There I was, in a ghost town in the desert in Arizona, or Nevada — it was so remote it’s hard to be sure — with a super-telephoto zoom lens, a model in a flowy dress and an empty highway. I just got so excited to lay down in the middle of the road that I forgot that the sky was totally bland.

Now, a bland sky doesn’t ruin a portrait, but it would have been nice if there were some huge monsoon thunderheads up there. I could use Luminar to combine this with another photo of puffy clouds and combine the two images (and maybe I will later), but I can also simply use graduated filters to enrich the sky as well as the rest of the photo.

What’s a graduated filter?

You can use a graduated filter in front of your lens to affect the brightness of a part of the scene. If you want to darken the sky, you position the darker part over the sky and it doesn’t affect the landscape below. These filters start around $100, and while they are still very effective, they were much more well-used in film photography.

We can use a graduated filter in software apps like Perfectly Clear, Lightroom and Luminar to do similar things to our pictures, but we get a lot more options than a single graduated filter on a lens can offer.

Adjust above and below, inside and out

I like to use the graduated filter in Perfectly Clear Complete because it includes the Sky Enhance and Foliage Enhance tools that powerfully affect colors. PCC’s graduated filter allows you to make changes to both sides of the filter at once – just click the TOP and BOTTOM buttons to alternate, or the INSIDE and OUTSIDE buttons for the radial filter. When you alter the position and gradient of the filter, the red and blue overlays help you see what will be affected.

Choose a preset

Using a preset is a good way to get started using the filter, but you can simply alter the settings in the preset to fit your needs. Use the graduated filter for straight line adjustments, like horizons, and use the radial filter to make spot adjustments and vignettes.

Graduated filters are powerful

I used the Sky Enhance settings for the top half of the graduated filter, and the Foliage Enhance settings to enhance the colors of the rocks and her dress in the lower half of the photo. Then, I launched Perfectly Clear Complete again to use the radial filter to create a vignette and enhance the dress even more.

The great thing about these filters is that they allow you to make very selective adjustments without making any selections. The Sky and Foliage Enhance tools target specific colors within the region they encompass, but you don’t have to use any kind of brushes. I don’t always use graduated filters to finish my portraits, but I’m glad to have them in my back pocket to add some punch when I need them.

Portrait Tips come out each week, and you can see them all right here.