter and reduce noise caused by heating up your sensor. 

You’ll still have noise from the lack of available light, but it will (usually) be much less than if you let the shutter speed dictate your exposure. 

How do I reduce noise for night and astrophotography?

Now you know that the goal with removing noise in night photography is NOT to use the lowest ISO setting possible. That’s the most challenging step, since many photographers THINK they’ve taken all of the necessary precautions of reducing noise….without realizing that the low ISO can actually be CAUSING it. 

Instead, you need to find a proper balance in your settings to capture enough light to minimize the appearance of noise (tuning in)…and this is based on your camera’s ability to render an image with as little noise as possible given the conditions. 

The first step here is to consider your camera body. 

Most cameras can be categorized into two different groups: ISO variant and ISO invariant

Plainly put, ISO invariant cameras handle noise better at lower ISO settings…but that doesn’t mean it’s bad to use an ISO variant camera for night photography. Actually, it can be better! Let’s unpack this a bit. 

ISO variant vs. ISO invariant cameras

The level of ISO variance refers to the camera’s ability to process noise – specifically, how the sensor renders an image after it amplifies the light (or the signal) when the ISO is increased. 

In other words…

When the light hits the sensor, it needs to amplify that data to make it brighter. At the same time, the sensor needs to translate that data into the raw file – to take the light information captured and change it to a digital format. 

That step in the picture-making process is what controls how apparent the noise LOOKS  – the visual manifestation of it. And each camera can do this differently. 

ISO Varient

An ISO variant camera produces MORE noise at lower ISO settings when photographing in low – light situations. In a very simplified answer…when there is little light (or rather, data) to work  with, the camera may not amplify the light enough in order to overcome that digital noise. 

There can be a miscommunication during the transformation process, where the camera changes the light information that hit the sensor into that digital photograph. 

The result? The light is not strong enough to overpower the appearance of digital noise. And when you increase your ISO during low-light situations, this miscommunication is at its strongest. 

Here is where the interesting part comes in, and why an ISO variant camera can be a desired piece of gear for astro and night photographers:

The higher your ISO setting, the LESS problems occur during the translation process because the light is now overpowering the noise…which means that your night image may actually have LESS noise at HIGH ISO settings. 

And this completely throws out what we’ve been taught about ISO. 

It gets better. As we’ve already learned, extended exposure times will increase noise…

So by increasing your ISO with an ISO variant camera, you are ALSO shortening the exposure time (and thus reducing noise). 

Combine this with the fact that higher ISO settings will produce less noise, and you’ve got an optimal environment for producing high-quality night photographs.

This goes to show you that the “rules” of photography are not always set in stone (even the most tried and true ones)….and it will always depend on your unique situation.

ISO Invariant

As the name implies, an ISO invariant camera tends to have a more constant “translation” rate across the spectrum of ISO settings. The amount of noise that comes out at ISO 100 will be relatively close to what you see at ISO 6400. 

Whether this is more or less than an ISO variant camera at ISO 6400 will depend on the cameras you are comparing….so it all comes down to performing your own ISO tests (or researching the results of others). 

The goal here is knowing that there is a difference between ISO variant and invariant cameras, and sometimes, the ISO invariant cameras may perform better. 

Here’s the takeaway point: camera bodies do not perform similarly at the same ISO setting – some will produce more or less noise for a given situation. 

And some cameras will actually perform BETTER at night when using a high ISO. 

Also note that a camera that has been said to perform badly with ISO might be adequate for night photography…as long as it is an ISO variant model. 

Remember: it is not always about picking the RIGHT camera (or any piece of gear). It’s about understanding the unique strengths and weaknesses, and leveraging those strengths to create the image you want. 

Whether your camera is ISO variant or invariant, you can still create a fantastic night photograph. It’s all about (1) understanding the gear you’ve got and (2) knowing how to work with it, not against it.

The Practical Use of the Exposure Triangle

If you are just stepping into the realm of landscape photography, you’ve probably heard the term “exposure triangle” come up in conversation. In its simplest form, this refers to the co-dependent relationship between your three manual camera settings (apertureshutter speed, and ISO), which control how your photograph is created…specifically, the amount of light needed to expose your photograph properly.

