How to Use the Linear Gradient in Lightroom Classic

by Andrew S. Gibson
How to Use the Linear Gradient in Lightroom Classic

Lightroom Classic’s Linear Gradient is the new name for what used to be called the Graduated filter. It’s located in the Masks panel and you can use it to make selections (that is, mask part of a photo) or to refine selections made with other masking tools.

The Graduated filter was an appropriate name because it was a reminder of the graduated filters used by landscape photographers to darken the skies in their photos. Neutral density graduated filters come in different sizes, strengths and even colors. Some readers will be too young to know what Cokin filters are, others will remember the tobacco colored graduated filter popular with landscape photographers in the 80’s.

It’s worth noting that Lightroom Classic’s Linear Gradient isn’t a replacement for a physical graduated filter. If you don’t record detail in the sky in your landscape photos to start with, then you can’t fix it in Lightroom Classic. You can’t bring back detail that wasn’t captured by the camera..

The Linear Gradient isn’t a fix. It’s a tool to make your images look better when you develop them. 

But before we look at how to use Linear Gradients, let’s look at why. Why is always a more difficult question, but once you understand why the how becomes much easier.

Reasons to use the Linear Gradient tool

Here are four ways you can use the Linear Gradient tool.

1. Make skies darker in landscape photos

You can use Select Sky for this, but the advantage of the Linear Gradient is that the effect is graduated. The effect is strongest at the top of the photo and fades away towards the horizon. This can give a more natural look than using Select Sky.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you have a photo like this and you’d like to make the sky darker.

Linear Gradient Lightroom Classic

Using Select Sky gives you this mask (shown by a red overlay).

Linear Gradient Lightroom Classic

Moving the Exposure slider left gives a result like this. 

Linear Gradient Lightroom Classic

You can see that the effect is applied evenly across the sky, from the top of the photo to the horizon. 

You get a different effect using a Linear Gradient mask. Here’s the mask.

Linear Gradient Lightroom Classic

This is the result. It looks more natural because the effect is feathered.

Linear Gradient Lightroom Classic

I recommend you experiment with both masking tools on your landscape photos and decide for yourself which one you prefer.

2. Make the background of your photo darker

I used to use the Linear Gradient a lot for this, but now I use Select Background more. Select Background is good if you want to make the whole background darker. The Linear Gradient is better if you want to make just part of it darker.

Here’s an example that uses both tools. I’d like to make the background of the portrait below darker, and masks are the way to do it. 

Linear Gradient Lightroom Classic

The logical place to start is to use Select Background, which gives this mask (the mask is shown with a red overlay).

Linear Gradient Lightroom Classic

I moved the Exposure slider left, giving this result:

Linear Gradient Lightroom Classic

As you can see, the wall to the right of the model is too bright. This is the ideal shape for Linear Gradient mask, which looks like this.

Linear Gradient Lightroom Classic

I moved the Exposure slider on this new mask left to give this result.

Linear Gradient Lightroom Classic

3. Refining another mask

So far the examples we’ve seen show you how to use the Linear Gradient to make something darker (i.e. adjust tonal values). But you can also use it for other types of local adjustment.

Let’s see how this works with a color version of the above portrait.

Linear Gradient Lightroom Classic

I thought it would be interesting to experiment with adding blue to the background, almost like a localized form of color grading. To do that I started by making a new Select Background mask.

Linear Gradient Lightroom Classic

I want to apply the effect to the wall behind the model, but not the wall on the right. That’s because the wall behind her is an internal wall, and the wall to her right is external (which is why it’s brighter).

I can do that by subtracting a Linear Gradient from the Select Background mask (I’ll show you how later in the article). This is the resulting mask.

Linear Gradient Lightroom Classic

Then I moved the Temp slider left to add blue to the background and get this result.

Linear Gradient Lightroom Classic

4. Add a color wash

Another use of the Linear Gradient is to add a color wash giving a sunset effect. Let me show you how it works with this portrait.

Linear Gradient Lightroom Classic

I added a Linear Gradient. This is the mask (shown with a red overlay).

Linear Gradient Lightroom Classic

Then I moved the Temp slider all the way to the right so it looks like the model is lit by the sunset.

Linear Gradient Lightroom Classic

As you can see, there are lots of uses for the Linear Gradient, once you get accustomed to seeing how you can make your photos better using local adjustments. 

The trick is to stop thinking of it as being an alternative to the physical type of neutral density graduated filter, and treat it as a way of making a mask.

Now you understand why you might want to use Linear Gradients, let’s look at how you do it.

How to use the Linear Gradient

Using Linear Gradients is easy. 

1. Start by clicking on the Masking icon under the Histogram (below) to open the Masks panel. 

Linear Gradient Lightroom Classic

The Masks panel opens either next to the right-hand panels, or under the Histogram, depending on how you’ve configured it. These screenshots show it under the Histogram as that’s how I prefer to use it.

If the photo has no masks, you’ll see something like this.

Linear Gradient Lightroom Classic

2. Click the Linear Gradient icon. Hold the left mouse button down and drag the cursor across the image to place the Linear Gradient.

Linear Gradient Lightroom Classic

3. Set Exposure to -4.0. This helps you see the area affected by the Linear Gradient. The effect is strongest at the edge of the image, weaker at the centre line and fades away the other side of that. Move the Linear Gradient around until it covers the area that you want. 

Linear Gradient Lightroom Classic

4. Reset Exposure to zero and move the Exposure slider left to make the sky darker. The best way to judge the result is by eye.

Linear Gradient Lightroom Classic

Tip: You can press the H key on the keyboard to hide or reveal the lines showing where the Linear Gradient is. You can also press O to hide or reveal the mask overlay.

Extra tip: Hold the Alt key (or Option key on older Mac keyboards) down and click and drag one of the outer lines to adjust the amount of feathering. The closer the lines, the harder the effect.

How to subtract a Linear Gradient mask from a Select Background mask

Earlier I showed you an example where I created a Select Background mask then subtracted a Linear Gradient from it. Here’s how you do it.

1. Go to the Masks panel, then Create New Mask and Select Background. In the Masks panel it looks something like this.

Linear Gradient Lightroom Classic

2. Click the Subtract button and select Linear Gradient from the options. Hold the left mouse button down and drag the cursor across the image to place the Linear Gradient. The area covered by the Linear Gradient is subtracted from the Select Background mask.

Linear Gradient Lightroom Classic

You can use this technique to use any masking tool to subtract from (or add to) another one. 




Mastering Lightroom Classic: Book Two – The Develop Module

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2 comments

David February 25, 2023 - 4:32 pm

Just started with Lightroom and this clearly explained what I had been playing with. Thanks.

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Sarah November 27, 2023 - 10:49 pm

Super helpful as just started with lightroom (eek) thought I was crazy. Your tips well explained & most appreciated

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