The Lightroom Graduated filter is an insanely versatile editing tool; you can use it to enhance skies, add beautiful vignettes, create sun flare effects, and so much more.
But how does the filter work? And how can you use it to achieve the best possible images?
In this article, I share everything you need to know about the Graduated filter. I offer step-by-step instructions for getting started, I explain when the filter is actually useful, and I reveal plenty of tips and tricks for improved results.
So if you’re ready to become a Graduated filter expert, then let’s dive right in!
What is the Lightroom Graduated filter (Linear Gradient)?
The Lightroom Graduated filter, also referred to as the Lightroom Linear Gradient, is an editing tool designed for targeted adjustments:
Apply a Graduated filter, and Lightroom creates a gradated edit across your image. The effect starts out at 0, then slowly works its way toward 100 as it moves across the image. You have complete control over the location of the gradient, where it starts, and where it ends.
Note that the Graduated filter doesn’t just have one effect; instead, it’s used to apply many different types of edits. For instance, you can use it to boost the exposure, adjust tones, add saturation, add a color, boost sharpness, and more – all in that signature gradient pattern.
When should you use the Graduated filter?
The Graduated filter comes in handy any time you need to adjust part of a scene without affecting the whole composition. It works especially well when you can see a strong line delineating the area in need of editing (e.g., a horizon).
Therefore, Graduated filters are commonly used by landscape photographers to adjust the sky without altering the rest of the scene. They stretch a filter across the sky until it touches the horizon line, then they make various changes (e.g., darkening the exposure, increasing the contrast, adjusting the saturation).
Graduated filters are also a favorite of portrait photographers. By adding a graduated filter across the top or side of the frame, portrait shooters can create beautiful haze and/or accentuate sunlight, which enhances the atmosphere of the photo.
But as I discuss throughout this article, you shouldn’t restrict yourself to specific uses for the Linear Gradient. Instead, learn its ins and outs – and then experiment! Try it in different scenarios and see what you can create.
How to use the Graduated filter: step by step
In this section, I offer clear, step-by-step instructions for working with the Linear Gradient.
Step 1: Create a Graduated filter mask
To begin, make sure you’re in the Lightroom Develop module, then click the Masking icon.
Choose Linear Gradient, then hover your cursor over the image. The cursor should appear as crosshairs.
Step 2: Position the filter in your image
Click on your image, then drag to apply the filter mask. You’ll see a series of lines appear; note that the red overlay indicates the areas affected by the adjustment.
You can click on the center handle to drag the filter around the scene. To rotate the filter, drag the outer handle; to increase or decrease the feathering effect (i.e., the strength of the gradation), drag the filter edges.
Step 3: Refine the filter
Once your filter is in position, you can continue on to Step 4 – or you can make adjustments to the filter shape.
The Add and Subtract options in the Masks panel allow you to expand or shrink the Graduated filter. You can also intersect the filter with another filter (such as a Radial Gradient or Brush filter) to narrow down the filter area.
For instance, if you wanted to edit the sky while avoiding some trees in the foreground, you could create the initial Graduated filter. Then you could click Subtract, choose Brush, and paint over the tree branches to remove the mask.
Step 4: Apply your edits
At this point, all that’s left is to add the editing effects. In the Linear Gradient panel, you can adjust various sliders, including:
You can also add color to the scene using the Color option, and you can shift colors via the Hue adjustment.
If you decide the results are a little too strong, you can reduce the filter strength by reducing the Amount slider. (Alternatively, you can increase the filter strength by pushing the Amount slider past 100.)
Note that you can always reset the editing sliders by double-clicking “Effect” at the top of the Linear Gradient panel.
And if necessary, you can create additional Graduated filters by repeating the process detailed above.
Tips and tricks for using the Graduated filter
Now that you’re familiar with the basics, it’s time to delve into more advanced Graduated filter methods and strategies.
1. Apply multiple Graduated filters to darken the sky
The most common reason for creating a Graduated filter is to darken the sky. It’s simple to do; you drag your filter across the sky (all the way down to the horizon line), feather it as required, then drop the exposure.
The edit tends to add some much-needed contrast, detail, and even drama to the sky. (Bear in mind, however, that the Graduated filter can’t save a completely blown-out sky. It can only work with detail that already exists!)
Here’s a scene without a Graduated filter:
And here’s the same scene after a filter has been applied:
Nice, right? I only adjusted the exposure, yet the filter added a subtle sense of drama.
But while a single Graduated filter can create a nice effect, you can often get better results by adding a second, smaller filter just above the first. The idea here is to create a sort of vignette over the sky that pushes the viewer’s eye toward the center of the image.
So once you’ve added your Graduated filter to the sky, create a second, less-feathered gradient, then drop the Exposure slider once again.
When done carefully, the results can be breathtaking!
2. Use the Graduated filter to improve your foregrounds
I’ve talked a lot about the Graduated filter’s power to selectively adjust skies. But you can also use a filter to selectively adjust the foreground, which can look equally amazing.
Simply drag a Graduated filter over the image foreground, then start moving sliders. Boosting the exposure can add detail and help create a better balance between the land and the sky. You might also add contrast and/or clarity, both of which can help the foreground (and the image as a whole) feel more three-dimensional.
And if you want to push the viewer’s eye into the scene, try adding a second, smaller Graduated filter below the first, then use it to reduce the exposure in the immediate foreground area.
3. Create a vignette with several Graduated filters
Most photographers use Lightroom’s Effects panel or a Radial filter to create a vignette. But you can also get great results using a Graduated filter, especially if your subject features well-defined, geometric edges.
Here’s how it works:
Drag a (heavily feathered) Graduated filter across the side of the image, then use it to subtly drop the exposure.
Duplicate the filter, then position the second filter on the other side of your subject.
Continue with the duplication and positioning process until your Graduated filters cover every edge of the subject. You want to direct the viewer’s attention away from the outer areas and toward the focal point.
This next diagram shows roughly where I placed three Graduated filters while editing an image of a metal figure:
Here, you can see the results:
Sure, I could’ve used a Radial filter, but by working with several Graduated filters instead, I was able to better customize the effect.
5. Use a Graduated filter to add a color wash that mimics sunlight
This trick works well on pretty much any shot taken in early morning or late-afternoon sunlight. The goal is to mimic hazy, atmospheric light that bleeds into the scene.
Start by creating a Graduated filter, and carefully position it in the area closest to the light source. Open the Color option, then pick a color that closely matches the color of the light. (For a more romantic effect, go with a nice yellow, orange, or red.)
Then boost the Exposure slider, and watch as your scene is transformed:
For a bit of extra atmosphere, try reducing the Dehaze slider. And be careful not to overdo the effect. Drop the Effect slider as needed, and make sure your color choice isn’t too outlandish. You want to enhance the scene, not make it feel unnatural.
The Lightroom Graduated filter: final words
Now that you’ve finished the article, you know how to use the Graduated filter – and you’re ready to create some stunning editing effects!
So pick your favorite image, head on over to Lightroom, and test out those Graduated filter skills. See what you can produce. The more you practice, the better you’ll become.
Now over to you:
How will you use the Graduated filter? Which of these tips will you follow first? Share your thoughts in the comments below!