Post Processing: Lightroom’s Graduated Filter Tool

The following was published in the December 2016 issue of the digital-only Photography Magazine produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK Edition). Download the free app on iTunes, Google Play, or Amazon to browse more of the articles in these insightful issues.

Although the graduated neutral density filter has long been an essential tool for landscape photographers, it is never one that I’ve owned myself. Ironically I’ve come to love the Graduated Filter tool in Lightroom to selectively darken or lighten portions of my images.

One of the difficulties with photography is that the camera can’t capture the range of light that our human eyes can see. Although I we see highlights and shadows in a high-contrast scene, the camera’s dynamic range can’t capture both ends of that spectrum. While using the aforementioned “grad ND” filter or an HDR (high dynamic range) technique can solve this problem when used effectively, my preference has been to learn when a scene is too high contrast for my camera’s dynamic range and decide to either return when the light is more balanced or look for a different composition.

Therefore, I’m not using Lightroom’s Graduated Filter to try to recover highlights or shadows where detail was completely lost, but I’m instead starting with raw images that are well exposed and using the tool to optimize the image.

For example, I photographed this landscape while riding a gondola up into the Wallowa Mountains of Eastern Oregon. I loved how from that perspective I could show the dramatic change of terrain from rugged mountains to the flat farmland. The camera, set to matrix metering, gave me an exposure that captured all tones of the image from shadows to highlights. Still, mottled clouds darkened portions of the foreground filled with trees while the clouds and sky in the background appeared much brighter. To darken the background sky, the Graduated Filter was the perfect tool.

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Version exported from original Nikon D800 camera raw settings.

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Final version after using the Graduated Filter to darken the sky, plus overall contrast.

  1. In Lightroom, with the above photo selected, I went into the Develop module. Before using the Graduated Filter, I first did universal adjustments to my raw image using the sliders in the basic adjustment panel. I darkened the overall exposure slightly by -.5 and added contrast of +22. I also opened up the shadows, to show more details in the trees, by setting the slider at +29. I gave the image a slight boost in clarity to +7 and gently bumped the vibrance slider to +10 (Warning: it is easy to make colours appear unrealistic very quickly with this slider).
  2. Then I clicked on the Graduated Filter icon in the row of icons above the basic adjustment panel, but I could also have used the keyboard shortcut M to activate the tool.
  3. Once activated, an adjustment panel popped up above the basic adjustment panel and I could see multiple adjustments options that were very similar to those in the basic panel. Although there are other uses for the Graduated Tool, because my primary goal with the tool was to recover some of the detail in the clouds and color in the blue sky, I decided to use the exposure slider to selectively darken a portion of the image. Before setting the placement of the filter on the image, I set my exposure slider at the extreme amount of -4 so that I could see the effect when placing the filter.
  4. I then clicked on the top of the image and pulled down with my cursor that had turned into a plus symbol. A horizontal row of three lines appeared, and I drug the lines at an angle until the middle line, which has a grey pin in the center, lined up just below the sky and clouds. By dragging the lines further apart, I was also making the transition of the filter effect more gradual. Tip: hold down the shift key while using this tool for a perfectly straight horizon or rotate the tool after placement by activating the double arrows when hovering your cursor over the middle line.
  5. With the middle line of the filter placed just below the sky and clouds, I next set the exposure to -.78 and increased contrast to +22. To toggle the effect on/off, I clicked the light switch button on the bottom left of the panel because I wanted to double-check that my adjustments were realistic. In general, I rarely change the exposure much more than one stop in either direction.
  6. I had the option to then layer on more Graduated Filter effects, each with their own settings. And if I had added one I didn’t like, I simply needed to hit the delete key while it was activated. Because I was happy with the one Graduated Filter effect, I clicked “Done” in the bottom right of the image panel.

While this post-processing tool cannot replicate the physical usage of a “Grad ND” filter in the field, nor can it effectively restore an poorly exposed image, I find it a useful tool to optimize my images. And as with any tool in post production, one has to be careful not to let the tool show.

Photo Tip: Layer Your Landscapes

Photography is a tricky medium. With it, we are translating the 3D world into a 2D outcome. So how to you take a landscape, which has depth, and make a viewer see and feel dimension while looking at a flat screen or a flat photographic print?

First, we must realize that not every scene that we come across in real life is going to make a stunning photograph. How often on your travels do you pull over at a viewpoint and your jaw drops because the scene in front of you is gorgeous, but when you take the photo it just looks flat?

