Tutorial

For this tutorial I've provided moderate-resolution JPEGs of both images you see below so that you can follow along each step of the way. Simply right-click on each to save it to your computer. Throughout the tutorial I'll refer to the image with the foreground homestead as Photo 1 and the image of the dramatic clouds as Photo 2.

Photo 1 Photo 2

These JPEGs are derived from Raw files which I edited so the overall contrast looked good and the color of the two skies was compatible. You'll want similar flexibility when you try this technique on your own images as well, so I highly recommend using Raw files as the basis for any composite work.

Step 1

Bring the two images together as layers in a single file, with Photo 1 on the bottom and Photo 2 on top. An easy way to do this is to open both images in Photoshop in adjacent windows. Select the Move tool and, while holding the Shift key, click-drag Photo 2 onto Photo 1. Tip: Holding the Shift key until after you release the mouse will center align the image you're dragging.

Reduce the layer opacity of Photo 2 (here I chose 74%). Use the Move tool to adjust Photo 2 up and down to see how the two images look in relationship to each other. Once the alignment looks good (no mountains in the sky, and the clouds working together nicely), restore the opacity of the Photo 2 layer back to 100%.

Here the two layers are being aligned, with the opacity of the top layer reduced to 74%, so that Photo 2 can be seen as a semi-transparent overlay atop the bottom layer. This allows you to position it properly.

Step 2

With the Photo 2 layer selected, add a layer mask to it by going to Layer>LayerMask>Reveal All. The resulting layer mask will be filled with white.

A layer mask has been added to the top layer. Because the entire mask is white, the Photo 2 layer is still completely visible.

Step 3

If you’ve used brushes in masks before, using the Gradient tool follows the same idea. First, select the Gradient tool (keyboard shortcut: G) and in the Control panel set it to the Black, White option (see below). If you've skipped the first page of this article and jumped straight to Step 1, make sure you've read my earlier explanation of the Gradient tool.

Choosing the Black, White option (circled above) means that any gradient you draw on a layer mask will first hide, then reveal the contents of the attached layer.

With the Photo 2 layer active (meaning it's highlighted in blue), click-drag in the canvas, from above the house towards the top of the image. This will create a black-to-white gradient inside the mask. Since in a mask, black conceals and white reveals, the bottom of Photo 2 will be hidden and the top will remain visible.

I applied the gradient several times, at slightly different angles, dragging a bit further or a bit less until I created just the right gradient in the Mask. This is something you'll want to experiment with yourself over several attempts. Keep in mind, however, that gradients on a single layer are not cumulative. Drawing a new gradient immediately replaces the previous one.

After the gradient is drawn on the layer mask, the bottom region of Photo 2 (the layer on top), becomes invisible, seamlessly blending with the Photo 1 layer beneath it.

The great thing about using the Gradient tool is that the transition is smooth and gradual. Why? Because the gradient is not only applying black and white areas to the layer mask. It also introduces shades of gray in-between them to feather the blend. Gray values partially hide or reveal areas, allowing for a natural, subtle transition between the two layers.

With the layer mask active, and the Linear Gradient tool set to 'Black, White', click+dragging inside the canvas using the direction and distance indicated by the red arrow, will make a gradient like the one shown in the center image. The gray areas in the mask create a partial transparency. This gradient will transform the appearance of Photo 2 from the leftmost image to the one shown at far right.

Of course, I could have used selections for this job, or brushes, but a Linear Gradient is the perfect tool to mask a more interesting sky onto a great foreground. In fact, Linear and Radial Gradients mimic the makeshift cardboard tools we used for burning & dodging in traditional, chemical black-and-white darkrooms; they provide feathered, believable transitions – especially effective when used in Masks.

And with just three simple steps you can create a seamless blend like you see below. Spend just a little time practicing with the Gradient tool and you'll have a fast, easy technique for making composite images.

Here's our 'combination-print' landscape, before and after.

This is the first of a two-part tutorial so stay tuned for Part 2. We’ll do the 'darkroom' work this picture needs using the gradient tool with Adjustment Layers – and explore some of the Gradient tool’s advanced features.


Jean Miele has been digitally editing images for over 15 years. A working commercial photographer and highly sought after Photoshop instructor, his fine art images and workshop schedule can be seen at jeanmiele.com. You can also follow him on Facebook.