Replace Graduated Filters

In this tutorial we show you why you can replace graduated filters with luminosity masks. In fact all you require is two exposures and using the graduated filter tool, you replace the need for filters.

This tutorial uses a previous version of our luminosity panel, the techniques are still relevant with our current panel.

Video Duration: 17:00

Graduated filters are rarely a useful tool in the field. When you’re in a situation where you have objects protruding above the horizon, they darken them, and look unnatural. When you’re shooting locations with flat horizons a graduated filter can be a useful tool, but rarely any other time. Using them can also be cumbersome and take your concentration off of capturing the moment and being creative. Also, if you get it wrong in the field, you will not be able to repair it in post.

All a graduated filter is actually doing is allowing you to expose for the sky and foreground in a single exposure. This is done by darkening the sky, allowing you to expose for the shadows. Most people carry around 3-stop grads, and use them religiously. The issue with that is the sky often does not have a 3 exposure difference to the foreground. Meaning you’re darkening the sky in the image far to much, for an even more unnatural looking image.

I have carried on enough about them now, let’s talk about how we can replace graduated filters.

Shooting to Replace Graduated Filters

If all you simply want to do is not use a graduated filter in the field, you only need to take two exposures. By taking two exposures in the field, one for the sky and one for the foreground you will capture the same dynamic range. Then it’s a simple process of combining those two image in post with a graduated filter. This will give you the exact same result as using one in the field, with one key difference. You will have the ability to modify your filter, which you can’t do once your home if you used one in the field. This means that you can adjust it up and down, or rotate it right and left. Allowing you to work much more quickly in the field and save you money as well, a win win.

Post Processing

Replacing graduated filters in editing is very easy, if all you want to do is replicate their effect. Follow these simple steps to replicate a graduated filter:

  1. Stack the two exposures on top of each other in Photoshop. It doesn’t matter what order they are stacked in.
  2. Ensure your foreground and background colours are black and white. It doesn’t matter which is on top.
  3. Place a layer mask on the image layer at the top of the stack.
  4. Using your graduated filter tool, left click and drag down from just above the horizon. The further you drag down, the greater the smoothness of the transition of the graduation in the filter.

That’s it, you have completed the replacement of a graduated filter in the field. The great thing about this is you can rotate the filter, or adjust it if you didn’t get it quite right. Of course you will still have the issue of darkening subjects above the horizon, like you do in the field.

You can now take your processing to another level and create a perfectly blended image. Using luminosity masks you can paint away the the graduated filter in areas that have been darkened to much. By selecting the dark tones in the image, you can use this selection to further adjust your mask.

This tutorial covers creating your initial graduated filter, and using luminosity masks to complete the blend. I then run through a series of additional tips to complete your digital blend, creating the perfectly exposed image.