Lightroom’s Secret Weapon: The Radial Filter and How to Use it

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Back when Lightroom 5 was released, Adobe included an extremely useful tool called the Radial Filter. However, the name wasn’t particularly clear about what it could do, so many people still have yet to find how useful and powerful it can be. Further improvements were added in Lightroom 6, with the ability to further edit the effect of the tool with the Brush function.

LR Radial Filter panel vignette beginning 7

Workflow process

A generally accepted practice when editing images, is that you do your global adjustments first. These are the ones that affect the whole image at once. Some examples of adjustments that you might use are:

  • Exposure
  • White Balance
  • Contrast
  • White or Black Point
  • Sharpness
  • Clarity
  • Shadows and Highlights

Once the global adjustments are done, then the local adjustments can be made. These are changes made to only a small part of the image. They may be to add final polish to the image or to fix some blemishes. These changes should be subtle and layered on with a delicate touch. It should not be obvious that they have been made, but when you are finished and compare the before and after image, there should be some improvement visible.

How the Radial Filter fits in

This is where the Radial Filter can be used, adding in areas of highlight or clarity to the key subject, brightening or darkening areas, or adding a custom vignette. Lots of little touches to take your final image to the next level.

My example image is a shot of a couple tiger cubs taken at Melbourne Zoo in 2010. It was very dark and shaded in their enclosure so the original RAW images are very dark. This image has been edited in Lightroom 6 to apply all the required global adjustments. It is now ready to have some localized tweaks added with the Radial Filter.

LR Radial Filter BASE IMAGE 1

WHERE TO FIND THE RADIAL FILTER AND HOW TO USE IT

The Radial Filter lives in the right panel of the Develop Module. Under the histogram are six shapes that link to different tools. The round circle with a dot in the centre at the fifth position from the left is the Radial Filter.

LR radial filter panel where to find 2

When you click on the button for the Radial Filter (you can also use the keyboard shortcut Shift+M to open the Radial Filter), a panel opens up with all the editing choices available for this tool.

LR radial filter panel editing options 3

Adding and adjusting the filter

If you click on your image and drag the mouse out a bit, a roundish ellipse shape will form with a centre button and four control handles. Let go of the mouse when the shape is roughly the size you want it. The Radial Filter only offers a roundish ellipse shape but it has a lot of flexibility with changing the size and squashing it down to be a narrow oval shape instead of a circle.

LR radial filter panel new one 4

Clicking and dragging on the centre button allows you to move the filter to the part of the image you want to edit. Use the control handles to change the size and also the shape of the ellipse.

LR radial filter panel change tool shape 4a

Which area is affected

By default, Lightroom sets the editing area to OUTSIDE the ellipse. If you want to edit INSIDE the area, tick the Invert Mask box on the Panel.

LR radial filter panel move change size 5

The red colour shows up if you have Show Selected Mask Overlay ticked. It is handy to see where Lightroom will apply the effect and how much feathering you need to use.

NOTE: if you do not see a coloured overlay like the red one shown here, hit the O keyboard shortcut for “overlay”. Holding shift and tapping O will change the color of the overlay.

LR radial filter panel mask controls 6

Note: Always click Close or Done (or the keyboard shortcut Shift+M again) once you are finished editing a particular button so you can see the edited image clearly.

USING THE RADIAL FILTER TO EDIT AN IMAGE

In the example image the aim is to bring attention to the tiger cubs, adding some tweaks around the head and paws area (it’s not 100% sharp due to the low light and the movement while they were wrestling).

Add an off-centre edge vignette

First, we add a vignette to darken the distracting elements on the edge of the frame and bring the focus to the cubs.
Because they are not in the absolute centre of the image, the usual post-crop vignette tool will not work. This is where the Radial Filter is so useful, as you can add a vignette with the focus an off-centre subject rather than being limited to the middle of the frame.

The vignette needs to have Invert Mask NOT ticked, as the effect goes on the outside of the ellipse.

Add the Radial Filter and adjust the shape to be quite large – you can make the ellipse bigger than the actual image if necessary. Invert the mask and bring the exposure down just enough to darken the edges of the frame.

LR radial filter panel vignette beginning 7

Feather the filter

Lightroom has a default feather setting of 50 which is quite a lot, too much for this image, so adjust the feather down. Be careful not to go too far as a harsh edge will become visible.

LR radial filter panel changfeather 8

The right-hand edge of the image still has a bright spot of foliage. So add another long Radial Filter and bring the exposure down a little bit.

LR radial filter panel darken hedge 9

There are no set numbers of how much to edit with this tool, you will need to experiment and go with what feels right. The good news is these are all non-destructive edits (the image is not permanently changed) so you can remove them all and start again, or change the settings on one or all of them, as many times as necessary.

Tone control on select areas

There is a bright spot of foliage on the left-hand side, just sticking out from behind the tree trunk. Create a new Radial Filter just big enough to cover the right area and shape with the control handles.

