Using Gradients to Draw Attention to Your Subject

I frequently use the gradient tool in Lightroom and Photoshop to draw attention to the subject of my photograph. Gradients are extremely useful because they can help create gradual transitions between adjusted and non-adjusted areas. This blog won’t be a comprehensive look at gradients, but simply a demonstration of how I use them for one particular purpose. This blog assumes that you have a basic knowledge of either Lightroom or Photoshop. With those disclaimers, let’s get started with a quick description of what a gradient is.

For our purposes, a gradient is the gradual feathering of whatever adjustment is being made to the image. There are different types of gradients, but the one I use is the most straightforward. At the start of the gradient, 100% of the adjustment is applied, while at the end 0% is applied. There is an even feathering of the adjustment between start and end.

This will be better illustrated using an example. Here are before and after pictures to show you how I use a gradient to draw attention to my subject by darkening the outer areas of the image.

Original Image

Carnival model in an orange costume by pillars
Carnival model in an orange costume by pillars

Image after darkening the outer parts of the image using 3 gradients

Carnival model in an orange costume by pillars
Carnival model in an orange costume by pillars

For some of you, you may need to look a few times to see the effect. Notice that the transition from darkened to non-darkened areas is smooth. Here is how to create this effect in both Lightroom and Photoshop, starting with Lightroom:

1. First click on the gradient tool (pictured below). This will bring up the local adjustment menu.

Lightroom Gradient Tool

Lightroom Local Adjustment Tools

2. Adjust the exposure slider left, as in the image below.

Exposure Slider Down

3. Then drag the gradient from somewhere outside the image towards the subject. I usually overlap the gradient with the subject because the effect is hardly applied as you get to the center.

4. Fine-tune the adjustment using the exposure slider. Generally, you don’t want to go too obvious with the adjustment.

5. Hit “New” at the top of the menu and then repeat the adjustment from other sides and angles if you want. In this case, I’ve used three gradients, including from the right side, left side (but angled upward) and top left corner.

Screen with Picture

For Photoshop, below is one way among many to get the same basic effect.

1. Create a curves adjustment layer.

2. Click on the middle of the curve and drag the curve down to darken the whole image.

Photoshop Curve Layer and Curve

3. Click on the gradient tool button (pictured below)

Photoshop Gradient Button

4. Make sure your foreground color is set to white and your background color is set to black, as in the picture below. Hitting the letter “d” on the keyboard should re-set the foreground/background colors to these default settings.

Photoshop Colors

5. Then, make sure the layer mask is active by clicking on it and drag the cursor from outside the image towards the subject. This will result in a feathered mask.

6. Adjust the opacity of the curves layer until you get the desired effect.

Photoshop first layer adjusted

You might ask whether you can accomplish the same thing by creating a vignette. With a vignette, you have less control because it is a single adjustment rather than several adjustments from multiple sides, each controlled independently.

Lastly, you can use the same gradient techniques with a variety of adjustments, like contrast, saturation and a color fill layer, among others.

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