As photographers, we are responsible for “building in” depth to our pictures by adding layers into our landscapes. Sometimes light creates natural depth in a scene for us. As in the above shot from Cape Town, angled sunlight creates long shadows that tell our eyes there is dimension in the scene. Other times, we have to work harder to find a position to shoot from that incorporates interesting foregrounds, middle grounds, and backgrounds that force layers in the photograph.

In this post, I’ll show you a few photos from a recent backpacking trip into the Eagle Cap Wilderness in Eastern Oregon that will hopefully shed a little light (pun intended) onto how I think when composing a landscape shot.

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I’ll begin with the above straightforward “postcard”shot of Aneroid Lake that was taken in mid-afternoon. The angle of the sun allows a bit of play between light and shadow on the mountains (and is much more forgiving that if I’d taken this shot at noon), but there isn’t any depth to this photo aside from a bit of foreground leading my eye into the frame on the left.

Aneroid Lake in the Wallowa Mountains of Oregon.

I decided to wait a bit longer for the sun to set further and create more dramatic light. You can see that the light is almost dancing around the mountain peak and has made the row of trees along the lake’s edge seem spotlit. I also decided to work harder by wading into the chilly water and finding a fallen tree to use as foreground. The silhouetted trees in the mid-ground also help to add dimension.

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Still not totally satisfied, I got up early the next morning to see if I could make an even better picture. In this setup, I found some trees to use as dramatically silhouetted foreground and I was careful to include the curving bank to frame the edge of the photo and lead my eye back into the scene. The morning sun cast beautiful light onto the mountainside and gave dimension to the forest and rocks.

How do you add dimension and layers into your landscape shots? Feel free to leave your comments below.

Seattle Washington skyline at twilight with Space Needle.

Photographing the Blue Hour

My favorite time of day to photograph cities is the blue hour. Now, the blue hour really isn’t an hour at all, but a much shorter span of time that occurs before sunrise or after sunset.

In the morning, it is the transition time where the sun is inching closer to the horizon and the sky turns from inky black to an electric blue; with the opposite occurring in the evening. Depending on cloud cover, this lighting scenario happens approximately twenty to thirty minutes before sunrise or after sunset.

During this window of time, the ambient light balances with the artificial lights of buildings and monuments in urban scenes and you can easily capture the entire dynamic range of the scene. No need to take multiple exposures and stitch together an HDR (high-dynamic range) shot!

Dinner party scene in the Woodstock neighborhood of Cape Town with Table Mountain in background.

When I was invited to a dinner at Side Street Studios, I arrived early to scout out an angle that would include Cape Town’s iconic Table Mountain. Shortly after sunset, the timing was right and I captured both the activity of guests mingling and the mountain silhouetted against a dark blue sky.

Tech Talk

To capture the electric blue sky, it is optimal to use a tripod which will allow you to shoot with a lower ISO such as 400 or 800 and a wider depth of field like f/11 while keeping steady at slow shutter speeds. Because slow shutter speeds can easily be achieved at this time of day, I also love to play with motion blur from vehicles and other moving objects to add interest to my compositions.

But if you are tripod averse, as I often am, the solution is simple: turn up your ISO, shoot at your shallowest aperture, and do your best to reduce camera shake by bracing yourself or your camera against something solid. You won’t get to play with motion blur, but you’ll capture this vibrant time of day nonetheless.

The Arc de Triomphe at dusk in the Place Charles de Gaulle in Paris, France.

The Arc de Triomphe already looks gorgeous with a stunning blue sky behind it, but by using a tripod and a slow shutter speed, the vehicle lights add another dynamic visual element and also fill the empty space of pavement surrounding the monument.

Be Prepared

I have to admit that I prefer photographing the blue hour after sunset rather than before sunrise. This is simply because I can easily scout out the scene I want to capture in the daylight instead of having to scout the day prior or finding myself fumbling around in the dark with a flashlight and hoping I’ve found a good position.

Once in position, take test shots and get ready for the light to change quickly. I like to take test shots and check my histogram as I go to not only adjust exposure but to also see when the scene is getting more similar in tone. I find that the optimal time for the best photograph is actually when the scene is looking a bit too dark to my eyes.

Examples of changing light at Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar at dawn.

The light changes very quickly at dawn, as you can see from these shots which were taken at 6:31am, 6:39am, and 6:45am at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar.

Picture of young sanskrit students at sunrise in Varanasi

Photographing People Part V: The Long (Lens) & Short of It

I started my photo tip series on photographing people with a post that briefly mentioned the usage of long (telephoto) lenses. I wanted to make sure that photographers knew how to approach people, getting up close with wide-angle lenses, instead of relying on shooting from afar with telephoto lenses. But now that everyone is up to speed, let’s not forget the benefits of all of the tools in the camera bag.

