In this advanced photo editing tutorial we’ll show you how to use an adjustment layer and the Gradient tool to mimic the effect of a graduated neutral density filter.
When you photograph a high-contrast scene with lots of dark tones in the foreground and a lighter sky, the sky will often look bland and washed out, because your DSLR has exposed for the foreground.
One solution is to fit a graduated neutral density (ND) filter to your lens to retain colour and detail in the sky; but while filters can be effective, you’re stuck with the look that they produce – if the graduated darkening effect is in the wrong place, or too strong, there’s not much you can do to alter it.
An alternative is to replicate the ND grad effect in Photoshop Elements. In this tutorial we’ll show you how to darken a shot with a Levels adjustment layer, and how to draw a gradient on the layer mask to restrict the effect to just the sky, so the correctly exposed landscape isn’t altered.
The beauty of this photo editing technique is that you can alter the density and position of the gradient to get exactly the effect you want.
How to recreate an ND grad filter effect in Photoshop Elements
Levels adjustment layer
Open the start image, click the Create New Adjustment Layer button in the Layers panel and select Levels. The bland sky in our shot consists mostly of midtones, so drag the Midtones slider right to a value of 0.47 to darken the sky and create more intense colours. This adjustment improves the sky but makes the foreground look too dark, so we need to restrict the effect to the area where it’s needed.
Set up the Gradient tool
Press X to switch the foreground and background colours in the Tools panel to white and black, if they’re not already. Select the Gradient tool and click the Linear button in the Options panel, then click the Edit button below the gradient swatch to open the Gradient Editor, click the Foreground to Background preset and click OK. The Gradient tool will now create a white-to-black linear gradient.
Draw a gradient
Target the Levels layer’s mask by clicking its thumbnail, and click-and-drag to draw a line from the top of the image to the horizon, holding down the Shift key so the tool draws a straight line. The white parts of the mask will reveal the Levels adjustment and black areas will hide it, so only the sky will now be darkened.
Fine-tune the effect
If need be you can re-draw the gradient on the mask until you’re happy with the effect, and you can also adjust the Levels sliders to intensify or tone down the darkening effect. As a finishing touch add a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer, select Cyans from the menu at the top of the Adjustments panel, and set Saturation to +30 to boost the blues in the sky.
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