Join Tim Grey for an in-depth discussion in this video Using a gradient map, part of Photoshop: Image Optimization (2013).
When an image strikes me as being something of a sort of classic scene, my mind usually drifts toward a black and white interpretation or maybe a color tint such as a sepia tone added to a black and white image. But sometimes I want to exercise a little bit more control over that process, and for that I'll utilize a gradient map adjustment. This is an adjustment that I think is not all that widely known, and yet is incredibly powerful for creating interesting interpretations of your photos.
Let's take a look at how we can use the gradient map adjustment to exercise a huge amount of control over how we interpret the tones within an image. I'll start off by adding a basic gradient map adjustment. I'll click on the Add Adjustment Layer button, but it's very important that I not choose Gradient up at the top of the list but rather go down to the bottom of the list and choose Gradient Map. These are two very different adjustments and what we want is the Gradient Map. So I'll choose that option and that will add a Gradient Map adjustment, and as you can see that gives me a black and white version of the photo. Specifically this is a black and white version of the image where I've mapped tonal values based on tonal values.
In other words, black has been made black and middle gray has been made middle gray, and white has been made white, but what I mean by that is that based on the color values, each pixel in the image actually has an overriding luminance value. So, this is your very basic black and white conversion. This doesn't even give us the amount of control that we have with the black and white adjustment. And so you may be wondering why we would even use the gradient map in order to achieve such an effect. Well, there are more options available. Let's take a look at some of the other gradients for example. Now, these options are a little bit wild, I'll warn you, but they can be interesting and a little bit of fun.
For example we have a red to green gradient, where a red value is assigned to all of the dark pixels in the image, and a green value is assigned to all the bright pixels in the image. And of course we have a smooth transition between those colors based on the original luminance values in the photo. So exploring some of these other options you can see they're certainly interesting and a little bit wild. And you certainly could have a little bit of fun with these but generally speaking, for photographic images, I would say these are sort of over the top. But let's take a look at how we can customize things here in order to produce a really interesting result.
I'll go ahead and choose the black to white version to give us a real basic starting point and then I'll click to close the pop up and now I want to modify this black to white gradient. I'm going to perhaps adjust the transitions, or add a little bit of color here and there. In order to modify this gradient I'll simply click on the Gradient Preview itself. In other words I'm not going to click the popup but rather on the preview of the gradient, and that will bring up the gradient editor. I'll move that dialog a little bit out of the way so we can see the image.
And then, just to give us a basic starting point, I'm going to click underneath the gradient in order to add a gradient stop. You'll see that this stop is black, so if I were to drag this over to the left, I can have a gradient that transitions from black to black, and then to white. But I have a very short transition from black to black, meaning I'm keeping a lot of dark values as pure black, and then transitioning into white, but I can change the color of that stop.
So I'll click on the stop that I want to change and then click on the color swatch, and I'll set the brightness value perhaps to 50%. That gives me a middle gray value. I'll go ahead and click Okay to change that gradient stop to be grey. And if I move that gradient stop to the middle of my gradient then I'll get a sort of normal transition from black to middle grey to white. But I can also adjust the transition between those values. So, having more light values, more values that are lighter than middle grey for example, or more dark values, just by shifting that gradient stop left or right. But it can get even more interesting than that because as we've already seen, we can also incorporate color into the gradients that we use to map the values within our image.
I'll go ahead and move my gradient stop over to the left here, for example, and then I'll click on the color swatch to bring up the color picker. And I'll move this dialogue out of the way so that I can see the image as I'm working. I'll start off with the Hue option and maybe I'll specify a particular shade of essentially orange, but I'm going to use a desaturated version of that orange so that we get more of a kind of brownness tone. And I also want to make sure that I'm choosing an appropriate brightness value. And so in this case I'll stay over toward the left of the larger gradient here so that I'm getting a relatively de-saturated color, but I also want to move down so that I'm getting a relatively dark value.
So I can click around in the various areas to try to find just the right value. That looks like it might work out pretty well. I'll go ahead and click Okay, and now I can fine-tune the position of that gradient stop, in order to improve the overall appearance of the photo. To make things a little more obvious here I'll work on the brighter areas in the photos. So I'll click to add a gradient stop, over toward the right side of the gradient. And then click the color swatch to bring up that color picker, and maybe I'll go with a little bit more of a yellowish tone for those highlights.
And in this case I'll want something relatively bright, and still not too saturated. I'll leave it a little bit saturated so that we can see more readily here. Maybe shift that hue down a little bit so we don't get too much of a greenish tone get a little bit more sort of pure yellow almost bordering on orange to red. That looks to be pretty good, I'll go ahead and click Okay, and now I'll adjust the position of that stop as well. And you can see that I can affect the overall transition of tonal values within the image by shifting that gradient stop around.
Just to exaggerate things a little bit so we get a better sense of the possibilities, I'll choose the prior gradient stop and then click the color swatch in order to bring up the color picker, and now I'll just choose some shade of green. Not because that's a color I really want to use in this case, but just so that we can get a better sense of some of the possibilities. As I shift around through different colors, you'll see that the images updated accordingly and so I have all sorts of creative potential for interpreting the image. In this case, I do think that sort of a sepia tone type of effect is probably going to work best and so I'll probably end up with something that's a little bit more toward that range. Maybe a little bit more of the sort of reddish tones. That looks like it's working out pretty nicely, actually in this case, maybe give it a little bit more saturation but a little darker. The point is that we can continue tinkering with each of these gradient stops in order to exercise great control over the photo. So, we're really going beyond a basic black and white conversion and even beyond a simple color tint.
Because we can have different tonal values at different positions along this gradient, and also different color values along that gradient. So that we have for example one color in the shadows and a different color in the hightlights potentially even a completely different color in the midtones. There are all sorts of possibilities, and I encourage you to experiment around with those possibilities. I do suggest that having a true black for the black point, and a true white for the white point, probably makes the most sense. But then you can play around with all the points in between to determine what's going to work best for your image. In addition to being able to move those gradient stops, you can also shift the transition between gradient stops.
In other words, in the mid-point of that transition, this'll be more obvious with some of the brighter values, for example. You can see that by shifting the transition point over, I'm getting more bright values in those brightest portions of the image, and I can also shift them toward darker values. So, we can adjust the color of each gradient stop, the position of each gradient stop, as well as the transition between each of those gradient stops, and that all adds up to a huge amount of control that we can exercise in the creative interpretation of a photo. And once you're happy with the effect, you can also save the results so that you can use it on other images.
I'll just call this Warm Sepia, for example. (NOISE) And I'll click the New button in order to create that new gradient preset. So that in the future I can simply chooose that preset from the pop-up for my gradient map adjustment layer. But at this point I'm happy with this image, so I'll go ahead and click the Okay button to finalize the effect.
- Configuring the Photoshop interface
- Basic RAW conversion
- Reviewing, refining, and resetting adjustments
- Cropping the image
- Improving tonality and color
- Using the Shadows/Highlights adjustment
- Dodging and burning
- Working with Curves
- Adding tints and vignettes
- Converting to black and white