Creative, not Creepy
If you’re drawn to pull out your long lens to photograph people, just make sure you are using it for creative or practical usages instead of as a crutch out of fear of speaking to a stranger. You don’t want to be the photographer across the street aiming a huge lens at someone and then running away when you’ve been spotted.

Isolate the Subject
Compared to wide angle lenses, telephoto lenses naturally give us less depth of field in our photographs. This helps to isolate our subject and lessens a distracting background. But be aware that this also makes locking focus on your subject even more critical.

Picture of tubing in New Braunfels, Texas

I was able to isolate the girls amidst the chaos of a busy tubing river in New Braunfels, Texas, by using a 400mm lens set at f/5.6.

Gets You Closer

Long lenses are a godsend when you simply can’t get physically closer to the subject like at performances, events, and parades. They are also helpful when it isn’t practical or polite to intrude on private moments.

Picture of a roper at a Texas rodeo and women in Basque costumes at a parade

At events like a rodeo (left) in Bastrop, Texas, or a parade (right) in Sun Valley, Idaho, a telephoto lens can be one of the only ways to get “closer” to the action.

Wide or Long?

Why not both? Given my druthers, I’d pack along my 24-70mm any day, but if I’m also toting a long lens, I’ll shoot with both. The more I’ve used long lenses in the last few years for wildlife photography, the more I enjoy also using it for landscapes and people.

Picture of hikers on Vigur Island in Iceland

On a Lindblad/National Geographic Expeditions voyage on Vigur Island in Iceland, I used a long lens to compress the space of our group as we walked through nesting grounds for Arctic terns. The dive-bombing birds would attack the stick instead of our heads.

Picture of people distracting Arctic terns in Icleand

With my own stick cleverly lodged in the back of my coat as protection, I used my wide-angle lens to photograph these guests warding off their visitors. I like both photographs and how different they feel because of the equipment used.

The beautiful thing about photography is that it is subjective. I don’t believe there are rules, only guidelines which can be learned and then pushed, allowing for pure creative exploration. I hope that these posts have given you insight into my creative photographic process with photographing people and inspires you to pick up your camera and start shooting.

Photographing People Part IV: Payment and Model Releases

In this photographing people series, I’ve discussed the golden rule, the approach, and putting your subject at ease. Now I’ll cover the sometimes sticky subject of payment and the hot topic of model releases.

To Pay or Not to Pay

We’ve all come across the situation where a very photogenic local is perfectly happy to pose for a photograph….in exchange for money. To me, these situations are transactions rather than interactions.

This isn’t to say that I don’t “pay” people in other ways, the most important of which is to give respect. Sharing an image on the back of my camera is a nice way to show people what I am seeing in them. As often as possible I get contact information so that I can send copies of images to people. And I do follow through on my promises, even if it takes me a year.

Also, if I’m photographing in a market, for example, I’ll buy something small from the vendors I’m photographing because I need to eat or pick up a few souvenirs anyway. I want people to have a favorable interaction with me and hopefully this will set a good precedent for whoever comes along next with a camera.

Picture of women at their sewing stall in Takoradi

I found that people in Ghana often refused to have their photo taken or alternatively wanted to be paid. These women at a stall in the Takoradi Market Circle first had asked for money, but after I put my camera down and chatted with them for a while they then allowed me to photograph.  They had realized I didn’t simply want a snapshot, I actually wanted to get to know them. I later mailed a packet of photos to Ghana for them.

Model Releases

One of the most frequently asked questions I get when I’m teaching is

Picture of people at Afro's Chicken in Durban

It isn’t practical to get releases from everyone in many of the shots I take, like in this scene at Afro’s Chicken in Durban, South Africa.

about model releases. Do you need to get a model release? Well, be warned, I am no lawyer, but for editorial work (newspapers and magazines) you do not need a model release, nor for personal portfolios. You do need a model release (and usually property releases) for any image that you hope to use for advertising or commercial work.

Although not required for my work, I do try to get releases when I can. I’ve found that in situations where I have time and there aren’t too many people involved, there is a natural time to ask for a release to be signed. This also gives me the opportunity to get people’s contact info so that I can send them a few photos. I carry around a stack of model releases binder-clipped together, but have also used an app on my phone called Easy Release.

Picture of two South African women in Durban

I spent some time making pictures of these two friends (who were in the foreground of the above shot) and they were willing to sign model releases. When I later found out that the group shot would run in Traveler magazine, I was able to share with them the exciting news.