While the graph below may seem a bit overwhelming, it’s actually quite simple once you understand your three manual settings individually. Before moving on to the exposure triangle, make sure that you have a basic understanding of how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO control how light is rendered by your sensor.

Now, if there is one thing you could do right now to make a monumental advancement in your skills as a photographer, it’s to understand the basic principle of the exposure triangle..which is how your camera settings influence one another.

This knowledge will directly enhance your ability to create the photograph you want…and free up much time in the field guessing which settings will unlock your desired image.

What is the Exposure Triangle, Exactly?

The first thing to understand is that the exposure triangle isn’t an actual “tool” you use in the field; it’s a visual aid to help you understand a concept…and that concept is how these three variable settings influence one another when one is changed.

Each side of the exposure “triangle” represents the three camera settings that control your exposure: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. The goal here is to balance these three settings harmoniously in order to properly expose the scene in front of you based on the amount of available light.

What is the Exposure Triangle, Exactly? - CreativeRAW

In other words…the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO need to work TOGETHER to get your photograph in the “bulls-eye” zone, which represents the correct amount of light needed for adequate exposure.

This “zone” has some leeway depending on the dynamic range of your scene (how bright and dark the tones are) and the dynamic range of your sensor…but generally, this bulls-eye zone is pretty limited.

As you can see from the chart, adjusting any one of the three manual settings for a specific creative effect will have consequences. For example, if you increase your f/stop to make your aperture smaller for a deeper depth of field, the volume of light entering the lens will be less…resulting in a darker photograph.

So these consequences need to be counterbalanced by your other two settings in order to maintain the same exposure and maintain the proper balance of light.

If a deeper depth of field results in an underexposed image (less light), then you would need to increase your ISO and/or slow down your shutter speed by the same amount of stops. This will bring more light into the photograph and make up for the light lost by using that smaller aperture.

The point of the exposure triangle is realizing that when you make a change to one of these settings, you will need to adjust your other settings in order to compensate for the new volume, time, and/or boost of light.

There is no hard and fast rule when it comes to the specific settings needed for a properly-exposed photograph. This is why general setting recommendations for a certain type of photograph (i.e. f/8 at 1/2000th for noontime sun) are typically incorrect as there are too many variables at play.

The exposure triangle shows you the need to be flexible to adapt to the light available so that you can make suitable changes.

Heres another example:

Let’s say that the ideal exposure for a given scene is at the settings circled below. I did not label the increments with a specific value since that can vary based on your camera and lens, so feel free to imagine your own specific settings. The idea here is to simply recognize that there is a set range for your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO from lowest to highest.

The Practical Use of the Exposure Triangle - CreativeRAW

Now, let’s say I want to increase my shutter speed in order to freeze movement and/or reduce motion blur. According to the chart, the consequence of that is a darker image since the time that the sensor is exposed to light has been reduced.

If you only increased the shutter speed without counter-balancing this reduction of light by widening your aperture and/or increasing your ISO, then this will result in a darker (underexposed) image.

Using the Exposure Triangle to Balance Light and Content - CreativeRAW

And depending on (1) how much the shutter speed has changed and (2) the dynamic range of light for your environment (whether or not the brightest highlights and darkest shadows are close to being clipped), your exposure may fall outside of the “bulls-eye” zone. That’s what you need to keep in mind when changing your settings in the field.

Using the Exposure Triangle to Balance Light and Content

The exposure triangle is particularly helpful for when you are at the lowest/highest increment for a particular setting (for example, at your fastest shutter speed) and you need to increase/decrease the amount of light beyond that point in order to (1) get your exposure within the bulls-eye and (2) render the content you want.

For example, if you were at the highest (fastest) shutter speed for your particular lens in order to freeze fast-moving action (such as raindrops) but your image was too dark, you would increase your ISO and/or use a wider aperture. This would increase the amount of light so that your photograph is not underexposed, and you can maintain the fastest shutter speed in order to freeze action.

However, you need to keep in mind that the exposure triangle is not JUST about light. As you can see from the chart, adjusting your manual settings will have other consequences (such as motion blur or noise)…and depending on your creative intent, you may need to use a different combination of settings in order to (1) obtain a proper exposure and (2) your desired content.

