How to use the Graduated Filter Tool

How to use the Graduated Filter Tool

This post was updated on July 18th, 2021

Estimated reading time: 15 minutes

Learning Adobe ® Lightroom – Develop Module

Last month we learned how to Dodge and Burn with the Adjustment Brush. Now it is time to explore the Graduated Filter Tool.

What is a Graduated Filter?

There are two types of filters in photography. You will find filters with the same strength across the entire Filter and filters where the full effect gradually builts up. In the first group, you will find Natural Density, Polarization, and Color Filters, among others. The second group is the Graduated Filters and Reversed Graduated Filters.

While the first group can come as both screw-in round filters and rectangular ones that need an adapter, the second group comes as rectangular filters.

Strengths of Natural Density and Graduated filters

The (maximum) strength of a Natural Density filter or a Graduated filter is measured in Stops, optical Density, or ND-values.

One-Stop (ND2) means that you have to change the Exposure of your photograph by one Stop. So you would either double your exposure time, double your ISO, or use the next full-stop Aperture value. You could, of course, use a slightly longer exposure time, combined with a slightly higher ISO and a somewhat wider aperture as well. 😉

You distinguish further Graduated Filters by their maximum strength and how smooth the fading is.

So you can have a 3-Stop (ND8) Hard graduated Filter, where you get a distinct line between the area where the fading starts and the clear area, or a 3-Stop Soft graduated Filter, where the transition from the transparent region into the filter area is smooth. Some vendors also produce a Medium Graduated filter, with a transition-zone that is somewhat in-between that of the Hard and the Soft graduated Filter of the same strength.

However, we will not explore how to use these filters while taking a photograph today. For now, our focus is on the Graduated Filter Tool in Adobe ® Lightroom, which can – to a degree – replicated the effect of these filters.

The Graduated Filter Tool in Adobe ® Lightroom

This Tool can recreate Natural Density Filters, Color Filters, and Graduated Filters in post-processing to a degree, and in some cases, even excel them.

What Filter effects can you not recreate?

  1. Smoothening out of water surfaces
  2. Visualization of cloud movement
  3. Removal of reflections (Polarization Filter only)

While you can recreate the darkening of some areas or color changes as if they were made by an actual glass Filter, the above mentioned Filtereffects cannot be recreated in Adobe ® Lightroom with the Graduated Filter Tool.

When might the Graduated Filter Tool excel an actual glass Filter?

If your only Graduated Filters are hard ones, and you are somewhere with an interrupted horizon, for example in the mountains or in a city, you will likely see an effect of that Filter in areas where you do not want it. Removing such unwanted Filtereffects in post-processing can be a nightmare.

However, with Adobe ® Lightroom’s Graduated Filter Tool you are in control of where the Filter takes an effect in your photograph. I won’t lie, occassionally I have had my problems restricting the Filter, especially in photos of Mountains with glaciers against a cloudy sky. In such cases, I often have to rely on combining the Tools of Adobe ® Lightroom with those of Adobe ® Photoshop. Unfortunately, describing all that in this one article would be too much. But maybe, if I can find the time, I will do so in a later blog post.

Using the Graduated Filter Tool

To open the Graduated Filter Tool, you can either choose it from the Tools Menu in the Develop Module, click its icon from the Local Adjustments Toolbar or hit the -Key on your keyboard from any of the Modules, except if you are within a text field.

To create a graduated Filter, you click and drag your mouse from the spot where the full effect should end to the place where the filter effect should end. The farther you place these two spots from each other, the smoother the result.

Graduated Filter with Overlay
Graduated Filter created starting at the top of the image

Adobe ® Lightroom shows the Tool as three lines going across your photos. The outer lines define where the full effect and the Filter ends; the middle line allows you to turn the Filter and to move it around.

Creating a straight Graduated Filter

If you need to create a straight filter – either horizontally or vertically – press the <Shift>-Key and hold it down while clicking and dragging your mouse.

Moving the created Filter around

You will encounter a situation where you created a Graduated Filter you like, but you need to move it along. What to do now?

It is easy. Hover over the middle line of the Filter until you see the Handtool. Now, click your mouse button (left), and the Handtool changes into a fist that looks like it is holding onto the centerline. Drag your mouse along, and the Filter will move with it. Release the mouse button once you have moved it to its desired position.

