Photo Rescue: Using Lightroom Grad Filter to Fix a Dull Sky

March 11th, 2011 by John Batdorff

Final Edited Image–Varanasi, India


Have you ever had a photo that’s almost there, but just missing a little something? I know I do all the time. I’ve been mining old images lately for my up coming black and white book and I came across this shot from Varanasi, India. I like a lot of things about this shot, but the dull sky ruined it for me. I didn’t want to forsake the image entirely, so I thought this would be a good time to explain how you can enhance an image with a few quick strokes in Lightroom and bring it back to life.

Orginal Raw Image

First things first, let’s get this image into an acceptable state.

1. Start by increasing the exposure by 1.43 (ouch, I must not have had my morning coffee).

2. Next, let’s add a little Vibrance to the image (in this case +15 seem to work fine for me).  I try to stay away from using saturation because it’s like using a hammer on a thumbtack…it’s too much!

3.  I’m still not happy with how flat this image looks, so we’re going to move down to the Tone Curve and add little in the Lights region (+22 seems to do the job).

Now that we have our image in a passable state it’s time to have a little fun and add some color to the sky.

1.  Let’s head over to the Graduated Filter; click on it and move your cursor back over to the image. You’ll notice your cursor now looks like a plus sign.  Align that plus sign with the top/center of the image frame and slowly draw down while holding the mouse clicker down.  You should see a black dot that indicates an active Graduated Filter field.  Place that dot in the middle top 1/3  of the frame as shown above and draw down with your cursor. Hot tip: Hold down the shift key while you’re dragging the filter down to keep it straight with the image.

2.  Now that we have the graduated filter in place we need to head back over to the right panel and click on the box to the right of the word color (The box looks like an envelope).  Select it and Color panel should open up.

3.  Here’s the fun part.  You get to pick the color of the sky.  I decided to shoot for a warm orange, but then again I was sort of in a warm orange mood.  You will notice as soon as you pick on a color the sky will change on your image so feel free to move the eyedropper around until you’re satisfied.  Remember, you can adjust the saturation of the color by moving the slider labeled S in the bottom of the Select a Color box.

I could have stopped here and called it good, but I wanted to add a few small touches to the image.

1.  I wanted to create a stronger sense that the sun was rising/setting from the right of the frame so I created a second graduated filter in the top left corner (shown in the picture with the black circle). This brightened the top left corner, where the sun’s rays would be traveling. Our initial thought is to increase exposure or brightness in that area, but that in fact blows the image out. Instead, by using contrast we’re able to maintain better control over the exposure. The effect is subtle, but just what I was looking for.

2. I had one last household cleaning item–I wanted the viewers eye to start in the bottom left corner of the image and slowly work its way out and around the frame.  The composition of the frame should ensure that eye movement, but by brightening the gentleman’s white shirt it enhanced the likelihood of that eye movement.

3. I did this by using the Adjustment Brush tool. Click on the brush, then start painting the area you would like to lighten, in this case his shirt. If you can’t see the brush strokes, make sure you check the box below the image “Show Selected Mask Overlay.” Then, once I was done painting, I increased the brightness slider to +68.

Now that’s better! While it is always key to get it exactly right when you’re out there shooting, it doesn’t always happen. Whatever you do, don’t give up on an image completely. Being resourceful in Lightroom is a great way to add a creative touch and save a great image.


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