In the example above, I wanted a fast shutter speed to freeze moving action, so I adjusted my ISO and aperture to increase the amount of light. However, what if I wanted to freeze action AND have a deep depth of field (small aperture)? In this case, I would need to increase my ISO substantially to make up for the reduction of light from both the fast shutter speed AND small aperture opening.

In the end, it’s the same exposure (amount of light)…but the content has changed to reflect my creative choices.

The Fourth Variable: Light!

Light, in essence, is a fourth variable to the exposure triangle as it directly influences your manual settings…and will determine your settings in the exposure triangle. I am not trying to convert it into “exposure square”, but rather bring attention to the fact that any change in light will require a change to one or more of your manual settings.

For example…if your environment becomes brighter, you would need to (1) use a smaller aperture, (2) use a faster shutter speed, and/or (3) decrease your ISO if you want to maintain the same exposure.

Light controls, or fuels, the exposure triangle…and whether or not your image is still within the “bulls-eye” will depend on (1) how much the light has changed and (2) if you properly adjusted your settings to compensate for this change.

The Practical Use of the Exposure Triangle

With modern-day digital photography, the exposure triangle isn’t used to calculate the proper exposure anymore, but rather is about simply understanding that your manual settings are directly influenced by one another…

And that adjustments need to be made in order to (1) achieve the desired change in detail (such as a wide aperture for a shallow depth of field), and (2) maintain the proper exposure (level of light) that’s within the bulls-eye range

Typically, you’ll be using a semi-auto mode (aperture priority or shutter priority), which allows you to have full manual control over one setting, while letting the camera automatically adjust the other to obtain the best exposure based on your metering mode and exposure compensation (if any).

Aperture Priority (A), as the name suggests, allows you to control the size of your aperture opening (and thus your depth of field) but it frees you from changing the shutter speed, which is automatically calculated by the camera.

Whereas, Shutter Priority (S) allows you to control the shutter speed of the lens, while freeing you from the calculation of aperture as you change your shutter speed in order to maintain the same exposure. Since motion blur is (mostly) controlled by this setting, you would use this mode for when you want to freeze or intentionally blur moving subjects.

ISO is then typically adjusted separately as the last resort, when you can not adjust your shutter speed and/or aperture any further…as explained in my guide to ISO.

You would then use the concept of the exposure triangle to make adjustments as needed…until you find a suitable balance between the (1) optimal “bulls-eye” exposure and (2) your creative intent.

Also keep in mind that you can incorporate other methods into your workflow for when you can not settle on an adequate balance. For example, if your image is still too bright for your desired settings, you can add an ND filter to cut down on the amount of light entering through the lens.

And if you’re constrained by the dynamic range of your environment (when there is a large gap between your brightest highlights and darkest shadows), you can always bracket your scene and exposure blend in post process.

Native vs. Extended ISO: What’s the Difference?

Extended ISO, or expanded ISO, has been marketed as a life-saving buffer zone for when you need to push your camera a little bit further…either to pull in more/less light for your desired shutter speed/aperture setting, or to reduce the apparent noise in your image.

However, the term “extended” can be a bit deceiving…so before you start shopping around for a new camera with an expanded ISO range, let’s unpack what the REAL difference is between native and extended ISO.

Extended ISO is NOT the Same as Native ISO

Let’s get straight to the point: extended ISO will not give you the same results as your native ISO. There is a difference in quality, and you should always try to remain within your native ISO range for the best possible detail.

In a very oversimplified explanation…

Each camera has its own base (or native) ISO range, usually from ISO 100 to ISO 32000. This range will change from model to model, but that’s the general ballpark.

Camera manufacturers began to market what is called an “extended” ISO range, which is a digitally enhanced expansion on top of the base ISO…which usually allows you to drop down to ISO 50 and up beyond ISO 51000.

When you choose an ISO setting in the expanded range, the camera will set your ISO at the minimum or maximum native ISO…and then digitally enhance the image to simulate the results you would expect from these settings.

However, much like the difference between digital zoom and optical zoom, the expanded range is enhanced in-camera and will often produce subpar results. With that in mind, you should not expect the ISO extended range to perform well.

Lower Extended ISO

When you use a lower ISO setting than your base (i.e. ISO 50 instead of ISO 100) in order to reduce the appearance of noise or otherwise achieve a slower shutter speed, your camera sensor will digitally overexpose your image at ISO 100, and then the processor will reduce that exposure to simulate what it would look like at ISO 50.

