Quickly achieve a balanced photo without HDR

There are many ways to darken the highlights and lighten the shadows to achieve a balanced photo. The role of HDR is mainly this. However, I don't like the look of the in-camera HDR nor the feel of the plug-ins or Photoshop results. Below is the quickest and easiest way I came across till now to achieve a balanced photo.

What you need? Well, you need to use your bracketing function in camera and take 3 shots before importing them into your computer. Depending on the scene and contrast in it somewhere around -2 EV, 0 EV, and +2 EV is enough.

We will use the "Apply Image" in Photoshop to achieve this in a blink. The Apply Image will look at the tonal range in your photo and will separates layers into highlights and shadows. In other terms, we are looking at masking highlights using the Apply Image functionality. The whole idea is to mask the layers keeping the brightest exposure to bring back the details in the foreground, the darkest exposure for the sky, and the correct exposure to act as a act as a transition between exposures. 

Below are three exposures:

Brightest Exposure: ISO 640, f/8, 1/10 sec

Correct Exposure: ISO 640, f/8, 1/40 sec

Darkest Exposure: ISO 640, f/8, 1/160 sec

Next we need to use the apply image function.

Step 1:

Open all three photos in Photoshop and place the brightest at top and the darkest at the bottom of the layers palette. I use Lightroom for that, so by holding down the Command / Ctrl key and selecting all photo then going to Menu - Photo - Edit in - Open as Layers in Photoshop. Make the brightest exposure invisible by pressing the eye next to it.

Step 2:

While on the correct exposure layer, create a white layer mask by clicking on the square icon with a circle in it. 

Step 3: 

After creating the mask from step 2, select it by clicking on it. Go to the Image menu at the top and choose Apply Image. A new dialogue will appear; set:

  • Layer to Merged,
  • Channel to RGB, and
  • Blending to Multiply.
  • Also make sure you select the Invert checkbox next to the Channel box. Press OK.

You will notice now that the darkest areas in your photo are now brighter and the layer mask is painted with shades of gray to hide the shadows. 

Step 4:

Do the same as step 3 above for the brightest exposure layer at the top.

That’s it! You should end up in a balanced exposed photo. However, if the scene is too bright (depending on your bracketing options you made, lower the opacity until satisfied with the outcome.

Before and After