How to use Graduated Filters in Lightroom

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Lightroom graduated filters

Lightroom’s Graduated filter tool is named after a type of filter used by landscape photographers to darken the skies in their photos. Neutral density graduated filters come in different sizes, strengths and even colours, as anyone who remembers the once popular tobacco coloured graduated filter made by Cokin knows.

The virtual graduate filter in Lightroom, while named after the physical type of graduated filter mentioned earlier, is not really a replacement. If you don’t record detail in the sky in your landscape photos to start with, then you can’t fix it in Lightroom. You can’t bring back detail that wasn’t recorded in the first place.

In other words, Lightroom’s graduated filter isn’t a fix. It’s a tool to make your images look better in post-processing – it doesn’t take the place of getting the photo correct in-camera. But, assuming that you did the work in the field and obtained a correctly exposed image, there are ways you can use the graduated filter to enhance your photos. I’m not just talking about landscapes – the best way to think of the graduated filter is as a tool for making local adjustments. It can be used with just about any type of photo.

But before we look at how to use Graduated filters, let’s look at why. Why is always a more difficult question, but once you understand why the how becomes much easier.

Graduated filters and backgrounds

For me, the primary purpose of Lightroom’s Graduated filter is for making backgrounds darker. Yes, you can use the Adjustment brush for this, but it takes longer and more skill is required to get a good result. The Adjustment brush is best reserved for burning in or dodging small and irregularly shaped areas.

You can also the use the Radial filter, and I will talk more about that in another article.

Here’s an example:

Lightroom graduated filters

I deliberately selected a black and white portrait because it shows why I like to make backgrounds darker: it increases the tonal contrast in the image. It works for colour photos too, but is easiest to see in monochrome.

This diagram shows roughly where I placed the Graduated filters:

Lightroom graduated filters

The two at the sides did most of the work, making the background darker. The one at the bottom darkened the base of the image a little, helping to keep the viewer’s eye from straying to the edge of the image.

Now you understand why you might want to use Graduated filters, let’s look at how you do it.

How to Use Graduated Filters

Using Graduated Filters is easy. The trick is to stop thinking of them as being an alternative to the physical type of neutral density graduated filter, and treat them as a way of making a local adjustment.

1. Start by clicking on the Graduated filter icon underneath the Histogram (below). The Graduated filter panel opens up beneath:

Lightroom graduated filters

2. Hold the left mouse button down and drag the mouse across the image to place the Graduated filter.

Lightroom graduated filters

Note that if you have used either the Graduated filter, Radial filter or Adjustment brush before, then Lightroom automatically selects the last used preset. Set the preset to Exposure to reset all sliders back to their zeroed positions:

Lightroom graduated filters

3. Set Exposure to -4.0. This helps you see the area affected by the Graduated filter. The effect is strongest at the edge of the image, weaker at the centre line and fades away the other side of that. Move the Graduated filter around until it covers the area that you want. In this example, I moved the Graduated filter left so it didn’t cover the model’s hair:

Lightroom graduated filters

4. Reset Exposure to zero and move the Exposure slider left to make the background darker. The best way to judge the result is by eye:

Lightroom graduated filters

5. Repeat in other parts of the image if required.

The other sliders and presets

Exposure isn’t the only setting you can adjust with the Graduated filter, although it is probably the most useful one. You can also adjust white balance, contrast, clarity and sharpness, amongst others:

Lightroom graduated filters

You can also select from the same list of presets available in the Adjustment Brush and Radial filter tools. You won’t need many of them when using Graduated filters, but the choice is there if you can find a use for them:

Lightroom graduated filters

Adding colour to Graduated filters

While I’m not suggesting you return to the bad old days of tobacco graduated filters, there are times when you may find it useful to add colour to a Graduated filter.

To do so, click on the white rectangle with a cross inside at the bottom of the Graduated filter panel (the cross indicates that the Graduated filter is colour free):

Lightroom graduated filters

Lightroom’s Colour Picker appears when you click the white rectangle. Select a colour by dragging the white square around the spectrum. The currently selected colour is shown in the right-hand swatch. Use the Saturation slider to adjust saturation without affecting hue:

Lightroom graduated filters

There are two uses that I can think of for adding colour to a Graduated filter (you may be able to come up with more):

1. For adding a sunset effect. Here I pushed the Exposure slider right to increase the brightness of the background and added an orange colour using the colour picker. The effect looks natural because the sun was setting behind the model:

Lightroom graduated filters

2. For enhancing the colour of skies. I pushed the Exposure slider left to darken the sky and added a dark blue colour using the colour picker. The aim was to make the sky darker and a deeper blue to emphasise the colour contrast between the burning steel wool (orange) and the night sky (blue):

Lightroom graduated filters

Further reading

These articles will help you use Lightroom better:

Imitating Instagram Filters in Lightroom

Lightroom or Photoshop?

Create Your Own Photography Website with Koken

What’s New in Lightroom 5

The Mastering Lightroom ebooks

Mastering Lightroom ebooksMastering Lightroom: Book One – The Library Module  shows you how to use the Library Module to import, organise and search your images. This important task lays the foundation for the work you do in Lightroom. Mastering the Library module and learning to use Collections to organise and sort your photos ultimately saves you time, which you can spend either in the Develop module or with your camera.

Mastering Lightroom: Book Two – The Develop Module explains how to use the tools in the Develop module to get the most out of your Raw files. It builds on the lessons learnt in Mastering Lightroom: Book One – The Library Module and shows you how to use Lightroom’s powerful features to creatively process your images. You’ll be amazed how easy Lightroom is to use once you’re familiar with it and just how much it speeds up your workflow compared to other applications.

Note: Both ebooks are written for Lightroom 4 and Lightroom 5.

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2 Responses to “How to use Graduated Filters in Lightroom”

  1. Frank Schweitzer says:

    Great Lightroom ebooks.
    What a difference they made for me – so much easier than photoshop for an amateur
    Congrats and thanks

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