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Improve Your Images with the Lightroom Graduated Filter Tool

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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Andrew S. Gibson
Andrew S. Gibson

is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He’s an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!