Invert the mask and bring the exposure down a bit. This time, click and drag on the bottom control handle and drag to the right until the ellipse tilts back to the left a bit and aligns better with the line of the tree trunk.

LR radial filter panel darken foliage tilt 10

Add focus on the subject

Now it is time to add some brightness and focus to the tiger cubs. Add a new Radial Filter to cover the area on the bright side of the head and paws and bring up the exposure a tiny amount. That is where the sunlight is naturally falling, so that is the area that needs brightening. Be careful to add light effects only to the lighter parts of the image as it can look a bit odd if a darker area is unnaturally bright.

LR radial filter panel add brightness 11

Now is a good time to mention that you may have to make LOTS of little adjustments to cover areas with different shapes. It is fiddly and takes time, but you will get a better result if you take the time to edit that way.

Adding some clarity to the side of the face and paw in the sunlight is the next step. Create a new Radial Filter with size, shape and tilt to match the area and invert the mask. Add some clarity, and because this image is not quite sharp, just a little bit of sharpness. Be careful with these tools, as it is easy to go too far and get obvious effects.

LR radial filter panel clarity sharpness 12

The vignettes have darkened the overall area in the middle a bit much so let’s add some brightness. Add a Radial Filter to cover the area around the cubs and tweak the exposure up a small amount. Also, increase clarity and saturation a very small amount.

LR radial filter panel brightness circle 13

Before and after comparison

Let’s stop there and compare the BEFORE image with global adjustments only to the AFTER image with several specific applications of the Radial Filter.

LR radial filter panel finished with dots 14

First, we have the finished image with all the dots for the different individual Radial Filters added.

LR radial filter panel before comparison 15

Then we have the BEFORE image.

Finally the AFTER image with both global, and local edits applied with the Radial Filter.

LR radial filter panel after no pins comparison 16

CONCLUSION

As you can see, careful use of the Radial Filter can add many small subtle changes to an image, and bring the focus to the subject. It can also be used to further enhance the subject and give it extra punch and vibrancy.

The Radial Filter is a very capable tool that can take a bit of time to get used to. The limited shape has some challenges to learn how to work with it to get the best effect but it gives you a lot of power and control too.

Do you have any other tips for using the Radial Filter? Please share in the comments below.

Read more from our Post Production category

Stacey Hill invested in her first DSLR back in 2007. While having many adventures out and about in the South Island of New Zealand, Stacey took to blogging about her experiences learning photography. Recently she discovered the fun and creative possibilities to be had with Photoshop. She can be found having an opinion all over the place here.

  • Nikica

    Didn’t even crossed my mind about using it as vignette, and I always had problem with typical vignette in LR since you can not move focus point. Thanks for this insight.

  • Stacey

    Yes the customised and more specifically “off center” vignette is one of the things I use this tool for the most 🙂 Glad it was helpful

  • Nicci Carrera

    Great article. I use it a lot but you have helped me see the value of subtlety, making sure to work with the natural light. I like the detail you explained with the vignetting first, carefully taking down bright spots outside the subject, then how you worked with the subject with multiple filters. The end result is natural but much better attention drawn to the animals’ heads.

  • Stacey

    Thanks Nicci, I was worried there might be too much detail! Its hard to write a tutorial like this without including a certain amount of explanation, so I am pleased you found it worth the time to read. Yes the tiny little subtle touches really do add up to make an overall difference that has a natural feel to it. Happy Editing!

  • David Jackson

    INVERT MASK!!!!! What a great tip, The radial filter has been driving me nuts because it was changing everything in the image except for the part that I actually wanted to edit! Thanks Stacey!

  • Stacey

    It’s a particularly critical function, glad to be of assistance

  • Stacey

    Hey David, having the coloured overlay turned on helps you see where Lightroom is applying the edit. I use it all the time with overlay turned on as the amount of feathering often needs to be adjusted, and I was getting much heavier vignettes applied than I wanted.

  • MickMJM

    Brilliant tutorial. Thank you. Always something new to learn…Regards. Mick

  • Stacey

    Pleased it was worth the investment in time to read, thanks Mick

  • Meredith

    Thank you very much Stacey. I understand the Radial Filter tool now. That was such a good explanation and showing the step by step adjustments to the photo just made it so easy to follow and remember. I will have a look at some of my photos and see if I can improve them with the Radial Filter.

  • Stacey

    Very pleased to hear this made sense to you in a way that you could use it yourself. Good luck with your editing 🙂

  • jtmcg

    Nice article but i would like to point out one thing. You stated “The Radial Filter only offers a roundish ellipse shape…” Actually if you hold down the shift key while dragging the mouse, the shape will be a circle. You may not need this feature very often, if ever, but it can come in handy if you’re editing a shape that is circular.

  • Stacey

    From my POV a circle can be included in the shapes described as a “roundish ellipse”. Things like a square or rectangle with straight lines and pointy corners does *not* fit into that description. Make sense?

  • jtmcg

    Well my point was that if you want a true circle there’s a quick way to do it without having to tweak a roundish ellipse.

  • Stacey

    Its a useful tip, thanks for sharing 🙂

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