Improve Your Images with the Lightroom Graduated Filter Tool

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Using the Graduated Filter in Lightroom

The Lightroom Graduated Filter is a versatile tool for making local adjustments to your photos. Don’t be fooled by the name – it may be named after a type of filter used for making skies darker in landscape photography, but its uses go far beyond that.

Before we look at how you can use the Graduated Filter tool to improve your images, you may want to think about the style in which you’d like to process the photo. What is your ultimate aim? My article Finding and Achieving Your Style in Lightroom will give you some advice on figuring that out. Once you know what you want to do, the rest falls into place.

How to use Graduated Filters

Using the Graduated Filter in Lightroom

This is how you apply a Graduated Filter in Lightroom

1. Click on the Graduated filter icon underneath the Histogram (the keyboard shortcut for it is “M”). The Graduated filter panel opens up beneath, revealing the sliders that you can adjust.

2. Hold the left mouse button down and drag the mouse across the image to place the Graduated filter. In this example I held the mouse button down while I dragged to create a wide Graduated Filter. There is a lot of space between the lines making up the filter, indicating that it will create a smooth graduation.

Using the Graduated Filter in Lightroom

3. If you let go of the mouse button early, you create a narrow Graduated Filter that gives a harder graduation. Drag the pin to position the Graduated Filter where you need it.

Using the Graduated Filter in Lightroom

Here, I set Exposure to -4.0 to show you the difference between the two types of Graduated Filter:

Using the Graduated Filter in Lightroom

This illustration shows the difference between creating a wide Graduated Filter (left) and a narrow one (right). Experiment with both to see how they affect your photos.

Now you know how to use the Graduated Filter tool, here a few ways you can make your photos better with it.

Note: you can reposition the placement by dragging the pin, or widen the gradation any time even after applying the filter. Just reactivate it, select it (the dot will be black) and adjust. To adjust the gradation just hover the mouse over one of the edges, click to grab it, hold down the mouse button and pull to widen or narrow the spread. 

1. Making skies darker

Let’s start with the obvious application of using the Graduated Filter to make the skies in landscape photos darker. Note that the Graduated Filter can’t rescue you if the sky in your photo is so overexposed that detail is lost – you may still need to use a neutral density graduated filter when you take the photo in the first place.

Using the Graduated Filter in Lightroom

Starting image

The first step is to make the sky darker. I did this by adding a Graduated Filter and pulling back Exposure to -1.81. Every photo is different, so use your eye to judge the Exposure adjustment required on your photos.

Using the Graduated Filter in Lightroom

Exposure -1.81 applied using the Graduated Filter

2. Adjusting Contrast and Clarity locally

My aim with this landscape was to make the foreground darker and sharper, directing the viewer’s gaze towards the horizon. I achieved this by adding another Graduated Filter from the bottom. But this time, as well as adjusting Exposure to -0.79, I increased Contrast to +20 and Clarity to +27:

Using the Graduated Filter in Lightroom

Bottom Graduated Filter applied, Contrast +20 and Clarity +27

Here’s a before and after comparison, so you can see the difference adding the Graduated Filters has made. The two simple adjustments have transformed the photo.

Using the Graduated Filter in Lightroom

3. Adjusting White Balance

Another use of the Graduated Filter is to adjust colour temperature in part of the image. Sticking with the same landscape photo, I selected the top Graduated Filter to activate it and set Temp to 30. This warmed up the sky, emphasising the deep orange and red colours of the sunset:

Using the Graduated Filter in Lightroom

Be careful with adjusting Temp. If you push the slider too far the results may not look natural.

4. Making edges of your image darker

Moving away from landscapes, Graduated Filters are a handy way of making the edges of your images darker. This helps direct the viewer’s attention towards the focal point.

Using the Graduated Filter in Lightroom

This diagram shows roughly where I placed the three Graduated Filters. The benefit of using individual Graduated Filters (instead of the Radial Filter or Adjustment Brush) is that you can adjust each one individually.

Using the Graduated Filter in Lightroom

5. Adding a colour wash

The Color setting at the bottom of the Graduated Filter panel lets you add a tint. It is laid over the filter in addition to the effects created by whichever sliders you choose to adjust. To select a colour, click on the colour picker icon at bottom of the Graduated Filter panel (the white rectangle with black cross inside indicates no colour has been selected) and select the colour you wish to add:

Using the Graduated Filter in Lightroom

Slider below is for adjust the Saturation of your selected color

One use of this is to add a colour wash to a photo, to make it look as though the subject is lit by the light from the setting sun. This technique works best when the subject was genuinely shot during the golden hour, and you use the Graduated Filter to emphasize that. In this example I selected an orange hue to imitate the sun and set Exposure to +1.16 to lighten that side of the image.

Using the Graduated Filter in Lightroom

6. Lens blur effect

The Sharpness slider in the Graduated Filter panel is dual purpose. From zero to -50 it reduces sharpness. From -50 to -100 it creates lens blur. This lets you replicate the effect of using a tilt-shift lens or large format camera to create a photo with a tilted plane of focus. This is what it looks like. You may have to look closely – the model’s head is sharp but the areas at the top and bottom are not.

Using the Graduated Filter in Lightroom

I created this effect by adding five Graduated Filters, two at the top, and three at the bottom, their position shown by the coloured lines. The effect works best with a narrow Graduated Filter.

Using the Graduated Filter in Lightroom

The red lines indicate where I added Graduated Filters with Sharpness set to -100 at top. The green lines show you where I placed three filters at the bottom. Spacing the Graduated Filters mean the effect is strongest at the edges, replicating the true effect of using a tilt-shift lens.

