For me, as a travel photographer, the size and the weight of the photography equipment that I carry around is very important. Over the years, I learned how to carry only the items absolutely necessary for shooting in order to eliminate anything unessential.
I was able to replace some of the pieces of equipment with software. For example, I stopped using ND Graduated filters a few years ago. For me, it was easier to take bracketed shots and blend two images in Photoshop or simply use the graduated filter in Lightroom. Next, I left behind the remote trigger because I learned that using the two second delay function on the camera allowed me to achieve the same result without an extra piece of equipment.
A couple of months ago, I pulled the trigger on the biggest change in my photography universe when I switched from a Canon DSLR to a Sony Mirrorless (read my article here 5 Lessons Learned Switching from DSLR to Mirrorless for Travel Photography). That drastic switch resulted in cutting the weight and the size of the equipment I carry around by more than half.
During my latest photography trip to Hawaii and Northern California, I did quite a bit of hiking and realized that, after the switch to mirrorless, the biggest and by far the bulkiest, piece of equipment I carried was my tripod. I love my Feisol tripod because it is light, tall, and steady like a rock. But, sometimes it is just impossible to bring with me.
Even though I learned how to take bracketed shots handheld and merge them effectively to HDR in Photomatix and Photoshop HDR Pro (read Natural Looking HDR in Photoshop and Lightroom in 5 Easy Steps), without a tripod I still could not accomplish one of the most important types of photography, which is long exposure photography.
I use long exposure photography quite a bit, especially when shooting seascapes, and of course, I have plenty of seascapes in my portfolio. Longer shutter speed allows me to achieve beautiful, smooth and silky looking water plus, it works just as well for the sky.
Lately, I’ve been experimenting with a few techniques in an attempt to achieve the same long exposure effect in the water and the sky by shooting handheld without a tripod. After I started to produce predictable results on a consistent basis, I am now ready to share the technique with you.
Below is the effect I achieved using my new technique that I call Align+Blend.
Normally, I shoot in bracketing mode, taking at least three exposures. In order to use the Align+Blend technique, I had to switch from bracketing mode (AEB) to the Single Shot Mode. I shot 10 consecutive shots of the scene, trying to be as steady as possible, without too many movements. I was shooting at an approximate speed of one shot per second and, it took me nine seconds to complete the series. In order to get the sharp images, I used a shutter speed of 1/200th of a second.
That was it. The shooting part was done. The rest was accomplished in post-processing.
Step 1 Import
I imported the 10 RAW files into Lightroom.
Step 2 Process in LR
I applied one of my landscape presets to the entire set making sure that each image had an identical look (If you are interested you can download my free preset collection on my blog).
Step 3 Open as layers in Photoshop
I selected 10 images in Lightroom and opened them in Photoshop as layers in the same document (right/option click).
Step 4 Align Layers
I used the Auto Align Layers feature in Photoshop to align all 10 layers with Projection set to AUTO. The Auto Align is a fairly sophisticated tool, and Photoshop had no issue aligning all of the 10 individual layers.
Step 5 Convert to one Smart Object
I converted the 10 layers to one single Smart Object (right/option click).
Step 6 Set Stack Mode
I used the following command to blend the 10 original layers inside of the Smart Object. Layer > Smart Object > Stack Mode > Mean. This resulted in a long exposure effect by moving elements of the scene (water, sky).
Step 7 Fix any areas with issues using a layer mask
At the same time, the windy weather created some unwanted effects by moving tree branches and the grass in the foreground. To fix the blurry effects I placed one of the 10 original RAW images on top of the Smart Object layer and blended together two layers with the help of transparency (layer) masks. I used the area of the water and the sky from the smart object layer and, the rest of the scene from the single RAW layer.
I managed to achieve the long exposure effect without a tripod and without sacrificing the quality of the final image.
This technique also works as the replacement for Neutral Density filters. In broad daylight, even when you have a tripod but the smallest aperture (f/22) is still not small enough to slow down the shutter speed, take multiple shots and blend them together later in Photoshop in a similar manner.
Here’s the final image again: