How to Use the Gradient Tool to Add Impact to Photos

Getting the most out of your landscape photos has never been easier for photographers.

Using the digital tools available today, well-exposed and well-composed original pictures can turn into amazing photographs with a few clicks of a mouse. One of the most valuable tools is the gradient tool, found in most image editing software.

Learn how to use the gradient tool to add impact to your photos.

Red Bob House, Chocorua Lake The gradient tool is one of the handiest and simplest tools you can use to quickly add impact to your landscape photographs. Before the advent of digital photography, the only way to balance the usually much brighter sky in a landscape photograph with the darker foreground was through the use of a graduated neutral density filter placed over the camera lens while you’re out in the field. Now, however, this exposure balancing act can easily be duplicated in the computer.

The photo above shows a nice winter scene with the early morning sky a beautiful pastel pink and purple. This is not what the original capture looked like. Even though the photo was properly exposed, with no over-exposed areas (as indicated by the histogram on the back of the camera), the sky looked washed out, showing only a hint of the color in the top photo. As you can see in the screenshot below, a side-by-side comparison in Lightroom of the original photo and the same photo enhanced with only the use of the gradient tool, that one tool can make all the difference in the world.

Gradient before and after

It took me all of 15-20 seconds to change this photo from blah, to something more.

Using the Gradient tool in Lightroom

Gradient tool adj

Step 1.  First, select to gradient tool from the adjustment panel, found in the develop module in Lightroom by clicking on the rectangle, third from the right, in the photo above. You can also use the keyboard shortcut, M.

Step 2.

Next, once you’ve selected the gradient tool, click on the image where you’d like to start darkening the sky and drag down towards the horizon. The farther down you drag, the wider the spacing between the three lines will become. The farther apart the upper and lower lines are from the center line, the more gradual the transition from light to dark, as seen in the photo below. This is an example of the effect using a soft edge graduated neutral density (GND) filter on your lens.

Note: Where you first click on the photo is where the top line will be anchored. Above that will be the full amount of exposure adjustment you’ve set by using the exposure slider in the tool panel. You can fine tune its placement.

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Step 3.

If you’d like a more abrupt transition, similar to a hard edge GND lens filter, that’s easy, too. Once you start to apply the gradient tool, stop dragging on the lower line as soon as you’ve established the abrupt transition you’re after. Now click on the center line and continue to drag it toward the horizon.

digital_gradient_hard_edge As you can see, the transition between light and dark areas of the sky is rather sudden, perfect for a photo like this with a relatively straight horizon. A more gradual transition usually works best when used on a photo that has something rising above the horizon, like trees or mountains.

Another use for the gradient tool

brighten_foregroundMost people assume the gradient tool is for darkening skies, and it does that very well. Another great way to use it is to lighten the foreground. I felt the foreground area in the above photo was just a little too dark. By using the gradient tool from the bottom up, I was able to use the exposure slider in the gradient tool’s adjustment panel to brighten it.

Final tips

  • As mentioned, keyboard shortcut M brings up the gradient tool. When you’re dragging the tool down, or up, sometimes the lines tend to rock from side to side. To keep them perfectly level, hold down the shift key as you start to drag. This will keep the lines perfectly level.
  • You’re not limited to using the gradient tool to apply the gradient perfectly level across the photo. If you click on the middle line, clicking away from the center dot, you can then rotate the gradient to whatever angle works for the photo.
  • The gradient tool can do more than just adjust the exposure. You can adjust contrast, white balance and even reduce noise. All things you can’t do with a graduated neutral density filter on your lens.
  • The gradient tool isn’t a magic bullet. If you overexpose the sky too much, the gradient tool is not going to bring back any detail you’ve lost. You’ll get the best results if the dynamic range of the photo isn’t too great. If you’re able to capture the scene with a good exposure for the darker foreground area without overexposing the sky (check the histogram on the camera’s LCD), the gradient tool sometimes works better than a graduated neutral density filter.

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