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Image Variations with Photoshop Gradient Maps

If you look in Photoshop’s Adjustments Panel, right at the very bottom, in the last position, is the really technical sounding “Gradient Map.” If you haven’t seen this adjustment in action, or known what it can do, you’d be entirely likely to pass right over it – it sounds complicated. But, it isn’t. Gradient Maps are one of the simplest ways of toning or tinting an image. In fact, if you like to tinker with your image, searching for a certain “look,” the Gradient Map can provide a seemingly endless train of color variations, all with a few clicks. Let’s see how it works.


We’ll start with the image above, and very quickly, we can open the Adjustments Panel and click Gradient Map (Or, if you prefer menus, Image > Adjustments > Gradient Map… will get you there). The adjustment layer is added, and the Property Panel opens, showing the gradient picker and controls:


At this point, the default gradient is applied to your image, in a very predictable way. Looking at the gradient from left to right, the colors on the left are applied to the darkest tones in your image, and the colors on the right are applied to the lightest tones – with the tones in the gradient “mapped” to the highlights and shadows of the image. With the default black and white gradient, this gives us a black and white image, like so:


Now, this in itself isn’t really amazing or surprising – after all, there are dozens of ways to get a grayscale image within Photoshop. No, the variations come as we change the gradient, which is mapped to the image tones. We can click the drop down arrow next to the gradient and pick a different gradient (such as Copper), which is mapped onto the image tones the same way:



With a gradient selected, you can reverse the “direction,” mapping light-to-dark instead of dark-to-light. The effect is similar to a negative image:


Within Photoshop, you are able to create your own gradients. But, honestly, there are so many good ones already available, there’s no need – unless you’re going for a very specific color. In order to use some of the built in gradients, start by clicking the drop down arrow to open the gradient picker again. Then, click the gear icon to open the list of gradients to load. Let’s choose Photographic Toning:


Then, go ahead and click “OK” to replace the current gradients (you can always reset the defaults again later):


Now, we have a huge list of gradients to choose from, all specifically designed for photographic images. Nice! We can choose the aptly named Sepia2 gradient:


And, with the gradient back to normal (uncheck “Reverse”) we have this:


Let’s not forget about layer blend modes – with the Gradient Map set to use the Sepia Antique preset, we can change the layer blend modes at the top of the Layers Panel to get several different varieties with a single gradient (click to enlarge):


I like the contrast boost that Soft Light provides, and I find that Color often provides a more subtle toning than Normal blend mode. Experiment and see what works for you.

To go further, we can change the opacity of the Gradient Map, add a layer mask to hide part of the effect, and on, and on. But, you get the idea. There are so many possibilities here, you could go click happy – the only risk is that you may have trouble deciding on a look for your image! The Gradient Map adjustment layer provides a wealth of image variations, and all within just a few clicks. Try it for yourself, and enjoy the possibilities.

About Michael Hoffman (224 Articles)
Mike has been a photographer, artist, educator, and technophile for most of his life. Early in his career, he created technical illustrations and photographs for electronic equipment manufacturers, and taught classes in computer aided drafting and 3D modeling software. When digital cameras became widely available in the late 1990s, the move was a natural one, and has led to a happy combination of technology, software, photography and art. Mike is an Adobe Certified Expert in Photoshop and Acrobat, and is well versed in Lightroom and Photoshop Elements, as well as Illustrator and InDesign. He has also contributed his time and efforts to the excellent work being done by Operation Photo Rescue, in restoring photographs damaged by natural disasters. As an active member of the National Association of Photoshop Professionals, he continues his quest for excellence in art, excellence in design, and excellence in education.

2 Comments on Image Variations with Photoshop Gradient Maps

  1. Just curious as to which Photoshop version your working in.

  2. Daniel thomassin // 30/01/2013 at 6:45 pm //

    Bonjour;Je vous remercie pour toute l’aide que vous m’a-portée!
    vous étés Génial.

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