For the last series in this post, I’ll resurface the subject of gear and give the telephoto lens its just deserts.

Photographing People Part III: Putting Your Subject at Ease

In my previous post I mentioned how I ask for permission when photographing people and in my first post I discussed lens selection. Today I’ll discuss how to work with the subject to put them at ease and make the best photographs possible.

Become a Fly on the Wall

Once you’ve received permission and are “in” don’t just stop after you’ve clicked a few photos! As long as your subject seems willing, hang around and keep taking pictures. Eventually people will get bored with you and you’ll become like a fly on the wall, able to observe and photograph people as they act naturally.

Picture of cowboys at a rodeo in Texas

I had been hanging around behind the scenes at the Bastrop Rodeo for long enough that the cowboys had forgotten about me. And it didn’t hurt that all their attention shifted to some poor bull rider getting bucked when I took this picture.

Make a Connection

To make a connection with the people I meet, I find it helpful to talk with them, whether that is before, after, or during taking photos. It is amazing what folks will share with me just because I’m willing to listen. I’m always grateful for having these windows into the other amazing lives being lived out in the world. Many times strangers not only turn into photographic subjects, but into friends.

Picture of a woman dressed as Marie Antoinette at Mardi Gras

I shared a laugh with this woman at the start of the St Anne Parade on Mardi Gras Day many years ago and we’ve kept in touch ever since.

Tricks of the Trade

Picture of a waitress in Marseille, France

At le Bar des 13 Coins in Marseille, I took this shot of the waitress during a moment when she was talking with some customers.

If the above two tips haven’t gotten your subject to relax, try photographing your subject while they are talking to somebody else. Often this simple technique provides just enough distraction to make the subject less camera aware.

While taking photos a simple reassurance of, “What you are doing is great,” can help to keep people relaxed.

Know When to Fold ‘Em

Occasionally I’ll see someone, get their permission, start shooting and then realize that the person just can’t quite forget about the camera. Some people are never able to completely relax, so I move on.

Also, I never want to wear out my welcome as a photographer, so I pay attention to physical cues that tell me the person is ready to be done with their photo being taken. Wrap up your shooting before you are asked to.

In the next posts I will discuss model releases and paying for photographs, lens choice, and much more. If there is anything else you are curious to know about how I work when photographing people, please leave a comment below.

Portrait of a man on Chitemba Beach in Malawi.

Photographing People Part II: It’s All in the Approach

In my first post on photographing people I discussed what kind of lens I usually use and what my general philosophy is on approaching strangers. Today I’ll cover when I ask for permission, how to communicate with body language, and the approach.

To Ask or Not to Ask….Permission

In most situations where I’m photographing people, if possible I prefer to ask permission (verbally or non verbally). Now this doesn’t mean I stop everybody who passes in front of my lens, but it is useful when I know I want to spend time making pictures of somebody. And of course there are moments that would be missed if I stopped to ask permission, so I take the picture! Then if I’d like to continue to shoot, I’ll ask permission.

People will occasionally tell me no, which is always disappointing, but I move on. I figure that if someone isn’t up for it, I won’t make a good picture anyway.

Two couples outside of a crepe stand in Paris

When I walked pass this crepe stand in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris, I had to click my shutter immediately or the moment between the couple on the right would’ve vanished.

Body Language

Permission doesn’t need to be verbal and in fact, it can’t be if there isn’t a shared language. This is where a simple smile or a point to the camera works wonders. Or I’ll start shooting, as with the situation in the photo above, and when I’m noticed I lower my camera and give a smile or wave. I’ve gotten very few ambiguous answers with these techniques. It is usually as clear as night and day whether somebody is keen for their photo to be taken.

Krista Rossow and South African women on beach in Kwa-Zulu Natal.

Although we didn’t share a language in this “discussion,” these South African women understood that I wanted to take their photos while I was on assignment in Kwa-Zulu Natal and later delighted in hamming in front of my lens. Photo by George W. Stone.

The Approach

I find that if I go into a situation nervous and unsure, people can sense the unease in my approach and will react similarly. I’m not always in the right state when approaching strangers, so I might need to give myself a pep talk. It is uncanny how people pick up on unspoken cues.

Portrait of a young monk studying at a monastery in Myanmar.

While photographing at this monastery in the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar, I moved quietly, watched with interest, made eye contact, and exchanged smiles.

In the upcoming posts I’ll cover putting your subject at ease, model releases and paying for photographs, lens choice, and much more. Please leave your own tips on photographing people in the comments below.