Alright… it’s been a while since we’ve had a Before & After Monday so let’s talk about something so super simple that you can do in Adobe Lightroom that can make a dramatic difference to your photos: the Graduated Filter tool.
And when I say super simple, I mean super simple. This little gem of a tool is easy to miss, especially if you’re new to photography and don’t know what a graduated filter is.
What IS a Graduated Filter?
Graduated filters, or, graduated neutral density filters (OR graduated ND filters) are, essentially, (and this is so totally not a scientific description of an ND filter) a filter that a photographer can put in front of their lens that starts darker at the top and is clear at the bottom. Sometimes, they gradually go from dark to clear and sometimes it’s very abrupt – half dark and half clear. They’re great for landscape photography where it’s very hard to expose for both the sky and the foreground. How many photos have you taken where the sky has been blown out and doesn’t even look blue but the forground is fine?
But, they’re not something the average beginner has in their kit. I don’t even own one (and I’m really not sure why I don’t…I should!). So what to do? Hmmmm…
Well that’s where the handy Graduated Filter tool in Lightroom comes into play! A digital filter!
Let’s take a look at our starting point:
Camera: Canon 5DMKII
Lens: Canon 100mm 2.8 macro
Shutter speed: 1/8
ISO: 6400 (EEKS!!)
I shot this outside on my patio at about 5pm with a tripod. The background is a planter. It was miserably cold and dark – so dark I had to manually focus the lens and sort of “guess” if I got it right (even I couldn’t really see if it was in focus – never mind the camera figuring it out!). I wanted to shoot in dark light for a moody feel but it gets tricky to expose properly for your subject and your background.
Here’s the problem – too much digital noise (my fault for stupidly leaving my ISO so high after I brought out the tripod) and… well… just not enough pop in the image.
So the first thing we do is bring the image into the Develop module in Lightroom and change the camera profile to Standard (how you set this always depends on the image itself). Then I bumped up the clarity to +11. There’s not a huge difference at this point so no photo for those steps. For a refresher on how to change the Camera Profile/Calibration and the Clarity in Lightroom check out my Raspberry Before & After Post.
The next thing I did was go to the Tone Curve section and change the Point Curve to Medium Contrast.
Now we’re seeing some difference!
Now we’re seeing a little more pop – especially in the doughnuts. But I still want a little more contrast. So in the Basic section, I tweaked the contrast even more – up to +13. Here’s where that got me:
Still… it’s not really enough… the background is too visible for me. So here’s where we get to have some fun by using the Graduated Filter tool. You can find it at the top right of your Develop Module, just under the Histogram:
Now, hold down your shift key and drag the plus sign down till it’s just at the top of the doughnuts. Holding down the shift key allows you to drag in a totally straight line. For funkier effects you can skip the shift key and drag randomly.
Now you’ll see these funky lines (hello instagram, anyone?? I told you it was super easy!). Don’t worry about them. You’ll also notice that the background really doesn’t look any different. Don’t worry about that either!
When you activated the Graduated Filter tool, you got a new menu of sliders below it. We’re going to change the exposure. A lot. See how we took it down to -2.21. That’s a big change – but it’s only going to affect the area that you used the tool on.
The final image has a little bit of cleanup – a small crop and I sharpened it to 90 and adjusted the luminance slider to 60 to cut down on some of the digital noise as you can see in the original:
So, Graduated Filter tool equals big bang for you post processing buck. And don’t be afraid to embrace this lousy winter light. It can offer some remarkable possibilities. Work with it instead of letting it work against you!
(these salted caramel doughnuts came from Lucky’s Doughnuts by Forty-Ninth Parallel on Main Street in Vancouver. They were purchased by me, expressly for eating and I bought the milk jug at a thrift store across the street for 50 cents! :D)