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How to Use Brushes and Filters in Adobe Camera Raw (Make Selective Adjustments)

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This post is part of a series called Camera RAW for Beginners.
How to Sharpen Photos in Adobe Camera Raw
How to Retouch Portrait Photos in Adobe Camera Raw With Selective Adjustments

Adobe Camera Raw has a few tools that can help you make selective changes to parts of your raw image. Any adjustments you make in Adobe Camera Raw are non-destructive, meaning they don’t touch your original image and you can revert to your original at any time. In this tutorial, you'll learn how to use Camera Raw to create local adjustments.

How to Make Changes to One Part of a Photo in Camera Raw 

Making local adjustments to your image is an important part of the editing process. While global adjustments focus on the picture as a whole, local ones mean you can target those parts that need specific attention while leaving other areas untouched. There are three main tools: the Adjustment Brush, Graduated Filter, and the Radial Filter.

Adjustment Brush

When you click on the adjustment brush in the far-right menu, you’ll see the Selective Edits menu appear, which looks very much like the Basic Edits one.

Adjustment BrushAdjustment BrushAdjustment Brush
Adjustment Brush

The idea of this is to paint over the areas you want to make specific changes to. First, click the dropdown menu next to the brush size and you can choose your brush options.

Brush optionsBrush optionsBrush options
Brush options
  • Size: the pixel diameter of your brush
  • Feather: how hard or soft the brush is
  • Flow: how the adjustment is applied (the rate of application)
  • Density: the transparency (or opacity) of the stroke
  • Overlay: having this ticked will put a pin in where you make an adjustment so you can see and flip between them easily.

You’ll also see Auto Mask as a tick option. If this is selected then your strokes will be confined to areas of similar colours. This is useful if you’re painting over objects or anything with definite lines or borders as it stops applying the mask as you approach the edges.

You can choose whether or not you can see a mask as you paint over your image by ticking Mask Options, where you’ll also see you can pick a colour and choose whether the mask colour indicates the area you want to change, or if you want it to exclude that area.

Mask optionsMask optionsMask options
Mask options

Whether you want a mask visible on not probably depends on how you prefer your workflow: selecting a tool and then applying the adjustment to the photo, or masking over an area of the photo and then adjusting the edit options. Adobe recommends the former, but I actually find the latter useful most of the time. You might do a mix of both.

Apply Adjustment Brush

When you’ve selected and modified your brush, toggle the mask on to make it easier to see where you’re brushing, and brush over a part of the image to adjust. If you make a mistake you can select the eraser icon next to the brush and use that to make everything neater. I’ll brush over the wall to demonstrate.

Adjustment brush applied over the wall in the imageAdjustment brush applied over the wall in the imageAdjustment brush applied over the wall in the image
Adjustment brush applied over the wall in the image

Once you’ve finished brushing over your area, it’s easier if you then untoggle the mask by unticking Mask Options. Heading down to the Selective Edits, any changes you make to the sliders will now take effect on the area you’ve brushed over. If I pull the shadows up, you can see it on the wall where the mask was:

After applying changes to the brushed over areaAfter applying changes to the brushed over areaAfter applying changes to the brushed over area
After applying changes to the brushed-over area

You can adjust any of the sliders and it will only make changes to that specific section of the photograph.

Create a new adjustmentCreate a new adjustmentCreate a new adjustment
Create a new adjustment

When you’re happy to move on, just click Create a New Adjustment to start working on a new area.

You can edit your entire image this way, though I always prefer to make global adjustments (in Basic Edits) first and then do some fine tuning with local adjustments.

Graduated Filter

The Graduated Filter is fairly descriptive of what it does – allowing you to apply adjustments of the same type across a particular part of your photo, choosing the size of the area it applies to.

Graduated FilterGraduated FilterGraduated Filter
Graduated Filter

Like the Adjustment Brush, you can choose to see a mask, but unlike the Adjustment Brush, rather than painting that on, you drag an area out between two parallel lines and it’s up to you how wide or narrow that strip is, or which direction it goes in.

Graduated filter with maskGraduated filter with maskGraduated filter with mask
Graduated filter with mask

This tool is particularly useful for things like skies. Using the mask above, if I lower the highlights and add a blue hue to the filter you can see the changes apply most heavily at the top of the filter guide, at the red dotted line, and then become weaker as you move down to the bottom green dotted line:

Graduated filter with adjustmentsGraduated filter with adjustmentsGraduated filter with adjustments
Graduated filter with adjustments

Once you’ve adjusted, you can still move the guide lines to shift, expand or shrink the area of effect, and, more usefully, you can then select an adjustment brush or eraser to refine the area. If you have large areas of adjustment this means you can apply the filter across that part of the photograph and then simply refine that by brushing the effect in or out.

Radial Filter

The Radial Filter works in exactly the same way as the Graduated Filter but it’s round.

Radial FilterRadial FilterRadial Filter
Radial Filter

You can apply your adjustments to the ellipses or to the area outside of it, just check the Invert box. The radial filter would be useful for things like applying blur if you’re aiming for a faux shallow depth of field, or for creating your own vignette.

Try a Video Tutorial on the Adjustment Brush

If you have an older version of Adobe Camera Raw or you like to walk through a technique with narration then you might find this video useful.

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