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Using The Gradient Map Adjustment Layer in Photoshop CS5

In Photoshop the Gradient Map effect maps the colors of a gradient (defined by you) to the luminance values of an image. It doesn’t get used all that often but it’s quite a powerful and fun color correction tool which can produce some pretty nice results.

You can use it in two ways: firstly as a permanent image adjustment found by going to Image > Adjustments > Gradient Map. (watch out as you can’t undo this!) Secondly—a much more powerful alternative—as an Adjustment Layer which you’ll find in the Adjustments panel (CS4 and above).

Step 1

Here’s a rather offensive demonstration! I have a Layer with a circular white-to-black gradient:

circular white-to-black gradient

If I apply the Gradient Map adjustment layer and edit the gradient to a rainbow I now have this monstrosity! 

rainbow gradient

Well you get the idea. The left-hand side of the gradient (Red) is mapped to the darkest pixels and the right (Yellow) is mapped to lightest pixels. All the colors in-between are mapped to the values between dark and light (their luminance).

Step 2

So here’s some applications. Firstly it’s quite a good tool for re-coloring textures. Here I have a typical grungy texture. 

a grungy texture

Now the first thing you’d think of when coloring something like this is Hue and Saturation. You’d click Colorize and adjust the Hue slider to get your color, like this.

colorized grungy texture

You can see everything is now a shade of blue. That’s cool but the Gradient Map can give you a lot more option when re-coloring. Here’s the same texture with the Gradient Map Adjustment Layer applied:

I now have a lot more options for how I color the various luminance values of the texture. You can see the highlights are a now a creamy tan color. It’s quite subtle but you can experiment and get as crazy as you like. So, that’s one way you can use it.

Step 3

Here’s another very nice technique for this that uses a very powerful feature of Adjustment Layers: Opacity! I have a picture here that I got from iStockphoto. I can use the Gradient Map Adjustment Layer to give this photo a nice retro feel.

girl drinking coffee

I’ll apply the Gradient Map layer and edit the gradient to these colors, dark purple through some blue green shades and then to white:

I get this which is totally over the top!

girl drinking coffee-purple to white gradient

Step 4

Now if I dial down the opacity of the adjustment layer to about 67% I get a much more pleasing and subtle effect. The girl now takes on those nice purple and cyan tones and the green of the trees are really muted. 

girl drinking coffee-purple to white gradient-opacity 67

This ability to blend the Adjustment effect is very cool and will allow you to really fine tune your result!

Step 5

Now all I have to do is add some subtle desaturation, lens blur and some vignette effects.

girl drinking coffee with added effects

I’ve now got myself a nice looking retro style image: 

girl drinking coffee final result

Of course using different gradient colors will give different results so feel free to experiment there!  These are just a couple of examples of what you can do with the Gradient Map in Photoshop CS5!

Toby Pitman

Toby Pitman | Articles by this author

For the past 20 years Toby has worked as a professional guitarist, programmer and producer. Clients include Sir Paul McCartney, George Michael, Shirley Bassey, Yusuf Islam, Giles Martin as well as the London 2012 Olympic Ceremonies. He has also worked extensively in TV, Advertising and Film. As well as composing himself he has also worked alongside many composers like David Arnold, Clint Mansell and Simon Franglen on many major film releases. An expert in synthesis and sound design Toby has also lectured for Apple on their Logic Pro music software which he has used since its days on the Atari. He has also worked as an educator for the International Guitar Foundation and the Brighton Institute of Modern Music teaching guitar. In his spare time (of which there is very little) he moonlights as a motion graphics artist specialising in Cinema 4D and After Effects.


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