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Week 3 of 4: Using Graduated Filters in Lightroom

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Until recently, I used Photoshop for everything. I was one of many who shared the common misconception that, in Lightroom, I could only edit the photo as a whole, whereas with Photoshop, I could more accurately control sections of the photo, without the other sections being affected. Not true, I came to find out! One of the first things I learned about Lightroom, through a friend who explained the process to me, was how to use the Graduated Filter tool. At that point, I realized I could use various Graduated Filters to edit select portions of my photo.

In this tutorial, we are going to look at how Graduated Filters can adjust exposure, contrast and clarity in various sections of your photo.

This is my photo, straight out of the camera. We are going to use two Graduated Filters to make the sky stand out, while giving the sand more color and contrast.

Once you have imported your photo, go to your Develop module. Underneath the Histogram, you will see the Graduated Filter tool, as pictured above.

Start at the top of your photo, and drag the Graduated Filter about 1/3 to 1/2 of the way down your photo. The object of Graduated Filters is to make them blend as seamlessly as possible, so experiment with different angles and lengths. I drew mine on a diagonal, in order to highlight the detail in the clouds at the top right of the frame.

As you can see, I have my Graduated Filter set to Burn, which darkens the exposure. I also customized my settings by reducing the exposure even more, while upping the saturation and clarity to bring out the blue of the sky.

Now, we are going to make some adjustments to the lower-half of the photo. Just beneath the panel where you selected Graduated Filter, you will see the words New and Edit, on the far right. Click on New, as this will create a new Graduated Filter and will not alter your previous filter.

On this filter, I simply made a horizontal line to adjust the exposure on the sand, water, and parts of the driftwood.

Once again, my filter is set to Darken, and I mainly focused on increasing the saturation (to add color to the sand) and the clarity (adding definition to the sand, without over-sharpening) with a slight tweak to exposure.

If you want, you can return to each of your filters by clicking on the circle, and adjust their placement. I felt like the bottom filter was a bit too abrupt, so I drug it upwards a little to even out the contrast.

Finally, you can always add your favorite presets once you have applied your Graduated Filter. For this photo, I wanted more contrast throughout the photo, so I applied the Add Darken and Define preset, from the Pretty Presets Hollywood Color set.

Again, always experiment with different styles of Graduated Filters, and adjust the sliders until you are happy with the look of your photo. Every photo is different, so you will have to make slight adjustments, depending on the photo. Have fun!


Anna Gay is a portrait photographer based in Athens, GA and the author of the dPS ebook The Art of Self-Portraiture. She also designs actions and textures for Photoshop. When she is not shooting or writing, she enjoys spending time with her husband, and their two cats, Elphie and Fat Cat.

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