How to Stitch a Multiple Exposure Panorama

There are so many insanely great techniques these days for creating images that go beyond the limit of camera sensors and lenses. Blending multiple exposures can be used to expand dynamic range for more stunning color and detail. Panoramas can be used to create extremely wide angles of view for unique and powerful compositions. I previously showed how to create and correct a super-wide pano with a single exposure. But some scenes, like this waterfall and mountain image, require both blending and panorama techniques.

To capture this scene, I took 24 RAW exposures (8 different camera angles with 3 exposures for each position). Combining all those images sounds like a scary task, but it was actually very easy to do right in Lightroom using the following workflow:

Step #1: Combine all the exposures for each camera angle. This should be done first, because creating multiple panoramas can create alignment challenges.

  • Select all the exposures for a given camera angle by <shift> or <ctrl/cmd> clicking on them.
  • Right-click and choose Photo Merge / HDR.
  • Turn off auto-alignment if you shot on a tripod (as there is some risk that it may actually cause misalignment).
  • I generally leave “auto settings” off, but it doesn’t matter. You can change them later in the Develop Module (this option just presets some Develop Sliders, typically to boost shadows and reduce highlights and compress the overall tonal range).
  • Set de-ghosting to low (if you have some moving clouds, water, etc) or none (otherwise). If you have substantial moving elements in the image, you may need to clone later in Photoshop or consider a more advanced tool for your panorama. The “show de-ghost overlay” just shows where de-ghosting will occur and has no effect on the output.
  • Check “create stack”, as this helps to keep things organized.
  • Repeat the process for each view (using the same settings for all).

Step #2: Combine all the new HDRs into a panorama.

  • Select all the HDRs by <shift> or <ctrl/cmd> clicking on them.
  • Right-click and choose Photo Merge / Panorama.
  • Try the Spherical or Cylindrical projections (it is unlikely you’ll need perspective). A single-row pano theoretically should use cylindrical, but the spherical can sometimes produce a desirable result.
  • Turn off “auto crop” initially to see the edges of the image.
  • Adjust “Boundary Warp” as desired to fill in areas of missing pixels.
  • Turn on “auto crop” as needed to remove any remaining missing pixels, or leave it unchecked if you prefer to use content aware fill in Photoshop to fix these areas instead. Both are good options, depending on how critical the content is at the edge of your image.
  • Check “create stack”, as this helps to keep things organized.

 

At this point, you should have a final RAW (DNG) file which may be processed just like any other RAW file in Lightroom and Photoshop. If you want to learn how to multi-process RAW files to extract maximum color and detail using luminosity masks, be sure to check out my new Exposure Blending Master Course.

 

Dubai Marine Layers

Some mornings are just magical. I scoured the AirBNB listings in Dubai ones that might have a good view. There are never really any guarantees with these things, but I feel like I hit a home run this trip. I had open access to the pool deck on the roof, a great view of the Dubai Marina, and the perfect amount of fog. Fog can be a tricky thing in Dubai, there’s a good chance you’ll be stuck in a cloud if you aren’t on top of a very tall building. This view probably doesn’t exist on a lot of foggy mornings, so I considered myself lucky to have thick but low fog.

This view also also relaxes me for another reason. I stayed here for hours with my laptop working on updates to Lumenzia. I consider myself pretty lucky to be able to have a view like this while working on a computer.

Color Grading with BlendIf

One of the best ways to give an image more emotional impact is through color grading. “Color grading” generally refers to any alteration or enhancement of color for artistic purposes (unlike “color correction”, which is about accuracy). In practice, it can mean a lot of things. Punching up sunset colors. Toning a portrait to give it a hipster look. Adding a color theme to a movie to convey a subtle message.

From a more technical standpoint, you can think of color grading as remapping colors and tones to create an effect. Photoshop includes several tools that enable this, including Color Balance, Selective Color, HSL, Lookup Tables (LUTs), RGB curves, Solid Color layers set to overlay blend mode, etc. However,with the exception of LUTs, these tools aren’t very precise. Color Balance adjustment layers are a great example.

With Color Balance layers, you get an option to target “shadows”, “midtones”, and “highlights”. Sounds perfect for split-toning, right? Not so fast. This tool probably doesn’t work at all like you might think. There are several important things to know about Color Balance:

  • For the most part, it really doesn’t target shadows, midtones, and highlights – unless you adjust a few of these at the same time. For example, adjusting the “shadows” will create significant changes well into bright highlights, and adjusting “highlights” will affect very deep shadows. You can, however, adjust shadows and highlights in opposite directions in the same adjustment for greater control (ie, you can set blue shadows and yellow highlights and you’ll see better targeting). But the key thing to know is that shadows/midtones/highlights are NOT giving you very precise control. The simplest solution here is to use BlendIf, which we’ll cover below.
  • The same adjustment values can create very different colors when set under shadows, midtones, or highlights. For example, using 100 Red and -100 Yellow will cause a shift toward yellow when set under shadows, orange under midtones, and red under highlights. You can make some adjustments to the sliders to try and match results, but it can be an exercise in frustration. I generally take the approach of making adjustments first in the most relevant area (ie, highlights when targeting highlights) and then tweaking as needed. Also note that negative adjustments in shadows affect highlights more than making the same adjustments in the highlights. So if you really want to push yellow or magenta into your sky, try using those adjustments in shadows in addition to in the highlights section. Or just duplicate your layer for twice the effect.
  • “Preserve luminosity” is very unpredictable, and often causes MORE change in luminosity. It can cause significant changes in color as well. I almost always leave this option off. If you want to avoid luminosity shifts, just set the blend mode on the layer to “color”.

