Fight Harsh Contrast with Photoshop Layer Mask

by Jim Zuckerman

MS-8214<br>Exposure for Highlights
Exposure for Highlights

© Jim Zuckerman
All Rights Reserved
One way to battle harsh, midday sunlight is by combining two shots in Photoshop using a layer mask.

I visited this ancient Roman theater in Turkey during the worst part of the day. It was 11 am and the sun was very high, causing terrible contrast. Both film and digital technology can’t expose correctly for both the bright highlights and the much darker shadows, so the options have traditionally been to: (1) expose for the highlights and let the shadows go very dark or even black; (2) exposure for the shadows and lose detail in the overexposed highlights; or (3) compromise between the two and therefore both parts of the picture will look bad.

With Photoshop as my secret weapon, so to speak, I took two shots from a tripod. In one, I exposed for the highlights (MS-8214). And in the other, I exposed correctly for the shadows (MS-8218).

MS-8218<br>Exposure for Shadows
Exposure for Shadows

© Jim Zuckerman
All Rights Reserved
I opened both pictures in Photoshop. I then chose the picture with the correct highlights (it doesn’t matter which one is chosen first) and used Select > select all and then Edit > copy. This placed the image in the temporary holding place, the clipboard. You can’t see it, but it’s there.

Next, I clicked in the other photo, activating it, and used Edit > paste. This pasted the clipboard image over the other one, creating a layer.

I then created a layer mask this way: Layer > layer mask > reveal all. I then made sure that the colors in the foreground/background boxes at the bottom of the tools palette were black and white, respectively. It’s important that the foreground box be black.

I selected the paint brush tool, and now I could ‘paint away’ the dark shadow foreground, revealing the correctly exposed shadow foreground beneath.

MS-8212<br> Combine Two Shots for Good Overall Exposure
Combine Two Shots for Good Overall Exposure

© Jim Zuckerman
All Rights Reserved
Check out the finished result in image MS-8212 and see how good it looks compared to the other two versions.

Editor's Note: Jim Zuckerman teaches a number of excellent online photography courses right here at

About Author / Instructor / Photographer, Jim Zuckerman
Photography Instructor: Jim ZuckermanFew people are able to spend most of their time pursuing their passion in life. I'm one of them, and I feel blessed to have had a love affair with photography since I began taking pictures.

In 1970, I decided to abort my intended career as a doctor in favor of photography and have never regretted it. Photography has enriched my life more than I can tell you. My career has taken me to over 60 countries, and I've seen and photographed wondrous things.

I specialize in wildlife and nature, international travel, and digital effects. In addition, I also shoot nudes, photo- and electron microscopy, children, and other subjects that stimulate my visual or emotional sensibilities.

For 25 years, I shot a medium format camera, specifically the Mamiya RZ 67, for its superior quality. When I would lecture, I’d project the large, glass mounted transparencies, and it was really an incredible experience to see the brilliant color saturation and resolution of these slides. However, I went digital in 2004 because the technology finally equaled or surpassed medium format. I now shoot the Canon 1Ds Mark II digital camera with a variety of lenses.

I am the author of 12 books on photography. My work is sold in 30 countries around the world, and my images have appeared on scores of magazine and book covers, calendars, posters, national ads, trade ads, brochures, and corporate promotions.

For many years I've led photography tours to exotic places. These include Papua New Guinea, Thailand, Burma, Greece, The Czech Republic and Slovakia, Spain, Morocco, and Peru.