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Fixing Skies (and Other Stuff) with the Graduated Filter

The Graduated Filter (which acts more like a tool) lets you recreate the look of a traditional neutral density gradient filter (these are glass or plastic filters that are dark on the top and then graduate down to fully transparent). They’re popular with landscape photographers because you’re either going to get a photo with a perfectly exposed foreground, or a perfectly exposed sky, but not both. However, with the way Adobe implemented this feature, you can use it for much more than just neutral density gradient effects (although that probably will still be its number one use).

Step One: Start by selecting the Graduated Filter tool (G) up in the toolbar (it’s shown circled in red here). When you click on it, its options panel appears (shown here) with a set of effects you can apply that are similar to the ones you can apply using the Adjustment Brush. Here we’re going to replicate the look of a traditional neutral density gradient filter and darken the sky. Start by dragging the Exposure slider to the left, or just click on the – (minus sign) button two times to get to –1.00 (as seen here).

Step Two: Press-and-hold the Shift key (to keep your gradient straight), click at the top center of your image, and drag straight down until you reach the top of the big stand of trees (as shown here). Generally, you want to stop dragging the gradient before it reaches the horizon line, or it will start to darken your properly exposed foreground. You can see the darkening effect it has on the sky and the photo already looks more balanced. Note: Just let go of the Shift key to drag the gradient in any direction.

Step Three: The green pin shows the top of your gradient; the red pin shows the bottom. In this case, we’d like the sky a little darker still, so drag the Brightness (mid-tones) slider to the left a bit to darken the midtones in the sky (don’t click the + or – [plus or minus sign] buttons, or it will reset the Exposure slider to 0). What’s nice about this tool is, like the Adjustment Brush, once we’ve dragged out the Graduated Filter, we can add other effects to that same area. So, if you’d like the sky to be bluer, you can click on the Color swatch, and when the Color Picker appears, click on a blue color to complete your effect.

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