What is the Lightroom Radial filter? How does it work? And what can it do for your photos?
I’m a huge fan of the Radial filter. Yes, it initially seems complicated, but it’s actually far easier to use than you might think. And it’s insanely handy; with a bit of Radial filter know-how, you can create vignettes, emphasize your main subjects, create beautiful sun flare, and so much more.
In this article, I offer everything you need to get started, including:
- Simple instructions for activating and applying the Radial filter
- When to use the filter when editing (and when to avoid it)
- Easy tips and tricks to improve your editing abilities
- Much more!
So if you’re ready to level up your photos with a bit of Radial filter magic, then let’s dive right in!
What is the Lightroom Radial filter?
The Radial filter, also known as the Radial Gradient mask, allows you to apply adjustments to only portions of your photos. It restricts edits to a circular or elliptical shape:
For instance, you can use the Radial filter to brighten up the center of your image:
Or you can use the Radial filter to darken the edges (as I explore in the tips section below).
But Radial filters aren’t limited to broad tonal adjustments. You can also apply sharpening, adjust white balance, or even alter colors – all within the Radial filter’s curved boundary.
When might this be useful? Keep reading:
When should you use a Radial filter?
The Radial filter is plenty powerful; as you already know, you can use it to target specific portions of an image for editing (while leaving other portions untouched).
But when is this actually helpful? Here are a handful of times when the Radial filter works great:
- If you want to brighten up a portrait or animal subject while leaving the background dark
- If you want to selectively sharpen your subject
- If you want to selectively blur the background
- If you want to create a vignette around the edges of the frame to focus the viewer on the image’s center
- If you want to create the appearance of sunlight on the edge of an object
- If you want to enhance the color or brightness of the sun
- If you want to create the illusion of light in an inactive lamp
Don’t go overboard with the Radial filter, however. If you want to make an adjustment that would look great when applied to the entire image, skip the Radial filter and just use the standard Lightroom sliders.
And if the Radial shape doesn’t really fit your subject, it’s often better to try a different filter/mask, such as a Brush or a Graduated filter (also known as a Linear Gradient mask). Brushes are great for more fine-grained edits, while Graduated filters tend to work best when you want to selectively edit the sky or the foreground.
How to use the Lightroom Radial filter (step by step)
In this section, I explain all the Radial filter basics, including where you can find it in Lightroom, how you can adjust its size, and much more.
Step 1: Access the Radial filter in the Masks panel
Tap the Radial Gradient button, then click and drag your cursor across the image.
An elliptical selection will appear, filled with a red gradient. That is your Radial filter, and the red overlay indicates the placement and strength of your editing adjustments.
Step 2: Adjust the Radial filter’s size and feather
Once you’ve created a Radial filter, you can move it by dragging the center pin, and you can resize or rotate it by dragging the outer circle handles. Drag inward to shrink down the filter; drag outward to enlarge it.
Notice that the Radial filter also includes an inner concentric circle. This indicates the feather of the effect – in other words, it controls whether your adjustment has a hard or soft edge. By dragging the inner handle, you can force the edit to feather gradually outward:
Or you can create a more sudden (hard-edged) effect:
You can also adjust the gradient effect by raising and lowering the Feather slider in the Radial Gradient panel:
Generally speaking, it’s best to use a heavy feather. A hard edge will create clear changes in brightness, sharpness, or color in your image, while a soft, carefully feathered edge will help the edit blend in with the scene. (The exception is when you want to selectively edit a hard-edged subject. In such cases, a low-feather Radial gradient will fit perfectly with the subject edges, and the result will be highly realistic.)
If you want to adjust the area outside of the Radial filter while leaving the inner portion unaffected, check the Invert box in the right-hand corner:
Step 3: Apply edits to the selected area
On the right-hand side of the screen, you should see the Radial Gradient panel, which offers a list of all possible edits. You can adjust the exposure, the contrast, or the texture; you can also change the image saturation, remove noise, or add a color overlay.
Simply move the relevant slider, and the change will take effect within the Radial filter mask. You can also combine multiple adjustment sliders to create a unique effect.
Step 4: Add additional Radial filters
At this point, you can hit the Done button and continue on with your normal editing – or you can create some more Radial filters!
Simply head into the Masks panel, then tap Create New Mask:
Choose Radial Gradient from the dropdown menu, and then – voila! – drag your new filter onto the screen.
You can add as many filters as you like, though it’s best to keep your approach as simple as possible; you don’t want to create so many filters that you start to forget how they’re actually affecting your image.
Tips for working with the Lightroom Radial filter
Now that you know the Radial filter basics, it’s time to learn how you can level up your skills:
1. Start by applying global edits
When you’re processing a new image, it can be tempting to skip straight to those powerful Radial filter edits – but it’s often best to start with global (that is, untargeted) edits and only later narrow your approach.
Global editing can handle broader problems, such as an incorrect white balance or a bad exposure. It helps set a baseline, which you can then improve upon with your Radial filters. I recommend using global adjustments to apply:
You should also use that first phase of editing to handle any perspective distortion and lens corrections. At the end of the day, the Radial filters should be used to apply finishing touches to an already-processed image. Make sense?
2. Use a Radial filter to add a vignette
A vignette refers to a darkening effect around the outside of the frame; it’s a great way to direct the viewer’s eye toward the main subject, and it’s a trick that many photographers – including most professionals – use in their photos.
Now, you can technically create a vignette using the Lightroom Effects panel, but this approach doesn’t offer much flexibility. If you want to create an customizable vignette, I encourage you to use a Radial filter instead.
Here’s how it works:
First, create a Radial filter over your main subject. Make sure that it’s large (drag it out over much of the frame) and has a strong feather.
Then check the Invert button. You want the red overlay to be spread over the edges of the frame only:
Slowly drop the Exposure slider. The vignette effect will start to appear.
If the transition between the darkened area and the central part of the scene is too dramatic, increase the Feather. Your goal should be to create an effect that can be felt, but not really seen (unless the viewer knows what to look for).
You might also consider adjusting the Highlights, Shadows, Whites, and Blacks sliders for a more targeted result.
3. Combine multiple filters/masks for a custom shape
Radial filters are great, but sometimes they don’t quite offer the shape that you’re after – which is where mask addition and subtraction come in handy.
First, create a Radial gradient and use it to cover as much of the subject as possible.
Then tap the Add button, choose another filter/mask, and use it to add to your Radial selection.
(If you want to subtract from a portion of your selection, hit the Subtract button instead.)
If you add to (or subtract from) your Radial filter, the adjustments you make will apply to the entire modified shape, not just the original ellipse.
And you don’t need to determine the shape of your filter up front; you can always start with a Radial filter, add a Linear Gradient, then – if you don’t like the result – subtract from it using a Brush sometime down the line.
Here, I’ve added a Brush adjustment to the Radial Filter applied in the previous tip.
The Lightroom Radial filter: final words
As you can see, careful use of the Radial filter is a great way to improve your photos. It’ll help you make targeted adjustments to your shots, and it can also bring focus to the main subject.
So practice working with the Radial filter. Experiment with different edits. Once you get good, the sky is the limit!
How do you plan to use the Radial filter? Share your thoughts in the comments below!