Adobe Lightroom’s many adjustment masks and filters make selective edits a breeze. The graduated filter, in particular, is a very versatile tool that allows you to add unique visuals to your photographs, such as solar flares and vignettes, and even enhance existing skies! Knowing how to use the graduated filter to its maximum potential opens the door to various possibilities.

The graduated filter (also referred to as a linear gradient) allows you to create a graduated edit across your frame. What this means is that whatever adjustment you make (whether adding color or playing with exposure) will be applied gradually, one side of the image will have the effect applied at 0%, and it slowly builds to 100% across the photo. 

How To Access The Graduated Filter

The graduated filter lives in the Develop module of Adobe Lightroom. To access it, first, make sure you’re in the right module! 

Next, click the Masking icon on the right-hand panel of your screen. Graduated filters are considered masks in the program. 

From here, select Linear Gradient. You can also press M to access the graduated filter.

When selected, click anywhere on your photo, and you should see the graduated filter as crosshairs. If Show Overlay is selected in the Masks panel, you’ll also see red highlighting the area where the filter is applied.

How to Use The Graduated Filter In Lightroom

Understanding how the graduated filter is used will help you get the most out of it. 

Applying The Filter

Like all Lightroom masks, you’ll be able to visually see the graduated filter applied to your image via the red highlight.

After selecting and adding the filter,  you can click anywhere on the photo to see the filter appear. You will see a dark center point square, a white outer point circle on one side, and a red outer point circle on the other side appear, along with crosshairs. 

The dark point indicates where the graduated filter effect begins (the center point), the red point is the filter at its strongest, and the white point indicates where the effect becomes invisible

The fourth point at the very bottom is what you click to change the filter’s rotation. 

Pulling the gradient around will either stretch the effect (making a softer edge) or narrow the effect (making a harder edge). This is how you can control how feathered (or soft) the gradual transition is. 

Hard Edge 
Soft Edge

If you want your filter application to be perfectly straight, hold down the Shift button while moving the filter around. By holding the Shift key, dragging up or down will keep the filter perfectly horizontal, and dragging from the left or right will keep the filter perfectly vertical.

Once you’ve placed the filter where you want it to go, you can use the Adjustment panel on the right-hand side of your screen to make the desired edits to your image. As you adjust the sliders in that panel, such as exposure, you’ll see the real-time changes in your photo. 

Viewing Where The Filter Is Applied 

Because the graduated filter is a type of mask, you will see it in the mask panel. The Mask panel will show you a visual representation of where the filter application is. To see where your mask is applied, in the mask panel, you will see a little black, gray, and white square. 

The black parts of this square are the unaffected areas, the gray are varying levels of transparency of the effect, and the white parts are the affected areas. With this particular filter, you’ll see the mask display go from a solid black to various shades of gray all the way to white, showing a gradual effect.

If you need to see where the graduated filter was applied quickly, you can press O on your keyboard to have Lightroom show the filter application area in red. This is very useful if you’re using the graduated filter for sky adjustments and can’t quite see the changes yet! 

Duplicating The Gradient Filter

Sometimes, it’s useful to duplicate the graduated filter and add a second or third one to your photo. To duplicate, you can either: 

Right-click on the black square of the filter in your photo to bring up the options menu. Click Duplicate here. 

Or, you can right-click on the mask itself and select Duplicate

Common Use Scenarios For The Graduated Filter

  • Landscape photographers favor the graduated filter because it can be used to enhance the sky. The sky can be adjusted as if a neutral density filter was used during the shoot itself. 
  • This tool also helps adjust foregrounds to be more visually pleasing for the composition. Making the foreground darker helps lead the eye to your subject. 
  • Graduated filters are also great for adding specific vignettes rather than using the vignetting tool in Lightroom, which may not add the effect you would want. 
  • Portrait photographers can emulate film effects and light leaks with the filter by applying warm colors, such as yellows and oranges. 
  • Adding an artificial depth of field or playing around with blur effects is another popular use of this very versatile tool. 

How To Edit An Existing Graduated Filter

You can quickly move or edit an existing graduated filter in two easy ways.

But first, you need to select your filter.

You can then find the filter in the Mask panel and click on it. 

Or, you can find the filter in your photo and click on it there. Make sure you have Mask selected, then hover over the general area where the filter is until a little shield-shaped icon appears. Click this icon, and you’ll be able to select the graduated filter. 

Once selected, you’ll see the adjustment panel appear once more, and you can make your edits there. 

How To Use Graduated Filters With Other Masking Adjustments In Lightroom

Utilizing the graduated filter with more than one masking tool can really level up your selective adjustments.

In the case of my photo, I am going to use the graduated filter to adjust the exposure of the sky while simultaneously using the Select Subject mask to make sure my adjustments do not apply to the skateboarder. 

First, I’ll make the graduated filter and place it over the sky region of my photograph. 

Next, I’ll go into the Mask panel and click Subtract. From the dropdown menu that appears, I will choose Select Subject

Once the Select Subject has been rendered, I’ll use the Adjustment panel to edit the sky’s exposure. Notice how the skateboarder is not impacted by these edits at all because he’s been removed from the Mask! 

In the above example, I did an extreme amount of darkening to highlight the work of this mask. However, most adjustments you make with this mask will be far more subtle to change the mood of your photo or balance the overall exposure.

Below is how my final image turned out, using the graduated filter in Lightroom to help create a bright and dreamy look behind the subject.