A lesson I’ve learned over the years is that a scene that looks good to our eyes and even great on-screen, may not always have the impact necessary to make a saleable piece of artwork.
In the past, I’ve taken many photos that initially looked great. Subsequently though, I’ve sadly realised that they sometimes still don’t have the impact needed to be marketable. (Often, it is difficult to detach from the experience of being on location and only see the image through impartial eyes).
Happily, with modern digital methods it is possible to combine two or more reasonably strong images, to make one that has real impact.
Having the desire recently to do some night photography, I decided that a convenient subject for some trial shots was the Redcliffe Jetty, which is not far from where I live in Brisbane, Australia.
I took some shots, which were interesting and looked good but certainly fell into the aforementioned category of unsaleable art!
However, I kept the images for possible future use and when the opportunity came recently to be away from city lights and get some very interesting night sky pictures, I decided that the two would look very impressive when combined.
The night sky shot was taken looking towards Carina in the Southeast and as a happy co-incidence, the photo of the jetty was taken looking in essentially the same direction. This means that were it not for the city lights around Redcliffe, the final result you see in this picture would be similar to what could be captured in a single photo. Simply, combining these two frames is the only way to capture such a view of the scene.
So then, the details of the images are as follows. Both were taken with a Pentax 645D camera; the jetty with a 75mm lens and a one minute exposure at f8 and the sky with a 45mm lens and a 30 second exposure at f2.8. (Longer than the time given by the rule of 600 but movement of the stars is still minimal enough to be barely noticeable.) Both were RAW files and processed in 16-bit mode. I generally like to work this way to ensure the best result and especially in this case, as the images were heavily stressed while strongly enhancing the colour and luminosity.
The jetty image required some careful colour correction because of the artificial lighting. Apart from that, all that was needed was some similarly careful adjustment of the Luminosity and some sharpening.
The sky image was trickier. It needed strong enhancement of colour and luminosity to boost both the stars and also the glow from distant city lights, which added dramatic colour to some passing clouds and the lower portion of the sky. For this, I made a trip to the LAB colour space. (Apologies if you are not familiar with working in LAB – if there is interest, I can write more about this in future.) This sort of dramatic enhancement and separation of colours in such a believable way is only really possible in this colour space. After sharpening this image too, the difficult and time-consuming part really began.
Doing the Magic
Combining two images like this in a believable way requires both patience and knowledge of masking and the Blend-if sliders in the Blending Options window (accessible through the Layers menu or by right-clicking on the layer.)
As no part of the jetty image below the horizon line needed to be blended, the first step was to simply mask off this portion of the image completely. Then the sky of the jetty image, which was wholly black, could be blended quite well using the LAB Lightness Blend-if slider. I removed some extraneous details by painting them out with a black brush and then set to work masking by hand, at high magnification, any remaining details that needed fixing. The roof of the jetty in particular needed a hand-painted mask, as much of it was so dark, it began to blend into the background when I needed it to remain solidly visible. (Fortunately, the fact that the jetty was quite brightly lit in most places except the rooftop, meant that it was separated enough in luminosity from the black sky to be unaffected by the Blend-if sliders.)
The only remaining problems were the glowing lights themselves. As their glow falls off gradually, it was not possible to blend them believably with the sky image, so I painted them out completely and painted in new light glows with the soft airbrush tool.
The Final Result
And so, I ended up with a very strong image from two photos, which were good alone but needed to be combined to have real impact. If you’ve been around since the days of film processing, I think the effect can be compared to that of superadditive developers. Combining the two makes a significantly stronger result than the strength of the individual elements!
Can you combine some photos of your collection using this technique?
I am a news media photographer living in Brisbane, Australia. I have worked professionally as a photographer since 1982 but also enjoy producing some creative pieces outside the constraints on my day-to-day work, when I can find the time. I have extensive knowledge and experience with Photoshop and use both a Nikon D700 and Pentax 645D for my work. I am always happy to have feedback on my images and welcome questions.