Graduated neutral density filters, or GND’s, have been a mainstay in the gear bags of landscape and nature photographers for years. The filter consists a piece of glass which is stained to darken only one half. The purpose of this is to give the photographer a tool to control extreme differences in exposure latitudes. Frequently, this these types of photographic conundrums generally occur when foreground and background elements require significantly different exposures while shooting landscapes where bright skies contrast with shadowed foregrounds. With the advent of digital imaging, post processing software has advanced so to the point where we can now replicate the effects(or at least come close)of many of the tools and techniques found in conventional photography techniques. And while the general concept of GND’s bleeds over from non-digital manipulation we have a great substitute available in Adobe Lightroom.
Understanding the Graduated Filter In Adobe Lightroom
The Graduated Filter(GF) in Lightroom is a digital amalgamation of the tried and true GND filter. Sure, it allows us to correct exposure selectively but it also goes much, much further than that. We can now add virtually any edit available in Lightroom more surgically with the GF. This includes not only exposure but also, contrast, temperature, and clarity…just to name a few of the big ones. In this tutorial, you will learn just how easy it is to put the power of the GF filter to work for your images in Adobe Lightroom.
Let’s get started with a RAW file displaying a basic happening encountered by most landscape shooters when a physical GND is not available.
In order to keep the clouds and sky from being blown out and overexposed the foreground has therefore been unavoidably underexposed. To solve the problem we will use the GF in Lightroom. When using this tool, we will be able to correct or at the very least improve the exposure range between the bright sky and the underexposed foreground. Along the way we will also add in a few more useful edits that we would not have been able to utilize if we were using the traditional GND. We will venture further. Go beyond. And all that….
Applying the Graduated Filter
Not only is the GF a great tool to help you gain control of your image but it will also allow you to make use of the other editing tools in Lightroom. To start, we begin in the Develop panel and click the GF icon. You can also use the keyboard shortcut “M” for both Windows and Mac.
Right now, all we want to do is to adjust the foreground only. To do this, beginning at the bottom of the image left click and drag the cursor upward to apply the GF filter. Don’t worry, the position of the filter is completely adjustable after the fact. To see exactly where the filter will be applying the edits, either hover over the filter pin(the dot in the center of the filter) or check the box at the bottom of the window labeled “show selected mask overlay”. The color of the mask is adjustable by using the shortcut key “shift+o”.
Once the filter was applied and positioned all my edits can be applied to only the areas covered with green. Note the adjustments include changes to clarity, saturation, contrast, sharpness, as well as a host of other slider changes which demonstrate just how versatile the capabilities of the GF truly are.
Let’s switch our focus next to the sky. To do this, we apply another GF by clicking “new” in the GF panel.
Adjustments are made to the sky including exposure, highlights, and color temperature. Then click the “done” button.
And that’s it!
Well, at the very least you have a very normalized image which can be used to base your additional creative processing upon. Keep in mind we went from a completely unedited RAW file to a usable image just by applying TWO graduated filters.
Understanding how the graduated filter can help you to take control of your images is a great first step towards becoming a better shooter. Being able to harness the dynamic range of a scene in post processing will open up enormous creative opportunities for your photographs unlike never before. Using the GF is easy and, dare I say, fun. Don’t be afraid to experiment and see what happens. You may be unexpectedly surprised.