Hopefully these tips will help you use the Graduated Filter more creatively. Lightroom is great for processing your photos and understanding how its tools work will help you use it more effectively. If you’re new to Lightroom, then my article Seven Pieces of Advice for New Lightroom Users will help you get started. Once you’ve mastered the Graduated Filter, I suggest you read Four Ways to Improve Your Photos With the Clarity Slider in Lightroom or 3 Uses for the Radial Filter Tool in Lightroom 5 to learn how to use more of Lightroom’s fabulous tools. Have fun!

By the way, I’m curious to hear how you use Graduated Filters in Lightroom. What techniques have you come up with? Please share them with other readers in the comments.


Mastering Lightroom: Book One and Two
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My Mastering Lightroom ebooks are a complete guide to using Lightroom’s Library and Develop modules. Written for Lightroom 4 & 5 they take you through every panel in both modules and show you how to import and organise your images, use Collections and creatively edit your photos.

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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer and traveler. He is the author of over twenty photography ebooks and runs The Creative Photographer photography blog. Join his monthly newsletter to receive complimentary copies of The Creative Image, What's New in Lightroom CC? and Use Lightroom Better!

  • Great article Andrew, thank you! I’ve been fighting graduated filters for a while now…

  • Joeycyp’s Photography

    I just started using Lightroom 3 days ago & your article definitely helps a lot. Thanks!

  • Kenneth Sørensen

    Great article with inspiring tips. I’ve only used the graduate filter for darkening the sky and in case the sky is very overexposed I add a blue color wash. Well I’m off to graduate land, gotta try out some of these tips!

    Cheers!

  • You’re welcome, glad it helped.

  • You should check out the other Lightroom articles on DPS too, there is a lot of information here.

  • Have fun! The Graduated Filter is a very versatile too, there’s so much you can do with it.

  • Andrew, Great tutorial here. Can’t wait to try some of these tricks out. Thanks for sharing man!

  • Glad you liked it, I enjoyed your article too. Great to see someone writing about storytelling and documentary photography.

  • Joeycyp’s Photography

    Thanks Andrew. I’ll do that.

  • Rene Beaudoin

    Great tips Andrew, I have so much more to learn

  • Thanks. I always feel like I have more to learn. For me that’s part of the fun of photography.

  • I love it when my writers chat in the comments LOL!

  • Michael Owens

    I just love the fact that if you comment, ask a question, you always tend to get a reply. This is what keeps me here. Interaction.

  • Thanks Michael – I encourage it!

  • Another tip that I use often: I can quickly adjust the gradation soft/hard amount while locking the center line stationary by holding down the Alt/Option key, then click the mouse on one of the outer grad lines and drag to condense or expand.

    Holding the Shift key while dragging an outer line will move it and the center line while locking the opposite outer line.

  • Andrew, this is an awesome tutorial. Between you and Darlene my head is exploding with information that I need a day or two just to process it. I am currently saving for the Cokin graduated ND kit w/ adapter rings for a couple lens ect. I want to be able to make very little adjustments as possible with processing but still want to have that sense of control to tweak a little more to express my shot. I have been following DPS for awhile and see you post alot of wonderful tips with LR and honestly I need all the info I can get right now (well in doses, it take a little time to process in my head).

  • On a side note, I spend 3-4 days to study and take in all the info I can gather within the means I have. I then disappear for a week then go shooting with the new found knowledge. So far, it has paid off. It would not be possible without DPS! I love what you all have come together to offer to the public. A passion, a journey, a lifestyle!

  • That’s a great tip, and something that I wasn’t aware of. Thanks for sharing.

  • Well, I hope your head doesn’t hurt too much! Thanks for the complements and look out for more Lightroom tutorials in the coming weeks.

  • Our pleasure. I’m just glad you find it useful.

  • Your welcome, and will look forward to the tutorials. I actually pulled the punch for your 3 book series earlier this evening. I lost my computer to my kids playing and spilling coffee on it this morning. Did not have anything backed up (yea don’t tell me I already know, talk about a hurting head now). Though to be positive in light of today’s blunder, I will focus on your book #1 as far as the LR libraries since it gives me a fresh start to included backing up on my external LOL.

  • You’re welcome Andrew!

  • tara

    I hope your head doesn’t hurt too much! ???? ??????????? ????????

  • Saurabh Jain

    Amazing! i was looking for this UNKNWINGLY

  • Michael Kalafatas

    How can wash away an area of Graduated Filter

  • darthberne79

    Good article, thanks! Only thing – your first hyperlink (one leading to Finding Your Style article) seems to be broken.

  • John

    great images of the gannet colony, where was this taken

  • Muriwai, near Auckland in New Zealand.

  • Susie in Sarasota

    Thanks for this tutorial – lots of great tips I can use right away!

    Question: In item 4, you describe darkening the edges of an object by placing Graduated Filters around it. You showed where you placed the filters, but did not say what Develop settings you utilized to achieve the effect of darkening the edges of the object. Can you share? Thanks!

  • Hi Susie, it’s very simple, you can do it with the Exposure slider.

  • Susie in Sarasota

    Thanks – so did you have the Graduated Filters set so the reduction in Exposure was toward the center? And, if so, did you then have to use the eraser brush to remove all the Exposure darkening on the object itself, just leaving the darkening at the edges?

  • DavidR8

    Never thought to reduce sharpness…very cool tip 🙂

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