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Using Graduated Filters and Brushes in Lightroom for Beautiful Blue Skies
You know when you have those days that come along so rarely that you simply must grab them by the horns and make the best of them??? That is how I felt about my opportunity to visit a local Longhorn Cattle Ranch. It was a bit of a gloomy day with overcast skies; making it easier to shoot the amazing beasts. Unfortunately the conditions lacked beautiful blue skies to coordinate with their delightful orange coats.
Here is my original shot from RAW cropped, color adjusted and sharpened. As you can see the sky is dull and dreary.
How to Turn Overcast Skies Into Interesting Skies
Here’s how to do this using Lightroom 4:
Step 1 – Drop in a graduated filter. Have I lost you already? It isn’t hard, trust me on this. And if you feel completely lost, there’s always the MCP Online Lightroom Class… But here’s what we are going to do.
In the develop module, directly under the histogram, are a few awesome tools that you need to be familiar with and use. All the way to the right is the brush (we will use that one in a bit); and the next one over is the graduated filter. Each time you click on these to use them it opens up a drop down box where you can adjust all the parts of the filter or brush. This is especially cool in LR4 where even more options are available.
In the image below you will see that my drop down box for a filter is showing, in this case I have chosen to use MCP’s Enlighten Sky graduated filter, but have tweaked it a bit, moving the sliders to suit what I want for this image. What you will also notice is the extra box of color showing. This box is specifically related to the filter, and won’t affect any other part of your image. Since my sky was so very bland, I wanted to really bump up the color, so I choose a very saturated strong blue.
Once I had all of my graduated filter decisions made, I went to the upper left corner with the cursor (which shows up as a plus sign), right clicked and held while dragging toward the center of my image. The bulk of the effect will occur above your cursor, with only slight changes below. As you can see on my image I chose to stop just above the cow horns. I know that is an awful lot to take in, but once you get it you get it!!
This effect was not strong enough for the look I wanted to achieve, so I clicked New, just below the filter button, chose the MCP sky filter again, set the color a blue just a bit less saturated and pulled down a second filter atop the one that was already there. Yes, you can layer and layer them adjusting each one as it lays over the last.
If you’re frustrated and thinking “But what if I don’t have MCP’s graduated sky preset to choose from?” (you should get it, just saying!), take a deep breath and ask yourself, which effect you want …Then adjust your sliders to accomplish that. We want a deeper more saturated sky, right? And we are basically just messing with light and color right? So how do you get deeper and more saturated?? Lower the exposure, and raise the saturation!
The great thing about using a filter or a brush is that you can slide those sliders ANYTIME it is ACTIVE and you will see the effect changing. If you lay down a filter and it isn’t quite doing what you thought it would, then just head over to the sliders and adjust. Go ahead and try it, you will see and be amazed! If on the off chance you are not amazed and only frustrated, well then just hit the delete button and your ACTIVE filter will hit the trash, and you can start fresh. I promise, once you get a good feel for it you will wonder why you thought it was so hard to begin with.
Now we are going to delve into the brush tool! I could tell by looking at my image that there were some blues I wanted even deeper. I didn’t want to take a chance on the filter being too much for the whole sky (and I wanted to work a brush lesson into this tutorial).
A brush is an AWESOME Lightroom Tool. It is used to apply effects to very specific portions of your image. In this case I wanted more of the same…deeper blues and more saturation. You know what that means right? The adjustments within the brush will look almost exactly the same as when we were using the filter tool. Check out my sliders in the image below, exposure down again and a beautiful blue color chosen. If you don’t see the Select a Color palette like in my last two screen shots, this is how it looks with the choice already made and the pop out box closed.
I chose to use my brush to “paint” blue, lowered exposure light onto specific portions of the sky. If you wonder just where you have painted the subtle effect you can click the show overlay button which I pointed out at the bottom left of the screen. It will give you a red overlay showing where you brushed. This is cool to check accuracy, but not very cool when you are actually working.
More “local adjustment brush” tips:
There are several other things you MUST know about using a brush. If you’re already overwhelmed, come back later and read this spot when you have a better grasp on the whole brush concept.
- When you click the brush tool to open up a new brush, what drops down is the area where you “mix your paint.” In essence you are mixing up a batch of “light paint” to apply to your image. Maybe this seems like a strange analogy, but stay with me here. You want to create just the right combination of light and color to effect your image in a specific way, and adjusting the sliders gives you seemingly unlimited combinations. When your brush is active any changes you make to those sliders or color show up on your image so you can see the changes as you work.
- However, there is an exception to this. Go back to that last shot above, and notice my large circle to the right with the words “So important” pointing to the bottom of the brush panel. This is the area where you decide how big of a brush you are going to use, and how much “light paint” you are going to paint onto your image. If you have a large area where you want to lay on big deep color then make that brush big and set the density and flow pretty high. If you have a delicate area where you want to gently lay on pale strokes of color then move those sliders further to the left for a lighter touch.
- Also, SO IMPORTANT, is that this does NOT reset each time you create a new brush. Yes, pay attention to that when you start brushing with a new brush, you may need those things set differently for the desired effect.
To finish this image….
I noticed that the blue filter color was a bit too strong for my taste on the branches of the trees. In order to combat this, I zoomed in on the image to get a closer look at where I wanted to work. (Some people are super smooth and know all the keystroke shortcuts to zoom or make a new brush, or many other things, but I am still old school and just click on the screen where I want to go. I also still use a simple pencil in my calendar to keep track of my daily schedule…but that is a whole ‘nother thing).
Zoom is up near the left hand corner. I clicked to create a new brush, decided on my settings then painted away just on those areas in the tree limbs where the blue was too strong. A neat thing to remember when painting with light is that a color opposite on the color wheel will bring down the value and tone of the color you wish to tame.
In this case I wanted to combat blue, so I chose a pale orange. I didn’t want to glob on the light paint, so I lowered my density and flow a bit and messed with the saturation until it suited my taste. Then I created yet another brush to bring up the clarity and saturation in my cows, to really make them pop off of the now blue sky!
One more brush tip:
Sometimes when I am working with brushes, I can get a LOT of them going in the same image. I don’t necessarily want all of my brush pins showing, and taking up space in my editing. If that is the case for you, then the best option is to choose “Selected” next to show edit pins in the bottom left corner. If at some point you want to know where you started all your brush strokes just change that setting again like it is shown in my shot. You can do that any time in your edit process.
And here’s the finished product… what a difference a bit of painted light can make.
Whew, are you exhausted yet? I know it is a lot to take in, but soon you will be “light painting” like a pro!!
Jennifer Watrous of JD Waterhouse Photography is a Fine Artist turned photographer. With a background in watercolor, pen and ink, and pencil drawing…photography seemed the natural next step for this busy mom of three to be able to click, and create artwork in a fraction of the time. Her laid back style and joyful attitude make her a perfect fit for the genre of equine photography where patience, timing and the perfect pair of blue jeans are key.
You can find her on Facebook here.