A Noob’s Guide to Post Processing Composite Landscapes in Photoshop Pt. 1

One of the most powerful ways to take your landscape photography to the next level is to blend — or “composite” — exposures of the same landscape from different times of the day.

A composite is a photograph made from several exposures carefully blended together. In landscape photography, it’s common to combine a shot from sunset or the blue hour with star trails from astronomical twilight.

Unless you take exceptional creative liberties, composite landscapes take an exorbitant amount of patience to create. From planning, scouting, and shooting expect to invest several days and hours of shivering for a single composite.

Once you’ve captured the individual shots, the next phase takes even more patience: blending the exposures together in post production. This tutorial should get you started, and with practice, you’ll discover a workflow that suits your style best.

Finished composite in Photoshop, before any post processing. I tend to save color work and light painting for Lightroom, and treat the composite like a raw photo.

Finished composite in Photoshop, before any post processing. I tend to save color work and light painting for Lightroom, and treat the composite like a raw photo.

While some photographers prefer to do all their editing in Photoshop, I’m an avid Lightroom user; 95% of my images never make it to Photoshop. But to execute more ambitious photographs, you’ll need some of Photoshop’s legendary compositing powers. Still, rather than finishing the image up in Photoshop, I recommend post processing the composite back in Lightroom as though it were a raw photo.

I’m a noob to advanced compositing myself, so I’ll be learning right alongside you! Keep an eye out for the next few vlogs on channels and luminosity masking.

Have you tried your hand at composite landscapes? How did they turn out, and did you roundtrip into Lightroom or finish the edit in Photoshop?

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16 Comments

Lorretta Clarke's picture

Generally I do either very little edits of the typical landscape or very obvious blending of storytelling composites. But of late i am thinking that further blending and stacking may be for me as i dont have the opportunity to travel hours to the places i want to shoot.

Worth a shot! I'm not sure how much it would help with the travel aspect, but composites can certainly help you put nearby areas in their best light, esp. if they're typically hard to get in one shot. Multi-season composites can also be incredible for nearby spots, and (in my mind at least) still preserves the integrity of the landscape.

amplighter's picture

Post processing or editing of ones images only proves that you're not pleased with the camera or your own work. stop trying to rely on some software programs to make up for your mistakes. Why not try and achieve better resulted using what you have. as it's either the camera used, the lenses use of the person using the equipment. Just another reason, I'll never put faith in using software to edit my images. If I can't achieve the desired results with the equipment I have, then no software is going to achieve it for me. It is what it is, real unedited and as I see it.

Lorretta Clarke's picture

I don't think people do put faith in software programs to make up for mistakes - I don't think that it is possible without detection. Often, as in night time photography, you need to blend a light shot on a foreground and a night sky image to show detail. In a milky way shot for example, only slight moon glow behind will light the foreground up naturally and the astronomical odds at getting such a photo are not high.

FYI https://whitherthebook.wordpress.com/2013/02/27/ansel-adams-and-photogra...

Andrzej Muzaj's picture

Funny thing you just said. My camera doesn't see the world anything like me. Not at all. And, since I shoot RAW, images SOOC look more like sh*t than anything else. But I agree with one thing - I also don't put any faith in my editing software. I prefer to put my skills there. I'm not a religious type.

TL;DR: Couldn't disagree with you more.

AM: The tone of your comments are obviously intended to egrandize your skill and shame others that try out these techniques. Moose Petersen recently did the same in a utube interview with Chelsea and Tony. Go see how his comments were received, not to mention the fact that he was exposed for the hypocrite that he is. I’m confident we could do the same with you. Art is in the eye of the beholder. Your puritanical view only limits expression. For an amateur who works all day and cannot sleep at a location for ten days maybe a quick composite it what makes them feel inspired and give them a sense of accomplishment. I know that you will argue that it is not genuine but then again what is? Definitely not you.

Andrzej Muzaj's picture

Since you've already made a moral judgement about what my opinions are and what is my comment aimed for, I'll give you something to think about:

You've completely misunderstood my comment. Hint - google: sardonicism.

Okay. I gues that one flew over my head. I have a hint for you: google “esoteric”.

Andrzej Muzaj's picture

That is my favorite google images results so far:

Doing composites is one of the worst ways to tackle landscape photography. Most people don't say their photo is a composite, to me that's like taking drugs in sports. It's cheating and a terrible example for beginners who will try take the same photo in one shot and fail. Be honest about it. Say why you did it, that it was the plan all along. If you do it to salvage a mediocre day, don't waste your time and acknowledge your failure please. I don't have a problem with people who do composites like twilight + stars. As a physicist, I find it ridiculous, and as an amateur photographer I don't like it. But it's fine. You know what it is, there's no lie here. But people who add all sorts of light to mountains that are in the shade at sunset by photographing them at a different hour, then add birds and stuff, and don't even own it, well then there is a problem. I don't know what these people are afraid of, just say what you did. If it's a crappy image you wanted to make pop, go another day or plan a different trip... Why waste your time on photoshop skills to save a bad image in the first place ? You think it'll sell ? What if it does and a client calls you out on the lack of disclosure and publicly shames you on social media ? That's far worse than just giving up on that day's shoot.

