Photoshop CS3 - Adding a Neutral Density Gradient Filter

Photoshop CS3 – Adding a Neutral Density Gradient Filter

In this post Laura Charon from Beyond Megapixels shares a process for adding a Neutral Density Gradient Filter to an image using PHotoshop CS3.

A key piece of equipment in a photographer’s gear is a neutral density gradient filter. This is a filter that affixes to the camera’s lens. One half of the filter is darkened and one half is light or clear. The purpose is to reduce the brightness difference between the top of the photo and the bottom. It’s typically used in landscape photography where the sky’s brightness needs to be compensated.

Even if you don’t own a physical filter, it’s easy to adjust your photos in Photoshop CS3 (the technique is common to other versions of Photoshop as well) to achieve the same effect.


This is a photo that I took in Yellowstone National Park. It’s exposed for the ground, which left the sky too bright.

In order to adjust this photo, I first opened it in Photoshop CS3. In order to set the Foreground color to black (mimicking the gray neutral gradient filter on a camera lens), I pressed the letter “D” on my keyboard (shortcut tip!). Then from the “Layers” panel, I chose “Gradient” from the Create New Adjustment Layer menu.


You’ll notice that the default setting is to apply the darkened gradient to the bottom of the picture and the light to the top of the picture. Since what we want is exactly opposite of that, I simply clicked the “Reverse” checkbox to flip the gradient.


Now we need to blend the layer to suit the photograph. This is simply accomplished by going to the Layers panel and changing the setting of the adjustment layer from “Normal” to “Overlay”.


Now, since the gradient is applied across the entire photo, we need to tell Photoshop where to differentiate between the sky and the ground. In the Layers panel, double-click on the thumbnail image of the adjustment layer. Then click once on the Gradient drop down (black and white checkers that graduate from white on the left to black on the right) to bring up the Gradient Editor.


The gradient map on the bottom of the dialogue box has a sliding opacity setting that can be dragged left toward the darker part of the slider, or right toward the lighter part of the slider. Since we want the sky darkened but not the ground, I dragged the slider toward the left, which moves the bottom of the gradient applied to the photo upwards, toward the horizon.


Click OK, and then OK again, flatten the image, and you’re done! Once again, here is the before, and then the finished photo (which I sharpened it and added my signature to, as well):



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Some Older Comments

  • Jen M. November 14, 2009 06:43 am

    While I appreciate all of the shortcuts that others have offered, I also appreciate "overcomplicated" posts like this one, as I am a nearly complete noob to Photoshop, beyond the basic functions. (I use GIMP, but it is very similar.)

    Great post!

    Jennifer Moore
    JenniferLynn Productions, LLC

  • Andrew November 4, 2009 03:55 pm

    Hey man—

    Awesome post. Very informative, and solved a problem I've been having. I'll definitely be returning to this blog.

  • Ernesto October 16, 2009 04:04 pm

    im agree, less effort with LR, in case you dont have it, i would try to copy the layer, then change the levels so the sky gets more intense and then i would make a gradient mask and play with the curves on the layermask and/or the opacity :D

  • Christoph October 10, 2009 12:02 pm

    If your goal is to have a nicer sky, just selecting the sky and adjusting levels helps as well. Just be careful to avoid adjusting parts of the ground or the subject :)

    In this shot from Africa I tried to get a little bit of color into the formerly dull sky:

  • Ham Hock October 10, 2009 05:41 am

    I often use the exposure gradient feature in Adobe Lightroom. It works wonders. Selective exposure in post-processing can make photos that were previously bland become excellent.

    This feature, and also adjusting the exposure of specific areas with the paintbrush tool in Lightroom are two features that I could never live without.

  • Danferno October 10, 2009 02:46 am

    Or spare yourself all the effort by shooting in raw and using the Graduated Filter (what's in a name, huh?) tool in Adobe RAW 5.4.

  • Eric October 10, 2009 02:14 am

    This is a poor way of achieving a GND effect. All this is really doing in altering the contrast of the sky since you have the layer set to overlay.

    It would be much more effective to:
    > copy the layer
    > lower the exposure
    > mask off that layer in a similar fashion to above

    Then you actually have different exposures in the same way that an actual graduated neutral density filter would act.