Lightroom offers a wide range of options for image processing including both global and targeted adjustments. Today we are going to take a close look at 3 great tools in Lightroom designed specifically for targeted adjustments to an image. There tools are the Graduated Filter, the Radial Filter, and the Brush Tool.

To obtain the maximum benefit from these 3 great tools in Lightroom it is important to know how they work and when to use them. 

For simplicity purposes, I have deliberately excluded the use of an eraser brush from this comparison.

3 Lightroom Development Tools

Radial Filter

  • The Radial Filter is an elliptical shaped tool that provides the ability to make a variety of adjustments to any area in the image with various user defined elliptical shapes. The user can also make this filter into a circular shape.
  • This tool is the perfect choice when needing to apply a consistent adjustment to an area that is either inside or outside the tool’s elliptical area.  
  • All adjustments can be feathered to user specifications and occur inside the elliptical shape.


  • The Brush tool is available only as a round shaped tool that applies the same variety of adjustments to an image as the Radial Filter.  
  • Although it’s round shape can not be altered, the brush size can be enlarged or reduced. 
  • All adjustments take place inside the brush. There is no ability to invert the Brush Tool’s adjustment.
  • Adjustments can be feathered to user specifications.
  • The brush is particularly useful for making an adjustment to small round areas such as eyes.

 I do need to offer a word of caution that using the brush tool on large areas may result in adjustments being noticeable if the adjusted area is not brushed consistently. Especially in areas where feathering occurs and this is  particularly true when applied to blue sky areas.

Graduated Filter

  • The Graduated Filter tool functions in the same way as a neutral density filter but can be used to apply a wide variety of adjustments beyond exposure to an image. 
  • The adjustments begin along the image edge then gradually transition away depending on where you place the filter.
  • Applications can be made either as a horizontal, vertical or diagonal line.  
  • No user defined feathering is available. However feathering is basically the graduated nature of the filter and feathering is determined by the size of the area where the filter is applied. The smaller the area, the less filtering while the larger the area, the greater the filtering.

This filter is so useful that it is extremely rare that I process any image where I have not applied a Graduated Filter.  Get creative with this filter and you will love the results.

Tool Exposure Comparison

Below I illustrate the effects of each tool on a solid blue background to make it easy to see.  Pay close attention to how each tool impacts the colors and where the feathering takes place in the following images. For this illustration, I have chosen to apply the maximum exposure adjustment of 4 to the blue background to create the white areas.

Brush versus Radial Filter

As you can see from the above example, feathering at 50 dramatically reduces the area of maximum impact. In fact the area of maximum adjustment for the brush tool becomes very small at 50 percent feathering.

Graduated Filter


With the Graduated Filter and a maximum adjustment there are potential lines that could appear in a large print.  Of course in the real world we would not make such an extreme adjustment to exposure. Just be aware that if you do, it may show up in large prints.

How to choose between the Radial Filter, Brush Tool and Graduated Filter

  1. Consider the shape of the tool compared to the targeted area of adjustment.
  2. Understand how the tool applies the adjustment.
  3. Pay attention to where feathering takes place with each tool.

1. Tool Shape

Let’s look at an image where exposure was decreased by .62 and dehaze was added by 13.  I realized this is hard to see in WordPress but a carefully look should show the following:

    • In the first image the Brush Tool was used and all areas of the sky received an equal amount of exposure reduction and dehaze.
    • In the second image the Radial Filter was used with the adjustment inverted. Here the edges of the sky are lighter due to feathering. 
    • In the third image the Graduated Filter was applied with the top portion of the sky receiving the maximum exposure reduction. However, if I had started the filter at the top of the mountains instead of the top of the image, the sky would have received an equal exposure reduction and the filter transition area would have begun at the mountain top.  More on that later.


Tip: Think through exactly what you are trying to do and select the tool that best accomplishes that goal.  In this image, I wanted the entire sky darkened equally so the brush tool was the best choice.  If I had wanted to darken only the top portion of the sky, the Graduated Filter would have been the correct choice.  I personally do not like to ever use the radial filter for darken the entire sky.

Now let’s look at a different image where the goal was to light an area inside the image.  In the below image of Avalanche Canyon, the top portion of the water and surrounding rocks was very dark.  To lighten that area of the image, the Radial Filter was a perfect choice.

The Radial Filter was used twice. First the filter was applied to darkened the outside edges of the rocks. Next another filter was inverted and applied as an elongated oval form to the top areas of water and adjacent rocks.  

2. How Adjustments are Applied

Brush versus Radial Filter

When deciding between the Brush and Radial Filter tool, not only does shape need to be considered but also an understanding of how each tool handles the adjustment.  Let’s take another look at my previous tool adjustment example paying close attention to where the maximum amount of exposure occurs.