You can make some great enhancements with a Color Balance layer on its own, but using a more precise targeting by shadow, midtone, or highlight will allow you to properly split-tone and color grade your images. There are two basic ways to do that targeting: luminosity masks and BlendIf. While luminosity masks offer more control, they are generally overkill in this situation. And they have some drawbacks: you may need to re-create them if you change underlying layers and they can increase the size of your file substantially. BlendIfs produce great results that dynamically update as you change the image and add nothing to the file size. I do nearly all color grading with BlendIfs.

In the video tutorial and written instructions below, you’ll learn how to use BlendIf to use Color Balance with greater precision. Once you get comfortable with that, try using the technique on other types of layers, this is just one example of how to color grade with BlendIf. You can apply the same general workflow to any adjustment layer, including: Solid Color layers (probably using a blend mode like soft light or overlay), Selective Color, Color Lookup, and HSL.

If you want to take things further, be sure to check out my new Exposure Blending Master Course, where I go into great depth on many ways to get incredible color from your images using more techniques like this.

 

I’ve built advanced BlendIf support into my Lumenzia luminosity masking panel. If you have it, here’s the workflow you should use to color grade with Color Balance layers:

  1. Click the Color Balance icon in Lumenzia
  2. Either switch to “BlendIf:under” mode or hold the key while clicking on any of the preview buttons such as L2, D4, or Z8. If you want to see what areas of the image are being targeted with the BlendIf, click the “If” button at the bottom of Lumenzia for a green overlay (and click “If” again to clear the visualization). You can do this after adjusting the color balance layer, but it often helps get to the right settings in Color Balance more quickly if you have some rough targeting to start.
  3. Adjust the Color Balance layer. If you are targeting highlights or shadows, you may get better results by adjusting the sliders in those sections, as you’ll probably find the colors respond more the way you would expect.
  4. You keep iterating by adjusting the Color Balance layer, by trying different BlendIf buttons, or double-clicking the squares icon on the layer to manually customize the BlendIf further.

If you do not have Lumenzia, use the following workflow:

  1. Create a new Color Balance layer in Photoshop
  2. Adjust the Color Balance layer. You’ll need to do this first, or you won’t see what you are affecting when you adjust the BlendIf sliders. If you are targeting highlights or shadows, you may get better results by adjusting the sliders in those sections of Color Balance, as you’ll probably find the colors respond more the way you would expect.
  3. Double-click the right-side of the layer (the blank area right of the name) to open the “layer style” dialog, where you’ll see “Blend If” at the bottom.
  4. Adjust the black and white sliders for the “underlying layer” to roughly target the shadows, midtones, or highlights.
  5. The initial result will have some rough edges, so you need to split the sliders (which creates a transition from areas which are included or excluded in the mask). To do that hold and click and drag on the sliders.

Soft Warmth on the North Shore

There’s nothing like watching the sun rise over Lake Superior. The skies are spectacular. The water feels pure and clean. And you almost always get the view to yourself.

I created this image primarily with luminosity masks using techniques shown in my Exposure Blending Master Class and dodging and burning.

Waves from Lake Superior crash into a small rocky island of evergreen trees and the North Shore of Minnesota during a golden yellow and cloudy sunset

Into the Ether

Everyone should see the Aurora Borealis at least once in their life. It honestly does not usually look like most of the photos you see, unless it is exceptionally bright and overhead. But even when you don’t see it the same way the camera does, it has this way of making you feel alive and reconnected to the earth to see the night sky start to dance with fiery color. It has an eerie mysticism about it that defies any real description, much like seeing the center of the Milky Way for the first time in a truly dark location. The movement is so continuous that you have to shoot with very short shutter speeds to capture any detail.

If you want to see it yourself, you’ll need a few things:

  • A clear night with minimal clouds
  • A very dark sky, far from the lights of cities (and long days of summer)
  • A very northern or southern location. For example, the northern continental US can be good on a few rare nights, but northern Canada and Alaska are better in general.
  • Solar activity. There are websites and apps that predict this. The most basic thing to look for is the “kp-index”, which measures the strength of geomagnetic storms. In northern Minnesota, a kp-index of 7 indicates a good chance of seeing something in the northern sky, though you might see something with as little as a 5. The higher the number, the higher the likelihood of not only seeing something, but also of seeing more brilliant displays and overhead displays (vs the displays you see only on the horizon more typically limited nights). If you were up in Yellowknife, Canada, you’d see much more at lower numbers. It depends largely on your latitude.

Aurora Borealis - exposure blending with luminosity masks

This image is a blend of two RAW images using Lumenzia. One of the exposures was a short shutter with wide aperture to capture the ever-changing Aurora, and the other was a longer shutter with lower ISO and smaller aperture to capture the foreground with more detail and less noise. So truly a blend on multiple levels to pull this one-off. I used many techniques from my new course to pull it all together.

Below is the original RAW for the sky. The RAW foreground looked very similar, it just has a lot more latent detail that I then recovered in the shadows. While is isn’t obvious in the images, the foreground detail was helped a bit by the moon behind me (though it was largely obscured by clouds).

Before


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