Turning the created Filter

Maybe your Graduated Filter is not straight along the horizon, or you need it to have a different angle?

Well, Adobe ® Lightroom comes with a solution to that as well. As with moving the Filter, hover over the centerline, but this time until you see a bend double-arrow – it looks a little like bent dumbbells – then click on your left mouse button, pressing it down while moving your mouse to adjust the angle of your graduated Filter.

I have to admit, though, that straightening a Filter after the fact is harder than drawing a new straight one.

Removing a Graduated Filter

You might encounter a situation where you added a Graduated Filter – and this works the same way for the Adjustment Brush and the Radial Filter – that you later decide not to need after all. Now, you could, of course, adjust all the settings that you made for that particular Filter to their initial position.

However, if you are certain that you want to remove it from your image permanently, you can also activate the Filter in question and hit the -key on your keyboard to delete it.

Preview of the applied Filter

Turning on the Overlay reveals the strength and area to which Adobe ® Lightroom applies the Graduated Filter’s Settings.

You can activate the Overlay as follows:

  1. Hover over the Pin of the Overlay you want to see. This method only activates the Overlay temporarily, so it is more helpful to figure out which of the Pins refers to the area you wish to modify further than to find out exactly where to edit the photograph. 
  2. Hit the <O>-Key on your keyboard to activate the Overlay for the currently active Pin.
  3. Use the Tool -> Adjustment Mask Overlay -> Activate Overlay entry from the menu.
  4. Click on the little checkbox “Show Selected Mask Overlay” below your image.
Graduated Filter Overlay in Red
Graduated Filter Overlay in Red

As you can see in the figure above, the Overlay has a higher opacity at the top and is fading toward the Filter’s bottom. The opacity indicates to what percentage your settings will influence the resulting image. More increased transparency of the Overlay means that Adobe ® Lightroom applies a lower portion of your settings, though to which exact numbers this comes down only the people at Adobe will know 😉

Comparison of different Graduated Filters

Let’s compare a few different Graduated Filter Overlays.

Narrow Graduated Filters

First, a slim Filter that we place at the top of the photograph.

Narrow Graduated Filter starting at the top of the photo
Slim Filter starting at the photo’s top

Now let’s move this Filter down toward the center while preserving its layout.


Narrow Graduated Filter moved further toward the center
Narrow Graduated Filter moved further toward the center

If you compare the two Overlays above, you will see little to no fading toward the Filter’s end-line. You will also detect that the second Filter’s effect does not start at the Filter’s starting line but the photograph’s top.

Wide Graduated Filters

Let’s continue our examinations with broader Graduated Filters. What happens if we drag the end-line of the first (narrow) Filter toward the center of the photograph?

Wider Graduated Filter starting from the photo's top
Wider Graduated Filter starting from the photo’s top

Now let’s move this Filter downward too.

The same filter as above, only moved downward toward the photo's center
The same filter as above, only moved downward toward the photo’s center

As you can see, when you compare the two figures above, the fading of the Filter does not change when I move it downward. However, what does change is how far the Filter’s full effect reaches from the image’s top.

When you compare the Overlay of the first narrow with the first broader Filter, you can see how the fading changes with the Filter’s width.

Creating a Filter covering the entire photo in the same strength

You might find yourself in a position where you need to initially apply a full-strength Filter across the entire photograph.

The Graduated Filter Tool can help you with this too.
All you need to do is create a filter starting outside of your photograph that ends even farther toward the menus.
Say you want to create it to the left of your photo. You would start close to the photo’s left border and drag it out toward the left.

Natural Density Filter created from the Graduated Filter Tool
Natural Density Filter created from the Graduated Filter Tool

This way, you cover your photo evenly with the Filter. If you would use the Adjustment Brush for this, there would always be a chance that you miss out on a tiny spot or have a section covered with a stronger filter than the rest of the image.

I hope this blog post helps you to gain a basic understandig of how the Graduated Filter Tool works. Next time we will have a look at an example about how the Graduated Filter Tool can help you improve your images.

All trademarks and copyrighted items mentioned are the property of their respective owners.

I am in no way affiliated with any of the products used in this post-processing process. I do not receive any kind of compensation for this article, it was neither offered or asked for.


All photos taken by Lille Ulven Photography/Wiebke Schröder.

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