Using Lightrooms graduated filter and adjustment brush to correct a landscape photograph

Vermont-Mount Mansfield-Winter-Clouds-landscape photograph
My final corrected image of Mount Mansfield in Winter from a camera raw file.

The initial image capture is only the beginning

When we capture our original camera raw files we need to look at them as simply the start of expressing our artistic vision. We are doing more than  just making an image. We are gathering enough data in our raw files to be able to realize that start into a finished image.

The image editing process is different for everyone but all of the tools are the same. Like in cooking there are a thousand different ways to peel an onion but eventually we get to the same result no matter what method we use.

It is the same for our raw files in that there is no one correct way to get there but by using the power  of our raw files we can come up with a final, polished and corrected image.

How can we get there? What tools do we need to achieve our photographic vision. The answer lies in The graduated filter and adjustment brush in Lightroom.

Camera Raw files are boring

The raw files come straight out of the camera with no processing so what you’re seeing on import into your computer is exactly what you shot. Keep in mind though that unlike a JPEG which is processed in camera, Raw files are flat and boring.

They need processing to bring out all of the best data in the image so a well composed and properly exposed image is essential. While JPEG’s tend to get corrupted over time as they are an already edited image, Raw files can be re edited over and over until your final image emerges. Take for example my original image file for the above image and it’s histogram in Lightroom…..

Vermont-Mount Mansfield-Winter-camera raw file example
View of Mount Mansfield with fresh snow and clouds from a field in Underhill, Vermont
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My example image’s histogram from Lightroom.

Now this is a typical example of a camera raw file as it is straight out of camera. You can see that the image is rather flat with no contrast and there are some issues that need to be addressed in the editing process.

A scene like this can be difficult to shoot as the clouds bounce around bright light at times with the sun popping in and out from behind them. Couple that with it being Winter and the snow being really reflective and you have a pretty tricky exposure situation on your hands.

My Histogram is actually looking really good as the image was exposed to the right just before the highlights would be blown out. This is good as we can pull those highlights in during the editing process without messing up the shadows or making the image to dark. The issues I need to address are easily fixed but do require some time….

  1. The upper portion of the image with the clouds – It’s a little too bright at the top and you can’t really see a lot of the darker shadows in the clouds, Those highlights wash everything out and there isn’t much detail. The blue is washed out a bit as well even though when I shot this it was much closer to what the finished image looked like….That’s the trick really. Making our image look dynamic and just as we shot it without going overboard with out edits.
  2. The Mount Mansfield range in the middle ground – There are nice highlights there but it’s the shadows that are somewhat washed out due to some haze and the fact that in the image it’s snowing on Mount Mansfield itself as I was shooting. It’s really not bad but it just needs some work to make the image more appealing.
  3. The band of trees and forest below the mountain – Again this area is flat and has no contrast. The clouds were casting some interesting shadows in this area and it just isn’t dynamic enough for me. I need to add some contrast and depth to this area as the foreground draws you in and leads you through the trees and to the mountain beyond.
  4. The foreground – This area here is ok but it just needs to be brightened up with some contrast added.  All of the grass sticking out of the snow gets washed out in all of that white so I also would like to see some contrast here as well.

The graduated filter and adjustment brush tools

So we have our camera raw file and I am feeling pretty good about it but I know that this image can be so much better. The main tools that did the heavy lifting on this image were the graduated filter tool and the adjustment brush tool. Both of these tools are great as you can target them to specific areas and use them multiple times within one image.

The graduated filter tool is very handy for corrections because unlike a traditional filter You can spin the tool 360 degrees making it more versatile for correcting landscapes. Manual filters and their holders are a bit more cumbersome in the field so I use them to get my images as close as I can then do more detailed corrections with the graduated density tool.

The other great thing about the tool is that you can use them multiple times in an image where this is not possible manually so it opens up some more opportunities in images that otherwise might not make the cut. I use them quite liberally because I can use one for a clarity adjustment in one area of the image but I can also use one to enhance color in the sky of a sunrise or sunset.

You can selectively use them for different edits just like you ca with the adjustment brush…..While the graduated density tool is used for more broad edits over bigger portions of the image you can use the adjustment brush for more targeted, precise adjustments in select areas to really build on your vision for the final, corrected image.

