Adobe Lightroom’s local adjustment tools are some of its best features. The Graduated Filter is one of the tools that I use more than anything else when editing landscape photography. Very few of my images make it out of Lightroom without having applied these Lightroom filters in some way.
The Graduated Filter is basically a Lightroom filters tool that allows you to apply the effect of a physical graduated neutral density (ND grad) filter digitally in Lightroom. ND grad filters transition from clear to dark, allowing you to darken part of the image by placing the filter in front of your lens when taking photos.
Being able to apply this effect in post-production gives you a lot more flexibility in the way the graduated filter affects your image.
There is more to the Graduated Filter tool in Lightroom than just darkening bright skies, though. Its uses are only limited by your imagination.
I’m going to give you some Graduated Filter tips to speed up your workflow and show you how you can use the tool more creatively to make your landscape photos look amazing.
1. Keep It Straight
In the Develop module (D), select the Graduated Filter tool (M). Place the cursor at the point of the image that you want the effect of the filter to begin, then drag it in any direction. The transition will begin where you start dragging and stop where you release it.
If you want the filter to be parallel to the edge of the image, try holding down the shift key while you drag the filter across the image. Holding down shift and dragging up or down will keep the filter horizontal, dragging from the left or right will keep it vertical.
2. Edit Your Filter
Once you’ve created a Graduated Filter, it’s not permanent. You can still drag to where you want it. You can rotate it by moving the mouse over one of the lines on either side of the button until you see the mouse change into a rotate icon, allowing you to change the angle of the filter. Y
ou can even change how “hard” or “soft” the transition is by clicking and dragging one of the parallel lines that represent where the grad begins and ends.
3. View the Filter Mask
You can see the parts of the image that are affected by the filter by showing the mask (O). While the filter is still active, pressing the “O” key will show the mask.
Shift-O will change the colour of the mask, which can be helpful if the mask colour is difficult to see against the colours of the image.
4. Erase Unwanted Elements
Many times when you drag a graduated filter across an image you will include elements that you don’t want to apply the effect to. This is one of the advantages of using the Graduated Filter tool in Lightroom rather than a physical ND grad filter, because you can erase the filter from the places you don’t want it.
With the filter active, click “Brush” at the top of the panel (or Shift-T), then go to the bottom of the panel and click “Erase”. You can adjust the brush size, etc. Then, with the mask visible again (O), brush away the parts of the filter where you don’t want it applied.
You can also add the effect of the filter to other parts of the image the same way by following the same steps, but instead of “Erase”, click on “A” or “B”.
After that, brush the effect into the parts of the image that same way as if you were erasing some of the effect.
5. Add Colour Effects
You’ll notice that the Graduated Filter panel has a lot of options. The control sliders can be used in many creative ways. One of my favourites is to add or change the colours in my images.
Sometimes it’s something as simple as making a white balance adjustment that I only want to apply to part of the photo, but I’ll often use it to add a colour effect.
With the filter active, click on the colour box at the bottom of the graduated filter panel, then pick a colour from the chart. Move it around the box until you find a colour that you like and works with the other colours in the image.
When you’re happy with the hue, you can adjust the strength of the colour by adjusting the saturation slider below the colour chart.
It will take some experimentation, but less is usually more with these sort of creative effects, so don’t go overboard.
6. Add a Blur Effect
Using the sharpness slider, you can blur part of the image. You might want to do this to create a shallow depth-of-field (DOF) effect. It can also be a great way to create a tilt-shift effect in post-production if you don’t have an expensive specialist lens.
If you move the sharpness slider to the left, it will begin to blur the active filter. Move it around until you get the right amount of blur.
7. Duplicate Your Filter
Sometimes you’ll create a graduated filter effect that you want to apply to another part of the image. Instead of painting the effect in like I mentioned in tip # you can duplicate the filter and move it to any position you like.
With the filter selected, right-click on the little round button that you used to drag the filter across the photo, and click duplicate. Now grab the button and move it to wherever you’d like as in tip #2.
Duplicating a graduated filter can be helpful in many situations. If you want to use a shallow DOF effect like in tip #6 , you can create the filter for the top part of the image behind your subject, then duplicate it and move it to the bottom of the image in front of your subject.
It’s also a great way to strengthen the effect you’ve created by duplicating the graduated filter and leaving it over the original to double the strength of the filter. You could even give one filter a soft-grad and give the duplicate a hard-grad effect.
You’re only limited by your imagination.
You’ll be surprised by the variety of ways you can use Lightroom filters to make your photos shine.
The graduated filter in Lightroom is an incredibly powerful tool that can allow you to make many creative edits to your photos. I encourage you to dig a little deeper and have some fun experimenting with it.
If you have any tips to add that I haven’t mentioned, please add them in the comments below. I love to learn new ways to use my favourite post-processing tools!
Check out our article of best free Lightroom presets for more great tips!