Photoshop Tutorial | How to Use the Graduated Filter Tool

When you’re shooting at a location with bright sun and a big open sky, like the beach or an open field, it can be difficult to expose your subject correctly without overexposing everything else. I don’t enjoy replacing skies or doing heavy edits in Photoshop so I often use the graduated filter tool in Photoshop’s ACR (Adobe Camera Raw) to deepen the color of a sky without affecting the exposure and color of the rest of the image.

The below tutorial will work for you as long as you shoot in RAW and your sky isn’t completely blown out (check your histogram if you aren’t sure).

Here’s How To Use The Graduated Filter Tool in Photoshop ACR.

Here’s my original image, straight out of the camera, opened in ACR:

photoshop tutorial graduated filter

As you can see, the sky is nice and blue, but a bit washed out. I want to create a nice vibrant blue without affecting the rest of my image, so I’m going to add a graduated filter to the sky only.

First thing’s first, I will straighten my horizon.

Then I’ll select the graduated filter tool and drag the filter from the top of the image to just below the horizon line. The green dot should be at the top of your image and the red dot should be at the horizon.

Now you’ll see the graduated filter sliders on the right side of your screen. Adjusting these sliders will only affect the area from the green dot (top of graduated filter) to the red dot. You’ll notice that the area at the top of the image, closest to the green dot, are affected more than the area closest to the red dot. This is because the filter is graduated. This makes the tool really great for skies, as color is naturally more faded closest to the horizon.

Move the sliders until you get the color and exposure you want for your sky. You’ll also be able to increase saturation if you’d like. If you find that the vignette is too heavy or that the top of your sky is getting too dark, you can move your green dot up or your red dot down until you get the filter in just the right position.

Click into the HSL tab if you want to change saturation, luminance or hue.

photoshop hsl panel

You can do subtle adjustments to exposure, or go crazy and change the color of the sky. It’s up to you and your creative vision to create the look you want. I wanted to go really bold for the sake of example. I’ve decreased the exposure, increased the saturation and changed the hue of the sky using the graduated filter.

Now I’m going to click off the graduated filter by clicking the zoom tool (or hand tool). This will bring me back to the whole image and the main sliders.

Now I can make global adjustments to get the whole image looking just how I want it to look. These global adjustments will also affect the area where I just applied the graduated filter. I’m going to increase contrast and vibrance and decrease exposure, as well as adjust the white balance of my image.

As you can see from the final edit below, I’ve chosen to really push the vibrance of the sky. The day I took this photo was bright and sunny with a bright blue sky. This is how I remember it, even if it’s not exactly how it looked in reality.

Remember, it’s your photo and your edit. You can keep it true to life or be creative. The important thing is knowing how to use the tools that can help you achieve your vision. Using the graduated filter tool, I was able to take a nice image and create a whole different feeling.

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