As seen above, the Radial Filter both with no filtering and with filtering of 50 percent applied a greater exposure adjustment than the Brush Tool.  The white area with no filtering is definitely brighter with the Radial Filter than the Brush Tool.  I have tried this same example in a number of actual images with similar results. For instance, when using smaller adjustment amounts than I used above, the brush tool effects may not show up as well as the radial filter.

Graduated Filter

When using the Graduated Filter it is important to remember that adjustments will start at the edge of an image and transitions from maximum impact to zero. This filter works well as long as the area you wish to adjust includes the edges of the image.  Let’s look at the blue background with the Graduated Filter again.  

In the first image the filter began at the top of the image and stopped in the middle of the image

Now let’s look at what happened when the filter begins at 1/3 of the way into the image instead of at the image edge and extends halfway down the image.

When the Graduated Filter begins inside the image, the adjustment still occurs from the edge of the image.  However, now the transition of the effect begins where the filter is placed in the image.

 It is very important to understand how this works when applying a Graduated Filter to any image to achieve the desired results.

Real World Application of a Graduated Filter:

In the following photo of Twin Lakes in Colorado, the sun was shining on the right side of the image to a greater extent than the left side.  Therefore, I decided to even out the light in the image by applying a Graduated Filter to the left side of the image.  My filter choice matched the type of adjustment needed in this image.

Graduated Filter Applied

Before and After

Although again, it is hard to see these effects in WordPress, the image on the right has a much more balanced exposure and is now ready for additional processing.

3. Where Feathering Takes Place

    • Brush Tool – Inside the circle

For purposes of this illustration an image was darkened substantially with a global adjustment.  Next the Brush Tool was applied with an exposure of 2.65 and feathered of 50 to show only the columbines.

    • Radial Filter– All feathering again takes place inside the tool, regardless if the tool is inverted or not. 

Here is an adjustment to underexpose by 4 stops shown as a regular radial filter darkening outside the elliptical area and an inverted filter darkening inside the elliptical area.  Filtering occurs in the same areas of the image with both options.

    • Graduated Filter– Adjustments occur in a horizontal, vertical or diagonal  manner across the tool with the feathered area dependent on the size of the filter being applied as illustrated earlier in this post.  

Types of Lightroom Tool Adjustments:

Although I have focused on exposure adjustments so far, Lightroom offers the ability to alter image saturation, contrast, sharpness, temperature, clarity, noise reduction and dehaze to select portions of an image.  

Since this post was originally created, new adjustments to Lightroom have been added.  Also the panel does not show all available adjustments.

Here is an example of “turning the light on” in which I not only increased exposure inside the lantern but also warmed the light with a Radial Filter.

So far, I have focused on one adjustment tool at a time but now let’s look at an image where we apply on three tools.

Combining Lightroom Tools

Shrimp Boats in Fernandina Beach:

  • Diagonal Graduated Filter was applied  beginning on the top left side to darken, add clarity, contrast and dehaze.  
  • A Radial Filter was added to the dock piling to warm up and lighten with filter application extending under packing house pilings.
  • Finally a brush tool was used in select areas of the image. 

Gooseneck State Park

  • A Graduated Filter was applied to the sky to dehaze it and darken shadows.  
  • Another Graduated Filter was applied from the bottom of the image to the edge of the sky to lighten both shadows and highlights and add clarity.  
  • A Brush Tool was used to highlight specific layers of rock for definition.
  • A Radial Filter was applied in an elongated shape across the rocks to lighten and warm the rocks.  

Less is More!

No matter how great these three tools are, my goal is to always process an image in a manner that makes it look natural, not digitized.

Both bison were poorly lit as can be seen in this unprocessed image. 

  •  In the first example below, I processed the image and made an adjustment that added light to the bison and darkened the corners.
  •  In the second example I deliberately over processed the adjustment to reflect what I see happen frequently when people use the radial filter.  

Of course all adjustments are subjective but to my eye the second adjustment screams digitized!



Graduated Filter

    • Great for adjustments that begin at one of the corners of an image and gradually transition.
    • Can be applied as a horizontal, vertical or diagonal line that extends across the entire image.

Radial Filter

    • Best suited for elliptical shaped areas large or small but can also be applied as a circular adjustment. 
    • The adjustment can occur either inside or outside the tool however all feathering of adjustments will occur inside the filter.
    • The adjustment impact remains consistent except for the areas that are feathered. 

Brush Tool

    • Best for targeted areas requiring a round adjustment but be aware that feathering, even in small amounts, reduces the impact of the tool.
    • Allows adjustments to be painted in a image where ever the user decides the same as using a paint brush.

I love the Radial Filter Tool so much I dedicated two entire blog posts to it. INTRO TO LIGHTROOM’S RADIAL FILTER and LIGHTROOM’S RADIAL FILTER- 5 Cool Adjustments

Thanks for joining me on this exploration of Lightroom’s targeted adjustment tools.  I would love to hear how you use these tools in your image processing workflow so please comment below.

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