Gradient Map - Powerful tool to improve the post-processing of your photos

Updated: Mar 21

Different gradient map filters on one photograph

Read till the end of this post. A small gift is awaiting you there.

Here is a tool that I discovered a while ago. I was watching a video with a technique for character drawing and there was a way to colour them with the gradient map tool. After using it for a couple of my drawings, I decided to try it out on my photos as well.

In this tutorial, I will show you how to use gradient maps. This is an extremely powerful tool which can help you to fix some errors or just make the photographs more appealing.

As far as I know, gradient map is available in Photoshop, Affinity Photo, Procreate …

I mostly edit pictures in Lightroom, but when I see potentially good photographs I take them to Photoshop. So in this tutorial, I’m going to show you the gradient map tool in Photoshop. If you know this tool and use it in other programs this tutorial still might be helpful for you. Because I show not only the tool but also methods of use.

How to choose colours for a gradient map

For quite a long time I’ve been saving more and more gradients with different colours that I liked. If you don’t know what colours to choose here is a lifehack - try to pick the colours from a painting or a photograph you like. WikiArt is a great source with the masterpieces of all times. I personally love paintings because, in my opinion, painters on average see colours better than photographers. It’s not proven but I see a lot fewer paintings with bad colours rather than photographs. For instance, I used Edward Hopper’s colours as references for some of my gradients.

The most important feature of the gradient map tool is that you can reduce the number of colours on your image. The stylisation is always about reduction. Reduction in details or colours can definitely help you improve your images. Thus, by using gradient maps you can make your photos more stylised. Some of the gradients that I have saved can be brown to black or bright warm green to dark cold green. Or sometimes I pick colours for a gradient map from a film photograph to make filmy colours on my shots.

Here is an example of one of the gradients that I use:

Gradient preset for a gradient map

Step-by-step guide

1 - Define the colours for your gradient map

By that I mean to either choose 2 colours or up to 10-15 or any number you might require.

As I said earlier, you can pick your colours from a painting or a photograph.

To do that you will need to select the gradient tool and open gradient editing by clicking on the gradient itself.

Gradient tool settings
Click right there on the gradient.

Then you will see the window where you can create a new gradient preset.

2 - Pick colours for your gradient map preset

Picking colours for a gradient map

Start by clicking on the colour stop and then on the rectangle with your colour and then pick any colour on a photograph or a painting. Continue by pressing anywhere on the gradient to add more colour stops. The only key part is that it’s better to keep the colours consistent and pick the colours according to their values

You can see what colours I picked from my example image in the screenshot below.

Saving the gradient preset
To save the gradient preset - press NEW

3 - Save your gradient preset

Once you are finished press NEW

And ONLY AFTER this press OK.

If you pressed OK then go back to this window by pressing on the gradient in the top left corner and then name your preset and click new.

I do not recommend choosing 2 unnaturally flashy contrasting colours. This would be bright blue and bright red, for example. Since, in most cases, such combinations will make a photograph look like a sign of your nearest corner shop or a fast-food restaurant but not like an artistic artwork.

4 - Apply the gradient map

So once you’re ready, apply the gradient map.

Gradient map can be found in Adjustments here:

The Gradient map tool in the adjustments section
The Gradient map tool in the adjustments section

Or click Image > Adjustments > Gradient map

Now open properties and click on the gradient or an arrow next to it. You will be able to choose your saved preset there. Here you can adjust the preset for your image by moving the colour stops along the gradient.

Adjusting the gradient map for the photograph
Adjusting the gradient map for the photograph

5 - Reduce the opacity of your gradient map layer

I never use 100% opacity gradient map filters for photography. Try reducing the opacity of the layer to about 15-40% to achieve the best results.

Then play around with it and you will see how powerful this tool is.

6 - Choose a blending mode of the gradient map

Try also changing the blending mode since it gives you more ways to manipulate the image.

For instance, that’s how the same gradient map looks different depending on the various blending modes:

Different blending modes of the gradient map
Different blending modes

If you have a pre-edited image, try using Hue, Saturation or Colour blending modes. They will help since they affect colours but not the value. I use Normal, Overlay, Hard light and Hue most often. However, depending on the image, I use almost all of the modes but the craziest ones like Difference.

7 - Using Mask layer with the gradient map

Using a mask you can also apply a gradient map to a part of the image. This enables you to colour separate objects, like the scarf on my example below. Obviously, you can mask any layers, so a gradient map is one of many ways to colour objects. Personally, I think this is just a great tool to make your colours stunning.

Applying the gradient map with a mask
I applied the mask partially so you could see the difference

8 - Faking film colours with the gradient map

The great use of gradient map is faking film colours.

gradient map application for making the filmy colours
Here I applied the filter and the colours look more similar to a film photo

I’ve been shooting on film for a few years. And unfortunately, a few years ago 35mm film was about 3 or more times cheaper. I remember that you could get a cheap roll for 2-3€ and now the cheapest is around 10€. Lately, the film has been rediscovered by hipsters and other people. Since it became trendy they started doing film photography. As demand and popularity grow, the prices grow at the same rate. Currently, shooting and developing one film roll costs around 20-30€. So even though it’s not the same as the shots made on actual film, there is another affordable option. We can still make similar light, grain, noise and colours as on the film photos.

To make the colours "like on film", you can use a reference mode or a preset in Lightroom. Or you can also adjust the colours and values by using the gradient map tool in Photoshop. I’m planning to create a pack of gradient maps and actions for Photoshop to fake different types of film.

You can try to achieve this yourself by choosing a film photograph without a lot of colour variations and picking some colours on the whole dynamic range from blacks to whites and applying for your image as I explained before.

If you have more great ideas to use the gradient map tool, please share them with me! I would be excited to hear from you.

Meanwhile, you can check out some shots from my portrait photography project where I also use the gradient map tool.

A small gift from me

If you want to try out one of my gradient map presets which I created myself, subscribe to my blog using the button below and you will receive an email with further instructions.