The result? You can potentially lose contrast and detail in the highlights and reduce your overall dynamic range since the image is purposefully overexposed.

So those highlights that are on the cusp of being clipped when you meter the scene will be blown out from that extra bump in exposure before being brought back down.

And once that detail has been blown out, it can NOT be recovered by your camera or in processing.

Higher Extended ISO

More often though, you’ll be using a higher extended ISO (i.e. ISO 25600 to ISO 51200) in order to increase your shutter speed and/or use a smaller aperture under limited light. Unfortunately, though, the side effects here are more severe.

Yoru camera sensor will purposefully underexpose the image at the highest base ISO setting, and then through processing, bump up the exposure to simulate what it would look like at your chosen extended ISO.

The result? You’ll amplify the added noise even more (especially in the deep shadows), just as if you increased the exposure in Lightroom or Photoshop. You’d actually have BETTER results by simply taking an image at your highest native ISO and then increase the exposure in processing…since you can use the more advanced tools of the digital darkroom to push your pixels with minimal noise.

What’s even worse is that your camera will attempt to remove the added noise, which can result in a loss of texture and contrast…and an overall smooth appearance. Not to mention that it can also desaturate your colors in an attempt to remove color noise.

Again, you’d be better off to rely on the more precise tools of Lightroom and Photoshop to selectively remove your added noise from bumping up the exposure in post.

Should I Ever Use Extended ISO?

In my opinion, no…if you shoot in RAW format. The results will be no different (and in most cases, worse) than if you were to set your ISO at the minimum/maximum native setting and decrease/increase your exposure in processing to compensate.

However, if you shoot in JPG format, you can certainly use this extended ISO range to obtain the desired image (shutter speed/aperture combination)…as long as you are aware of the potential side effects mentioned above.

When shopping for a new camera, it’s best not to consider the extended ISO range at all in your decision. Remember: this is just a software tool used by your sensor, and it can misbehave at any time. Since you are manipulating ISO digitally, it will affect the image quality and some important details might be lost.

Lightroom vs. Photoshop: Which is Better for Dodging and Burning?

Is Lightroom Ever Better than Photoshop?

This is a question I get asked often in regards to dodging and burning…

“If Photoshop is so powerful, why dodge and burn in Lightroom at all?”

As you’ve learned in the previous lesson, both programs handle dodging and burning quite nicely….so at what point should you stop using Lightroom and move your image into Photoshop?

And is there a time where it’s actually better to dodge and burn in Lightroom exclusively?

These are the questions I’ll be answering in the above tutorial…and are meant to give you some clarity on the unique strengths and weaknesses of each program.

REMINDER: The 5DayDeal Photography Bundle is just around the corner…

And in a few days, their annual $10,000 5DayDeal Photography Giveaway will open up for entries! I’ll let you know when the giveaway starts so you can toss your name in to win some incredible photography gear and other top-notch prizes.

Lightroom vs. Photoshop - CreativeRAW

Why We Dodge and Burn

Table of Contents

0:00Introduction to the Dodging and Burning Course
1:57Why We Dodge and Burn a Photograph
5:07Dodging and Burning Carves a Visual Path
8:21Different Reasons for Dodging and Burning
LINK>> Download the HDR Field Guide <<

Why We Dodge and Burn …

I find many photographers will dodge and burn simply because they were told to, without knowing the purpose and intention behind it…

So for this lesson, we’ll be discussing the “big picture” idea behind dodging and burning – what is the purpose, and what makes this time-tested workflow so extraordinary?

This technique provides much more than simply adding depth or interest…it’s about enhancing the entire composition, and to create a more engaging, cohesive photograph.

And once you understand YOUR reasons for dodging and burning (not someone else’s), you’ll be able to narrow your creative focus and use this technique purposefully.

In preparation for your next lesson arriving in a few days, my lesson on smoother brushwork (in both Lightroom and Photoshop) will be immensely helpful.

Dodging and burning relies on painting over the areas you want to affect with your brush tool, and the key to seamless results is knowing how to adjust the feather, flow, and density settings.  

And like any tool, if you don’t know how to use it properly…it’s pretty useless.