Photoshop layer blend technique – using multiple layers to create a different scene

While on my trip to Oregon, I found myself looking at images of various waterfalls from around the area on 500px or instagram, all which largely looked the same. A few factors were driving this from my perspective. The first being, many of these falls are shot and over shot by everyone who visits the area as they are easily accessible. Another issue is that it is hard to get a different perspective on a falls where you are more or less contained to a given area. They all fall into a bowl like arena with rock faces that are several hundred feet tall. I had my hip waders along which helps me get to areas that other may not, but the spray from the water falling from those heights pours out over 50-100 feet away from the base of the falls depending on the wind. This makes the rocks very slippery and can get you soaked in a short period of time. It is a constant battle to keep your camera dry. At Elowah Falls, I surveyed the scene for a few moments and watched the wind patterns in an effort to get closer to the base while avoiding the spray. Most of the images I saw online were clearly long exposures with the stream of the falls a solid white stream. My personal preference is to have some detail in the water vice a solid washed out stream of white. While observing this falls, I noticed that the water would come down in sheets instead of a constant flow. I realized with a little work in photoshop and several exposures, I could create an image that looked different from the rest out there. With this in mind, I needed a  slightly faster shutter speed to change the look of the image and get more detail. I started with 1/30 of a sec which turned out a little too fast. I tried a few different shutter speeds and ended up shooting in the 1/15 range. I took 5-9 images in the same position with the intent to catch the falls in different intervals. I changed compositions a bit and took another series. Here are a couple of those images from the camera.

Two individual images in Lightroom - you can see the pattern in the sheets of water.
Two individual images in Lightroom – you can see the pattern in the sheets of water.

I took a series of 5 images like this and then brought them into Lightroom for my first step in processing. Even at 1/10 of a second, the water had blown out highlights at the top of the falls. I pulled back the highlights all the way and then filled in some shadows as well. I always turn on the Enable Lens Profile Corrections and Remove Chromatic Aberrations in the Lens Correction category, then added a little clarity, vibrance and saturation before bringing all of the images into Photoshop. Typically what I will do in Lightroom is make the changes to one of the images and then copy and paste my develop settings to the other images – provided they were all shot with the same exposure settings. I then select all of them and go to Photo > Edit In > Open as Layers in Photoshop to bring all of the images into one file with multiple layers.

Open as Layers in Photoshop
Open as Layers in Photoshop

Once I have it into Photoshop, the process to blend them all together is relatively simple. First to ensure you have a good blend, select all of the layers by clicking on the top layer, holding the shift key and then selecting the bottom layer. Now all of them should be a darker grey color than before. 

All layers selected
All layers selected

After selecting all of the layers, you need to ensure all of the layers are aligned. Even though I took the images with my camera secured on a tripod and used a cable release, the images will almost always be slightly misaligned when bringing them in as layers. Go to Edit > Auto Align Layers…

Auto Align Layers
Auto Align Layers

You will get a dialog with a bunch of options. For this instance, I leave it on Auto and let photoshop do the rest of the work. 

Auto-Align dialog
Auto-Align dialog

You will get a progress bar while Photoshop does the alignment. 

You may see a bit of space around the image after it is done. Photoshop will make the image a bit larger around the edges if it has to shift one of the layers. My next step is normally to crop this extra space out. 

Once this is complete, the final step is simply to blend the layers together. The object here was to allow the different patterns of water to show up as one. This is the beauty of layer modes in Photoshop. Control click on the bottom layer to deselect it from the stack. You should have one layer that is a different brightness than the rest and will look like this.

Bottom layer deselected
Bottom layer deselected

Now in your layers palette, go to the pull down the menu where you see “Normal” and select Lighten. 

Pull down menu for Layer Mode
Pull down menu for Layer Mode
Select Lighten Layer Mode
Select Lighten Layer Mode

Bam! You will now have an image that allows what is different in each layer to show through. It is that simple. 

Before - Single layer showing waterfall
Before – Single layer showing waterfall
After - with 5 layers blended to show the true nature of the waterfall
After – with 5 layers blended to show the true nature of the waterfall

Once I have completed this step, I zoom in on the image and look around for imperfections, especially around the edges. I’ll crop as needed, then I will flatten the image to continue with processing in Photoshop. The final image will have some other changes to boost contrast and increase color to what was really present at the scene. 

Final image of Elowah Falls

Elowah Falls - Columbia River Gorge, OR © Rob Loughrey
Elowah Falls – Columbia River Gorge, OR © Rob Loughrey

This entire process took about 20 minutes total. I also use On1 Photo Effects in my post processing. I’m a big fan of the Dynamic Contrast and Vignette filters in this software. You can apply this technique in so many other ways in your photography. One example would be to make a night photo with star trails. Hope you enjoy…