The adjustment brush work just like any other brush in Photoshop in that you can change its size and use it for specific adjustments in very localized parts of your image. You can also use it multiple times per image so say you want to make an exposure adjustment in one specific area you can just brush the area you want to change then move the appropriate sliders.

Using both tools on our image

Without getting into a very long conversation about my workflow I used three different graduated filters in the image to target the sky, the middle ground and the foreground. The image had a great deal of highlights to contend with and it also needed some contrast and haze adjustments.

Now these initial edits really improved my image however I performed four corrections with the adjustment brush to really make the image pop and take care of some of its flaws. One edit was made for some of the highlights in the clouds, another was used for the mountain to get rid of the haze and add in some contrast, Another was used on the middle ground forest and trees to add contrast and another was used on the foreground to bring out the contrast in the grasses and add some pop to them.

Essentially my workflow goes from a starting point which is a landscape preset I use on all of my images as an overall first step. I then hone this some more with some basic edits again to the overall image and then I dial in more concise edits with the graduated filter tool and the adjustment brush.

Some images require more and some less and it all depends on where I want to go with the final outcome. Editing is as subjective as wine tasting and how we best utilize the tools at out disposal. This image was quite flat to begin with and originally I made a really nice black and white out of it but I also felt the color version was quite nice as I love the blue color in Winter scenes. Lightroom has a lot of powerful tools including ones that may be overlooked and the graduated density tool and adjustment brush can really help to lift your images from boring to exciting.

Still Waters

Vermont-Sunrise-Lake Champlain-Burlington
Clouds with sunrise light over Lake Champlain from Oakledge Park in Burlington, Vermont.

*If you would like to purchase a copy of this image it can be found right here!

It is amazing how you can look at the sky one minute and say to yourself ” Damn not much is going to happen there for sunrise” and the next minute something magical happens. Such was the case early one morning when I was exploring some new compositions at Oakledge Park in Burlington, Vermont. I spend a great deal of time here as the park is very close to my home but it offers easy access to a wealth of compositions. I was looking for something I had not shot before when I came across this scene. The sky looked like it was just going to be a big wall of blue when this cloud started to develop just as the sun was rising above the treeline behind me!

This beach straddles a bike path that runs along the Burlington shoreline and this image is at one end of the beach. It is a small little area with a gnarly old tree and some reeds and at first glance wouldn’t look like there is much to shoot. The lake levels fluctuate throughout the year and they were on the low side when I shot this making the composition possible. The great part about shooting this area is that as the water levels change there are new shooting possibilities for an adventurous photographer. As this cloud formed and moved through the area it was kissed just at the right moment by the rising sun from behind me. The light was just beautiful the way it was highlighting the cloud and I was glad I was there to see it!

This is a composite image of two shots that I made for exposure and sharpness. The foreground was in some deep shadow and I really wanted to see the reeds and rocks so one exposure was made for this area while the second was made for the cloud and sky. I blended them together in Photoshop and did my final edits in Lightroom, Matching the tones together and doing some basic edits. The relative stillness of the water added a tranquil feel to this image the mood in the image was just right for a morning shot.

Valley Of Gold

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Lake Champlain and the Champlain Valley at Sunset with a view of the Adirondack Mountains from Charlotte, Vermont.

Lake Champlain spans quite a distance from the Canadian border along almost the entire length of the state sharing it’s shoreline with New York as well. The Champlain Valley is a low lying area with a lot of farms and rural areas and during the Spring this year I was able to capture a sunset from a new location. With several smaller mountains in the area there are a number of shooting opportunities but this location which sits in the middle of pasture land is wide open and provides more than a 180 degree view of the entire Champlain Valley. The views of this valley and the Adirondack Mountains beyond is quite impressive and not to be missed!

The area here is part of a network of hiking trails and an overlooked gem in the area. I myself had no idea of the potential here until recently when I talked with the people who were living on the property. The ridge that overlooks this scene was part of a working farm and there were some barns and a giant old farmhouse on the land. I was bale to get some shots of the barns however currently the house is in the process of being moved so there isn’t any access to the old buildings. However you can still go and explore other parts of this location as well as this view!

I shot this image in the early Spring so the tree growth was just beginning to come in. I was lucky enough to get some decent clouds and color in the sky as the sun was setting over the Adirondacks. Processing was minimal here with my usual standard edits but I changed the white balance slightly to emphasis the golden color that was present from the sun. I really love the rural feel to this image as it is a part of Vermont that is rapidly disappearing.

