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Photoshop Tutorials: Supermoon Composite Image

View on YouTube to see this Photoshop tutorial in HD

To my regular readers, the title of this post may come as a surprise to you. You know I'm not a big Photoshop guy. I'm more of a "get the image right in camera" guy. I think Photoshop is overused these days to distort our view of human beauty and to create digital abominations passing themselves off as "photos," so I tend not to put out Photoshop tutorials.

BUT, I'm certainly not opposed to using Photoshop to do something that couldn't be done in the camera or couldn't be done with better quality in the camera...so long as it's done with good taste. And "good taste" is key. It's always amusing to me when someone will spend 3 hours working in Photoshop to create an image uglier than sin (*cough* HDR *cough*).

So I ran into a situation recently where the image I envisioned was literally impossible to create in-camera on a single exposure. Thus, I had to resort to Photoshop.

We recently had a supermoon, which is where a full moon happens to coincide with the moon's closest approach to Earth in its orbit. The result is a bigger and brighter moon, which I envisioned photographing in Laguna Beach, CA with some silhouetted palm trees in the foreground.

It is, in fact, possible to create this exact photograph in a single exposure, but only if the conditions are just perfect. To do it in a single shot, the moon has to get into the desired position in the sky immediately after the sun has set. Basically, the moon's gotta be where you want it at twilight, not nighttime. That's what happened in the following photo I took in Joshua Tree National Park. I was lucky to have the moon rise up over the mountains immediately after the sun set. The twilight light kept the foreground cactus and the sky illuminated enough so that I could accurately expose both the foreground and the moon.

Moonrise over Cholla Cactus in Joshua Tree National Park

If the moon gets into position just a few minutes too late, the sky and landscape will have no lingering light from the sunset to illuminate them. Thus, if you try to lighten the exposure to get detail in the foreground, the moon will blow out white. If you try to darken the exposure to get detail in the moon, the foreground goes too dark.

That's what happened on my most recent shoot of the supermoon in Laguna Beach. You'll see in the pictures below that when I exposed bright enough to see the palm trees, the moon became overexposed. But when I exposed darker to see detail in the moon, I lost the trees.

Photoshop Tutorials - Supermoon Composite Image

The purist in me really just wants to scrap these photos and do a reshoot when the moon is in the right position at the right time, but the next supermoon is over a year away, so until then I'll venture to the dark side and utilize Photoshop to fix this problem.

The general idea in this Photoshop tutorial is that I will extract the better-looking darker supermoon from the second exposure and overlay onto the brighter moon in the first photo. The process is simple and best explained in the above video tutorial, but here's a write-up to walk you through it:

Step 1
Take your two exposures and make your usual adjustments to color, white balance, contrast, and whatever else you like to do. I did this in Lightroom.

Step 2
Open these 2 exposures in Photoshop and lay them out side-by-side.

Photoshop Tutorials - open both images side-by-side

Step 3
Using the move tool in Photoshop (shortcut "v"), drag the darker exposure on top of the lighter exposure. Hold down Shift when you do this so that the images line up perfectly. You should have 2 layers in your image now - the top layer is the darker exposure, the bottom is the lighter exposure.

Photoshop Tutorials - Drag darker image on top of lighter

Step 4
Now it's time to delete that black sky around the supermoon. I used the magic wand tool and simply clicked on the sky. Photoshop automatically creates a selection around the moon.

Photoshop Tutorials - magic wand tool

Step 5
At this point, I opted to expand my selection by 4 pixels so that it overlapped the moon a tiny bit. This will prevent a black border showing up around the moon. I also feathered the selection by 2 pixels so as to create a softer transition around the moon. This will help create a more seamless blend into the brighter background.

Photoshop Tutorials - expand the selection

Photoshop Tutorials - feather the selection

Step 6
Center the darker supermoon over the brighter moon using the move tool. Use "Free Transform" to enlarge the moon a little bit if necessary.

Photoshop Tutorials - Reposition the supermoon

Photoshop Tutorials - Enlarge the supermoon

Step 7 (Optional)
I then dropped the opacity of the darker supermoon layer to 85%. This lightened the moon a tiny bit by allowing the bright exposure behind it to shine through. I did this because I felt that the darker supermoon looked too dark and out of place on the brighter background exposure.

Photoshop Tutorials - Drop the Opacity

Step 8
Save the new file, because you're done, baby.

Photoshop Tutorials - Supermoon Composite ImageThe completed composite image
Click to Enlarge