Here’s How To Use The Power Of Lightroom’s Graduated Filter


One of the most important pieces of kit a landscape photographer will carry is a set of graduated ND – neutral density filters. Usually, these are part of a square filter system and are rated in a similar to NDs cutting out between 1 and 3 stops at their densest part through to transparent at the other side of the filter. 

The purpose of a graduated neutral density filter is to overcome the dynamic range limitations of our cameras. Typically, a landscape photographer would use a graduated ND to hold back a bright sky when exposing for the foreground, but they can be used in virtually any situation when the tonal range of the scene exceeds the dynamic range of the camera. 

But what if you are not a well-equipped landscape photographer but are confronted with a scene where you need to reduce the tonal range? In the absence of graduated filters, there are a couple of options, both requiring post-production.

The first is the shoot an HDR image and merge the shots together, the second option is Lightroom’s Graduated Filter tool. Today we are going to have a little run through on just how powerful this tool can be. 

Introducing The Graduated Filter Tool

The graduated filter is found in Lightroom’s Develop module. It sits with other filter tools immediately below the histogram on the right-hand side of the screen and is the third tool from the right. Clicking on it will highlight the tool.

With the tool selected, we can now click and drag our mouse over the image to apply the filter. The further the distance we drag the mouse the wider the gradient of the filter will be. On screen, you will see three lines making up the filter. 

The centre line has a largish circle in the centre. If we click and drag the mouse cursor on that circle, we can move the graduated filter around the image. If you hover the mouse just to the side of the circle, you will see the cursor change to a curved double-ended arrow. Now if you drag the mouse, you can rotate the filter.

If you click and drag on the two outer lines, you can increase or decrease the size of the gradient. Anything above the upper line will have the full effect of any corrections you make. Anything between the upper and lower lines will graduate and below the lower line, no effect will be applied.

You will notice that when you apply the Graduated Filter, a new toolbox opens in place of the basic tools. Most of the adjustments you see are very similar to basic tools with a few important additions. To demonstrate the power of the graduated tool, let’s work on an image.

Improving The Sky With The Graduated Filter

For this demonstration, we are using a pleasant, if not spectacular, image of the Frankfurt skyline. The sky is a little washed out but has the potential to look much better. In the shot, I have made a few adjustments already to get the image looking good, allowing us to concentrate on the sky.

The sky has potential but needs a little work

The first thing we do is click and drag the Graduated Filter from the top of the image down to just above the river. Initially, we do not see any effect to this as we do not have any adjustments dialed in. However, by going to the bottom of the screen and selecting Show Selected Mask Overlay, we can project a red mask onto our graduated filter. 

Adding the graduated filter
Turning on Mask Overlay

Using this red mask we can now drag the lower line of the filter up a little so that it aligns with the lower buildings in the scene. The filter will graduate from there up to the sky at the top. You will also see a major issue, the graduated filter is covering the taller buildings and tree to the right. More on that later. 

We can now make some adjustments. I start with the exposure, reducing it to make the sky darker. From there I can see that I need to drag the bottom of the Graduated Filter down further to affect the bright areas between the skyscrapers. 

Using a combination of the exposure and tone controls, I get the sky looking better. I then added a little dehaze to punch it out. Finally, I increase the colour temperature to give a darker feel to the image

Recovering The Buildings And Trees

Having reduced the sky, we can now clearly see the main problem with the graduated filter tool. It has reduced the exposure on everything including the skyscrapers and tree. There are, however, two ways we can reduce that problem.

  • Mask Brush
  • Range Mask
You can see the tree and skyscrapers are also affected by the filter

Using The Mask Brush

Let’s start with the Mask Brush. Found at the top of the adjustments window in the graduated filter, clicking on this will reveal some extra sliders at the bottom of the window. Selecting Erase will remove the effect of the graduated filter in the areas we brush over. We can set a suitable brush size, feather, and flow. Selecting Auto Mask is useful for areas where the image is well defined.

We now click and drag the mouse over the skyscrapers and the graduated filter is removed from them, restoring their original density. The brush mask does not work quite as well on the trees so for that we can use Range Mask.

Mask Brush has returned detail to the skyscrapers

Using Range Mask

Click on Edit to get out of the Mask Brush and now go back the bottom of the adjustment panel and select Range Mask – Luminance. Check Show Luminance Mask.

By sliding the left side of the range slider to the right, we can reduce the effect of the graduated filter in the shadow areas only. We can use a combination of range and smoothness to bring back just the tree area. 

Once done, uncheck the Show Luminance Mask to check the effect. If happy, click done at the bottom to finish your graduated filter edit. 

Luminance set on the Range Mask

The Graduated Filter, in some ways, is more useful than using a physical filter on the camera. Whilst nothing can compensate for the quality of a real filter, in Lightroom’s version, the Mask Brush and Range Mask tools allow us to eliminate the graduation effect where we don’t want it. Something that is not easy with a physical filter. 

The final image. By Jason Row Photography

One last thing to note is that when you are working in the Graduated Filter, the histogram at the top shows only the data from the area covered by that filter. This means you can keep your edits within tolerances and maintain image quality. Combined with its many other attributes, this makes the Graduated Filter a tool well worth getting to know. 

If you have any comments or would like to see more Lightroom tutorials, then please leave us a comment in the section below

Further Reading:

If you found this tutorial helpful, here are other Lightroom “how-tos” on Light Stalking.

Further Learning:

Of course, shooting in RAW and getting your image right in camera is what you begin with, but after that, it's time you hone your post-production skills. For that, it's worth looking at the guide, Fundamental Editing.

Getting a strong, practical understanding of post-processing is absolutely crucial to your success as a photographer. In Fundamental Editing you will:

  • Learn how to accurately set your saturation levels without overdoing it.
  • Gain the knowledge to fix Chromatic Aberration (that you may not even know existed in your images).
  • Discover why the “Exposure” slider should not be your go-to adjustment!
  • Learn how to improve your composition with a few fundamental edits-
  • Train yourself to accurately judge and correct color problems
  • Recognize what the different types of digital noise are… and how to specifically fix each one.
  • Discover why you MUST control the contrast in your images.
  • Learn how to master that mysterious setting called “Clarity”.
  • And much more…


About Author

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *