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
Lightroom-histogram-camera raw file-example raw file image-landscape photography
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.