Walking On Giants

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View of “The Chin” on the Mount Mansfield ridge line with building storm clouds.

I had a chance recently to hike Mount Mansfield from the Stowe, Vermont side and spend an overnight shooting the sunset, the stars and milky way at night and then the sunrise in the morning. I usually only get the chance to do one or two hikes like this during the year so I jumped at the chance to do this one. I have hiked on or around this mountain many times over the years but this was my first time going up the toll road on the Stowe side and hiking up the ridge line from the visitors center. There are two ends to the ridge line one of which is called “The Nose” and at the other end is “The Chin.”

The Nose which is located next to the small visitors center unfortunately is no longer accessible for hiking as there are several cell towers located on it. You can still shoot around the area but hiking isn’t allowed. The Chin is Mount Mansfield’s other distinctive feature and sits at the other end and the entire ridge line forms a very distinctive shape that is well-known here in Vermont. This entire area is a black and white photographers dream providing a wealth of compositions no matter where you look.  While the color file looks great I felt this image really would be a stunner in black and white. This was one of my first shots of the evening a few hours before sunset and I saw the clouds building up over the Chin.

There really wasn’t much work to be done to this file to get it ready at all. I did a very slight crop on the top left corner because there was a small bit of blue sky that I wanted to minimize slightly. I did my usual tweaks for exposure, clarity, contrast, etc and some lens correction because the Canon 17-40mm has distortion at every focal length. The black and white conversion was done in Silver Efex Pro 2 and here I toned down the highlights a bit because the setting sun was shining into the trees on this face. The clouds building behind the mountain is what caught my eye on this one. The mountain top was a great foreground to them!

Monolith

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A large boulder and trees with clouds on Lake Champlain.

Foliage season is in full swing here in Vermont but the leaves are not quite at their peak yet so i am holding off on sharing any of those images just yet. Peak foliage should be within the next two weeks with probably another week or so of foliage in the valley’s after that and then it will be all over. In the meantime I still have several images from over the Summer like today’s image! If you want to see a couple of other shots from this area head here or here!

I was out shooting on a blue sky day with some exceptional cloud formations however it was mid day so the light was rather strong. The conditions were actually great for some black and white photography so I made a few images with the intent on converting them. The rock here is part of the shoreline in Burlington that is part of a larger Thrust Fault that runs under the lake and over to the New York Side. There are a few parts of the shoreline here that I have yet to explore due to the difficulty in access. The rock here is very slippery at the waterline as well as being sharp and jagged so you either cut your hands or slip in the water.

The cloudscape and blue skies here made for a nice conversion to black and white and I did a simple conversion in Silver Efex Pro. I only had to use one control point to darken the lower left corner a bit and I thought out of several different images shot this one had the nicest amount of contrast and combination of lights to darks. Normally I hate shooting in this light because of how harsh it is but I couldn’t pass up the clouds and with a decent exposure I came up with keeper!

A Painted Sky

Lake Champlain-Vermont-Sunset-Storm
Storm and rain clouds over Lake Champlain at sunset.

We had a ton of rain in the Spring and early Summer this year and lucky for me that I am a Photographer and I was able to capture quite a few of these storms coming over Lake Champlain! The Lake is only a few minutes drive from my house so I can react quickly when they come in and get into position for some shots at several different locations. Every time I shoot these storms I am amazed at how varied they are…I never know what I am going to see from night to night.

If you notice in this image there are raindrops visible on the rocks and I only had a few moments to capture an image or two before it started to rain on me! I was fortunate that there were a few trees around for me to stand under while the rain quickly passed so I could keep shooting! The thing that impressed me most about this storm was the painterly quality to the clouds and light behind the rain clouds. The foreground clouds were really defined with some great depth but the sunset light and clouds behind looked almost like an abstract painting to me!

I had to do an exposure blend here due to the exposure difference on the foreground and in the clouds. A slightly more difficult one than usual because the rocks here were jagged making it a bit more challenging to blend the two together. I almost deleted these images but in the end I stuck with the image files and managed to make a cohesive image out of them!

Sleeping Dragon

Vermont-Lake Champlain-Storm Clouds-Sunset
Storm clouds at sunset over Lake Champlain.

