Digital Graduated Filters

Back in the age of film, I carried several graduated neutral-density filters. They were both hard to pronounce and hard to use. First, I had to decide which one to pull out: one, two or three stops? Hard edge or soft? Then, after mounting one on the lens, I struggled to adjust it. The transition—the “graduated” part of the filter—could be almost impossible to see through the viewfinder. The light often vanished while I was still fiddling.

El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, before using the Graduated Filter tool in Lightroom

El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, after using the Graduated Filter tool in Lightroom

With my first digital camera, I realized that graduated filters were no longer necessary for me. I could re-create the same effect in Photoshop with more ease and control. And now, the latest versions of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw even have built-in graduated filter tools. With practice, you’ll find it easier to use graduated filters at your desk than in the field.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom

Adobe Camera Raw

Lightroom & Camera Raw

1: Select The Graduated Filter Tool
In Lightroom (2.0 or later), go to the Develop Module and click on the Graduated Filter tool. In Adobe Camera Raw (CS4 only), the Graduated Filter tool is at the top of the screen. Next, adjust the filter’s Exposure setting. Let’s say you’re trying to lighten a dark foreground. Start by increasing the Exposure to around +0.6.


2: Draw The Gradient
Click and drag on the image from bottom to top. Don’t drag across the whole photo. Drag only where you want the transition area—the “graduated” part of the filter—to start and end.

Camera Raw

After you release the mouse, you’ll see three lines and a center circle. To move the gradient, click on the center spot and drag it. To adjust the width, click and drag on either of the outside lines. To change the angle, move the centerline.

Drawing the gradient in Camera Raw creates two lines and two circles. To move the gradient, click between the two circles and drag. To adjust the width, select either line near the center spots and drag it up or down. To adjust the angle, click on either line away from the spots and drag it up or down.

3: Fine-Tune The Exposure
To adjust the foreground brightness, change the filter’s Exposure setting.

When you’re done, you can select New to create another graduated filter, or click on the Graduated Filter tool icon to dismiss it in Lightroom. (In Camera Raw, just choose another tool.) You can edit your “filter” at any time by selecting the Graduated Filter tool, then clicking on one of the small dots or circles from the filters you previously created.

To darken a sky, rather than lighten a foreground, decrease the Exposure setting, and click and drag from top to bottom.

Leave a Comment