Nick: there’s a lot to unpack in your comments so let’s first start with the presumption that people who do composite pictures are trying to hide something. I Suspect it happens occasionally. I have heard of some high profile situations like competitions where photographers didn’t declare there pictures as composites, but I would argue most photographers don’t indicate that their pictures are composite mainly because they are presenting in an environment such as their personal website where it doesn’t really matter. More commonly I suspect that photographers don’t say anything because they think of it as no different than upping the contrast or saturation or applying sharpening. Even adding a bird or clouds blurs the lines when the photographer sees the picture more as an impression rather than a journalistic image. Remember that many of these pics are by amateurs exploring the craft than pros representing their commercial integrity.

As far as composite being equivalent to cheating is a narrow perspective. I guess Ansel Adams dodging and burning is also cheating. Your vision has a wider dynamic range than most cameras so using composites to reassemble the emotional reaction you experienced to a scene is valid.

Is composite a failure of the photographer’s ability to correctly use his/her camera? Perhaps, but I know plenty of photographers that use composite as part of a deliberate technique to create a certain style. This could be focus stacking or HDR or luminosity blending. I think when you mean failure you are referencing to composites that are executed poorly or the overuse of a technique to the point it becomes derivative ( ever seen saturated photos on 500px). They way I look at it is from the quote, “all art is valid. If you think it sucks than you have learned something more about yourself.”

The main thing for me is that some photographers don’t have the time to stay at a location for months to wait for the perfect light. If composite helps than realize the vision that they had in there head and it satisfies their creative desires then good for them.

My point was that if you do it to improve a poor image, don't. If tje plan was to do a composite all along, nothing wrong with that. Just disclose it.

Something shocked me in what you said though. You assimilate dodging with compositing... A sky swap isn't the same as dodging. Dodging is to enhance a 2D picture to make it feel more like the real deal, or to emphasize sth that jumped at you when you looked at the landscape. Sky swapping is creating something that didn't exist, that you neither saw nor felt.

And no when I mean failure I mean if you don't get the sky you want for example, don't try and fix it by doing a sky swap....

I appreciate your opinion but respectfully disagree; any alteration of a photo whether dodging, saturation adjustments or sky swapping is an alteration of the reality of what was viewed. None are worse than the other or better. I don't judge one way or the other if you do it. I am not the photojournalism police. I am an art lover wanting to see what another person expresses as an idea or emotion. I try not to judge if the pictures papers are in order first. I will let National Geographic and newspapers ensure that pictures are representative of facts, but when I look at a general picture I am simply looking at an expression of another's esthetics. If you use composite or saturation poorly then you cause me to be distracted from the purpose of the picture which I can say makes it ineffectual, but they is only where I draw the line.

I fear that we are blending other ideas from society into art; fake news becomes fake pictures, you are either for or against something. Art can have ethics, yes, but unlike other discourse like science it is allowed to be illusionary, ambiguous, and surrealistic. I am not an art professional. I'm an engineer, so my thoughts may not be entirely worded correctly, but this is how I feel. Have a great weekend.

When you dodge/burn there are two main goals : one is to increase the depth and 3D effect of an image, the other to increase contrast and dynamic range (in black & white, like Ansel Adams). It's meant at tricking the viewer's vision as if he were really looking at the landscape you took a photo of, or at least to feel the same thing you felt when you looked at the view. That's the whole idea behind dodging and burning, to make it more like reality, because your camera is limited and you're looking at a 2D representation. In that sense it's an augmentation of reality and not an alteration. Compositing to save a bad picture is destorting reality and is wrong. A perfect example of what not to do is right here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EtZgiZRcn5k&lc=z23gi1czynbxs1p2eacdp43a4waacxdancy4fagnaolw03c010c.1539187415035785

with a rubbish result. Compositing to make a vision you had come true can be art, yes... if you disclose it. I believe that this infamous moon picture by Peter Lik made a real dent in his reputation as a photographer.

If I see a cloudy sky one day and a deer in the same forest the second day with overcast then can you say the photographer did not experience a coalesced memory of both. The mind is tricky that way. I have a place that I go to every once in a while to hike and I can still see the picnic basket where a girlfriend and me sat. As you can imagine it brings out emotions for me. To say that I couldn’t composite a picture that represented this feeling ( which I have no interest in doing) is you limiting the artist. I clearly understand your point and where you draw the line for yourself, but that’s not everyone’s line nor should it be. The irony is that on a personal level I align more with your thoughts.