Lightroom’s Graduated Filter tool is great. It’s designed to replicate the effect of real-life graduated filters in landscape photography, reducing the brightness of skies so that there’s less of a contrast difference with the landscape itself. It’s not much good if the sky is so overexposed that there’s no detail left, but if you shoot RAW files it’s usually possible to claw back enough sky detail. And that’s the great thing about Lightroom – you’re working directly with RAW files, so you can pull back a bright sky using the RAW data, without any intermediate conversion process. This means you don’t have to compromise on your exposure/tonal adjustments for the rest of the image.
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I’m going to use the Graduated Filter tool on this rather uninspiring beach scene… but not just once. It might be designed for skies, but you can use it for other things too.
While I’m at it, I’ll change the aspect ratio – this is the perfect candidate for a square crop, like old-fashioned 6cm x 6cm medium format cameras, and it’s a chance to demonstrate Lightroom 5’s new Advanced Healing Brush tool.
01 Creating a square crop
I’ll do this first. The Crop tool is at the top of the tools panel in the Develop module, and when you select it you’ll see an Aspect drop-down menu underneath. The setting we want from this menu is ‘1 x 1’; in other words, a ratio of one unit across to one unit high (the units aren’t important – it’s the ratio that matters).
02 Adding contrast
Like most digital images, this one could do with a boost to the Contrast value and the Saturation. It’s best to do this now because it will affect the appearance of the Graduated Filter adjustments coming next.
03 Adding a Graduated Filter
Graduated Filters are really straightforward to apply. First, select the tool (it’s three buttons to the right of the Crop tool), then click on a spot in the sky and drag downwards. You move the filter once you’ve created it by dragging its pin (circled here). You’ll see there are also three horizontal lines – you can move the mouse pointer over the central line and drag to rotate the gradient effect – that’s what I’ve done here to make the gradient follow the angle of the vegetation. You drag on the outer lines to adjust the ‘feather’ effect, or the distance over which the graduated effect is applied. Over on the right, you’ll see a set of controls for the Graduated Filter you’ve created – I’ve reduced the Exposure and increased the Clarity and Saturation values. This reveals a lot more colour and detail in the sky.
04 The new Advanced Healing Brush
I’ve spotted something else. There’s a broken bit of branch at the bottom of the picture which is distracting. To fix that, I can select the Spot Removal tool (just to the right of the Crop tool) and then ‘paint’ over the offending branch. In previous versions of Lightroom you could only create circular correction ‘spots’, but in Lightroom 5 you can paint irregular shapes. Lightroom automatically finds a nearby area to use for the repair and the job is done – the distracting branch disappears.
05 Burning in the base
I think this picture also needs a slightly heavier weight of tone at the bottom to give in a kind of ‘base’ and to frame the broken-down fencing more effectively. For this, I’ve created another Graduated Filter, this time dragging upwards from the base of the picture. I’ve also angled it slightly to make the darkening effect look a little more random and less artificial…
06 Combining Graduated Filters
…And I’ve added another Graduated Filter to the bottom right corner to balance it, and create a kind of ‘V’ shape. Graduated Filters have a cumulative effect, so if you’re going to use more than one and they overlap, you may need to experiment with the settings.
07 The finished picture
This is much better. The square crop suits the subject really well, the three Graduated Filters have given the picture more ‘depth’ and they’ve subtly improved the composition at the same time. I really like Lightroom’s Graduated Filters – if only Photoshop had them!
(Actually, I suppose it does – you can apply them in Adobe Camera Raw as you open a RAW image, and you can apply them as a filter effect in Photoshop CC. But it’s more of a one-way process and not quite the same as Lightroom’s always-available adjustments.)
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