Here’s a technique I use quite often to add a little extra drama and contrast to a scene. I use a graduated filter effect to darken the sky, and then a second graduated filter to darken the foreground. Using two graduated filters creates a powerful lighting effect and increases the tonal contrast of the picture – it’s really effective where you have an image that already a full range of tones (the histogram fills the full width of the scale) but still looks flat and lifeless.

Color Efex Pro graduated filter

Here’s the start shot. I was sure there was a picture to be had in this scene, but the standard rendition is pretty flat and boring.

01 Adding a graduated filter

I’m editing this image in Nik Color Efex Pro using its Graduated Neutral Density effect, but any program that can apply a graduated filter effect would do. This would work well in Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom, for example.

Color Efex Pro graduated filter

The key controls are as follows:

  • The Upper Tonality slider adjusts the darkening effect at the top of the picture where the filter is applied. I’m setting it to the darkest value because the sky was pretty pale to start with.
  • The Lower Tonality slider adjusts the brightness of the rest of the picture. If you leave it at zero, the lower part of the picture won’t change. I’ve increased the value to make it slightly lighter.
  • The Blend slider controls how smoothly the darkening effect is blended with the rest of the picture. You can move this left and right until the effect looks right.
  • The Vertical Shift slider controls how far up the picture the graduated effect starts. I’ve positioned it around half way up the bridge over the house.

02 Adding the second graduated filter

One of the great things about Color Efex Pro is that you can combine two or more filter effects. To do this you first need to click the Add Filter button over in the right sidebar underneath the current filter tools. This creates an ’empty’ filter slot.

Color Efex Pro graduated filter

Now you need to choose the Graduated Neutral Density again from the list in the left toolbar…

03 Creating the upside-down graduated filter effect

This time there’s a key difference – you need the darkening effect at the bottom of the picture, not the top. To do this, drag the Rotation slider right over to the left, to a value of 0 degrees.

Color Efex Pro graduated filter

Now use the Upper/Lower Tonality, Blend and Shift sliders exactly as before. Just remember that the filter effect is now upside down, so the Upper Tonality slider now affects the bottom of the picture and the Lower Tonality slider affects the top.

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