How to Use Lightroom Filters for Wow-Worthy Skies

Have you ever noticed that some Lightroom filters can make one part of your image look amazing and another part look totally out of whack? That doesn’t have to be the case: Filters don’t have to be applied to the entire image. Instead, you can selectively adjust only the parts of the image that you want to edit rather than the whole thing.

Load up an image in the Develop module to follow along and learn how to use Lightroom filters to your advantage!

To make this process and the changes we’ll be making easier to keep track of, I’ll show the original version of the image on the left and the edited version on the right.

Lightroom filters - initial load

All images in this post provided by the author, Laurence Norah of the travel photography blog Finding the Universe.

The filter tools we’ll be working with are located directly underneath the histogram at the top right of the screen. For this tutorial, we’re going to be looking specifically at the graduated filter tool and the radial filter tool. I’ve highlighted them in red in the image below. 

Lightroom filters - Filter tools

Graduated filter

Here, we can use a graduated filter to fix the problem of the sky being somewhat washed out in this shot, taken from a cruise in Russia I was on recently.

Select the graduated filter option below the histogram. A new panel of sliders will appear, as the following screenshot shows. These are all control options for the graduated filter than you are about to draw.

Lightroom filters - graduated filter panel

Click and drag on the screen to place the filter. A graduated filter splits the image in any angle or direction you like. In this case, I’ll place the center of the filter at the top of the tree line, and leave it horizontal.

Lightroom filters - graduated filter close up

You’ll notice two things: First, there are three horizontal lines spanning across the image. Above the top line, all the settings of the filter are applied. Below the bottom line, the image remains the same. In between these two lines, the filter is graduated from “fully applied” to “not applied at all” (the gradient).

The other thing you’ll notice is that the sky in this image is red. This is what’s known as a mask — it shows where the filter is applied. You can toggle the mask in Lightroom by pressing the “O” button on your keyboard. 

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In the before-and-after below, you’ll see much more color and detail in the sky. To achieve this, I adjusted the sliders in the right-hand panel: Specifically, I reduced the exposure in the graduated filter by 1.5, increased the brightness of the whites and boosted the clarity and saturation a little. I think you’ll agree that the version with the graduated filter is a more pleasing image overall!

Lightroom filters - graduated filter

Radial filter

The radial filter is very similar to the graduated filter, but it allows you to create a circular or elliptical-shaped filter.

I have applied a radial filter with similar settings (reducing the exposure of the area outside the circle, as well as increasing the white levels, clarity and saturation). The difference, of course, is that the water is also affected by this filter, as you can see with the masking below.

Lightroom filters - radial filter with mask

The shape, size, location and rotation of the circle can be adjusted by grabbing any of the square control points, giving you a lot of options. Naturally, you can add multiple filters with different effects to get the desired look. Here’s my finished before-and-after:

Lightroom filters - radial filter applied

The radial filter can also have a gradient between the center of the filter and the circle’s edge. In addition, the strength of the gradient can be changed by adjusting the “feather” slider at the bottom. Here are a couple of images to show the difference:

No feather

Lightroom filters - radial filter feather 0

Radial feather at 100

Lightroom filters - radial filter feather 100

You can also “invert” the mask, so it applies to the inside of the circle rather than the outside.

Lightroom filters - inverted radial filter mask

With both types of filter, press “Done” at the bottom to apply the filter and return to the main image editing workflow. If you want to come back and edit, remove them or add new filters, just select the filter tools again, and their control points will appear on the screen.

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