Using Gradient Maps in Photoshop (to Achieve Muted, Dramatic Tones)

How To Use a Gradient Map in Photoshop

How to Use Photoshop Gradient Maps

In this tutorial, I will show you how to use the Gradient Map Tool in Photoshop to give your image a dramatic, muted color effect without it looking washed out and losing the depth and richness of your original photo.

Last week, Mandy did a really great tutorial and video on how to achieve a deep, rich colors in Photoshop using a hue/saturation adjustment layer.  So I thought it would be fun to follow up on her tutorial, with a tutorial on the opposite end of the spectrum, in terms of color editing.

I am going to break this post up into two parts.  In the first part we will look at just a basic black and white or grayscale gradient map.  And then, in the second part we will look at ways to use a gradient map to add color to your highlights and shadows - also known as split-toning.  Both parts include a video tutorial as well to help you out.

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What is a Gradient Map?

A Gradient Map basically applies grayscale to your image to create a smooth blending from one color to another.  The Gradient Map adjustment will convert the existing colors in your image to a gradient based on whether the area is dark, mid-tone, or light.  The dark color will become the color on the left side of the gradient map, the light color will become the color to the right side of the gradient map, and the mid-tones will become a blend of the colors in between.

Part 1. Applying a Black & White Gradient Map in Photoshop

First, make sure your foreground and background colors are set to black and white.  You can quickly do this by tapping the "D" key.  Then you will need to create a gradient map adjustment layer.  And it is super important to create an adjustment layer here and not edit directly on top of the original image.  Otherwise, all of the color will be gone from our original, and we do not want that.  We just want to mute the colors of our original image, not totally remove and desaturate the color.

Gradient Photoshop

If your image comes up as a negative at this point, make sure to check the Reverse box, because you want your image to appear as a black and white, but not as a black and white negative.

Also, check the Dither box, because this will add a tiny bit of grain that will help with the transitioning from light to dark.  It also helps prevent banding, particularly if your image has a solid background, like a sky or studio backdrop.

Next, you are going to want to play with the blending modes.  And there are several different ways you can go about this.  If you set your blending mode to Overlay, you will get a lot of contrast and some really nice muted tones.  This effect can be pretty heavy though, so I use Overlay blending mode sparingly.  Soft light is a really great alternative, because it still mutes the tones, but without adding too much contrast.

How to Use the Gradient Tool in Photoshop

REMEMBER, you can always adjust the opacity of the Gradient Map layer to reduce the effect if you find it too heavy.

Using a Gradient Map Tool to Make Your Subject Stand Out from the Background

You can also use the gradient map to make your subject stand out from the background.  In this example, I set my blending mode to Multiply, and then selected a soft, black brush, at a very low opacity.  Then, use the brush to erase on the layer mask.

Next, I lowered the opacity of the multiply layer to blend the two layers a bit more.

Now you can really see now how that makes the subject pop from the background, because the gradient map is muting the surroundings but leaving the tones in the subjects a bit more saturated.

Using Gradient Tool Photoshop to Make Subject Stand Out

For those of you who are more visual learners here is a video tutorial covering this first section:

Applying a Black & White Gradient Map in Photoshop - Video Tutorial

Part 2. Applying a Color Gradient Map in Photoshop

In the second part of this tutorial, let's look at how to use a gradient map with color to achieve a split-toning effect.

Once again, create a gradient map layer just like we did with the black and white gradient map.  But this time, you are going to click on the bar that shows the type of gradient maps available - and manually select the color that you want to add.

Next, click on the gradient bar to open up the Gradient Editor.

Gradient Editor Photoshop

In my example, I am going to focus on what color I want my highlights and shadows to be.  So I am going to select a nice warm color for my highlights by clicking on the white arrow and using my color selection tool to choose a nice warm color that looks a bit de-saturated (Note: you don't want the color to be too intense here).

Next, I am going to click on the black arrow and select a color for my shadows.  You will want to select a complimentary color here, so a nice cool color is going to be appropriate in this example.

Color Gradient Map Photoshop

So now I have a nice warm color selected for my highlights and a cooler tone for my shadows.  And I am going to change the blending mode to soft light and reduce the opacity to reduce the overall effect of the gradient map.

Now you can also go back into your gradient map panel and change up the colors until you are satisfied with the results.  So if you want, you can go back in and tweak the colors after you have applied your gradient map.

Using Photoshop Gradient Tool

In addition to selecting your own colors for the gradient map, Photoshop also has built in gradient map presets, so you can give those a try as well.  If you are new to using color gradient maps, these presets are a really good way to learn how a gradient map with color is going to affect your image.

To quickly recap how to achieve a split toning effect using the gradient map panel in Photoshop:

  1. Create a new gradient map layer.
  2. Click on the gradient map and select the colors you would like to have in your gradient.
  3. Change the blending mode and reduce the opacity to suit your style.

Once again, for visual learners, I put together a video tutorial covering this second part:

Applying a Color Gradient Map in Photoshop - Video Tutorial

Do you have any questions or comments about how to use Gradient Maps in Photoshop?  Leave us a comment below - we would LOVE to hear from you!  And PLEASE SHARE this tutorial using the social sharing buttons (we really appreciate it!)

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