The editing tools in Lightroom 5 are steadily improving to the point where many photographers won’t need any other software for their day-to-day image enhancement, and the new Radial Gradient tool in the Develop module takes this one stage further. It offers a way to quickly highlight the focal point of your pictures, subdue backgrounds and improve the composition with a subtle (or not so subtle) framing effect.

Incidentally, some of the most important new features in Photoshop CC are the extra editing tools in Adobe Camera Raw, which is also the processing engine behind Lightroom – so if you get Lightroom 5, you’re also getting some of the new stuff in Photoshop CC.

You could say that the Radial Gradient tool is like a highly-controllable vignette effect – at least that’s how it’s likely to be used most often. In fact, it’s capable of much more than that, and you can create multiple gradients in the same image to create more complex effects, effectively ‘re-lighting’ your image.

Lightroom Radial Gradient

Here, though, I’ll just demonstrate the basics. I’ve chosen a dainty framed picture I saw in a shop window, which looks all right as it is but doesn’t quite stand out enough.

01 Adding a Radial Gradient

Lightroom Radial Gradient

The Radial Gradient tool is on the strip of adjustment tools directly under the histogram in the tools panel on the right of the screen in Develop mode. You select the tool, then click and drag outwards on the image from the point where you want the effect to be centred. If you drag ‘freehand’ you can create an elliptical shape like this, or you can hold down the shift key to constrain the shape to a circle.

02 Making adjustments

Lightroom Radial Gradient

With the new Radial Gradient selected, the tools panel now displays a set of adjustment sliders. The key thing here is that the act on the regions outside the gradient area, so it’s the opposite of  a regular selection (though you can click the Invert Mask box at the bottom of the panel if you want to adjust the area inside instead).

For this image I’ve reduced the Exposure so that the background is much darker while still displaying visible colours and textures. I’ve also dragged the Sharpness value to -100 to soften up the background details a little.

03 Adjusting the Radial Gradient

Lightroom Radial Gradient

Once you’ve made adjustments you’ll probably want to experiment with the Radial Gradient position and shape to get the best result. Like other localised adjustments in Lightroom, it has a central ‘pin’. You click this to select the adjustment, then drag it to reposition the adjustment in the picture.

Radial Gradients also have top/bottom and left/right grab handles. You can drag these to make the Radial Gradient shape taller or wider. Finally, when you move the mouse pointer just outside the ellipse it turns into a rotation cursor – I’ve rotated the gradient so that it looks as if the light for the picture frame is coming from the bottom right corner. If you’ve ever used the Lighting Effects filter in Photoshop, you can probably see the Radial Gradient tool’s potential for ‘re-lighting’ your photographs.

04 The finished picture

Lightroom Radial Gradient

I think the Radial Gradient is actually pretty good. It’s made this picture much more effective, and it didn’t need any complex masking or adjustments. If there is a limitation, it’s the Feather slider at the bottom of the panel – there are instances where even the maximum Feather value isn’t enough, and the gradient is too ‘hard’ to blend in realistically with the rest of the picture. Most of the time, though, it’s a fast and effective way to bring out the focal point in your pictures.

See also

More Lightroom tutorials