Nothing makes me happier as a photographer than when a good set of storm clouds rolls over Lake Champlain at sunset! You really never know what’s going to happen…Sometimes you get it right and are in position for a great photograph and sometimes you guess wrong and are sitting at home while the magic happens outside. The light takes on a special quality at the beginning and end of a storm and I love when I am there to capture it!

As I was shooting this passing storm I was lucky to capture a number of small boats zipping around the lake. The boats and activity give the image scale in relation to the massive storm clouds above. At times the good cloudscapes like this peter out pretty quickly and even in this image you can see the tail end of the system in the lower left corner where the clouds are thinned out and there is a bit of rain coming down!

There wasn’t much in the way of processing on this one. The image here is pretty close to the original raw file with the exception of some lens correction, white balance and exposure changes. It’s nice that you get a hint of color way off in the distance with the looming clouds dominating the scene. Blue sky conditions just never are as exciting as some good storm light!

Summer Whisper

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Sunset over Lake Champlain with fading clouds and a rocky shoreline.

I follow weather patterns over Lake Champlain quite a bit waiting for sets of clouds that I like at sunset. I love cloud formations and how the vary from day-to-day but I especially love the colors they produce at sunset from all the reflected light! Where I live it’s easy for me to look out my window and see if the clouds over the lake are going to fizzle out or if the sunset is going to be a decent one for images. It was 50/50 on the day I shot this image but I still went out regardless.

As I picked out my composition the light was fading fast and the clouds along with it! I had just enough time to shoot this image with the last of the clouds. In fact this small whisper of clouds disappeared completely a few moments after I shot this leaving only the band of color at the horizon. The clouds here had an almost painterly quality to them as the fizzled away but they were reflecting some really gorgeous pink light along with them!

The processing was pretty simple on this one…One shot for the clouds and one shot for the foreground rocks. I blended the two images together in Photoshop using some brush work to balance out the exposure in the rocks. I always try to keep these blends as close as I can to what I was seeing and as natural looking as possible. It can be a challenge to find good sunset spots here in Vermont but on this night I think I had the best seat in the house!

The Stage Is Set

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Passing clouds at sunset with side lighting over Lake Champlain. Burlington, Vermont.

As I was hunting around for compositions I had to weave my way around several people who were out due to the warming weather. I had to choose my comps wisely and for just a few moments because of the suns position I caught a break with some incredible side lighting on the rocks and clouds. The sun was off to camera left and the scene was quite boring but with a slight turn of my camera I got the most amazing scene!

For just a few minutes during each sunset there is a bit of wiggle room to capture the great side lighting here in the area hitting the rocks along the shore. The rocks light up a beautiful shade of pink due to their natural color. It happens very quickly just before the sun sets under the horizon but if you scramble around like a mad man then you can get a few images of it.

The composition here was mainly because of desperation! I saw the awesome light on the clouds but there were some people in the area and I had to compose without them walking into the shot. The light here in this image really did not last very long so I had to be quick. The view is looking in  a northerly direction over Lake Champlain with Burlington’s Rock Point way off in the distance.

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Image Data: Two images shot for exposure and focus: foreground shot at ISO 100. 17mm. F11 @ 1/10 and the clouds at 1/80. Blended in Photoshop CS2 and finished in Lightroom.

Turning Towards Heaven

Sunset, Lake Champlain, Burlington, Vermont, Clouds
Sunset over the Burlington, Vermont Breakwater on Lake Champlain.

Usually the sunsets here in Vermont are just fantastic one day and then followed by several days of bad weather and overcast and flat skies. You have to make the most of the short windows you have especially at the end of Winter and in the early Spring. Every year is different of course but we seem to be in this pattern this year. We had a warm up followed by a cool down with more snow several weeks ago and the sky opened up just a bit for me to shoot this sunset.

Here in Burlington we have a huge open area park with quite an expansive view of Lake Champlain. The inner breakwater at the bottom of the image is used in Wintertime to store boat docks and off to camera right is Burlington’s Coast Guard station. The clouds here formed into one giant blob of darkness soon after I shot this so time was of the essence for this sunset. You can see to the last of the lake ice with some seagulls perched on top! In the background you can see the majestic Adirondack Mountains…I feel lucky everyday to be able to drive 5 minutes to see sites like this!

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Image Data: ISO 100. 17mm. F11 @ 1/80. No filters.