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Add mystery and intrigue to your images with a gradient map

Added on Friday 27th of July 2007 02:18 am EST


Adobe Photoshop 7/CS/CS2

Operating Systems:

Macintosh, Microsoft Windows

Photographs shot with ordinary lighting generally won’t contain much drama. We’ll show you how to apply a gradient map to quickly change the mood of your image from mundane to mysterious—and help you captivate your audience’s attention.


To add intrigue to your images with a gradient map, we’ll:

     Introduce you to the Gradient Map command and explain what it does.

     Show you how to quickly apply a gradient map adjustment layer to change the look and mood of any image.

     Explain the features of the Gradient Editor so you can make informed choices when selecting gradient colors.


You can spend a lot of time experimenting with cool effects to enhance your images. But what if we told you there was a tool so simple that could produce remarkable results in a jiffy? Well, there is! The Gradient Map command is quick and easy to use. Plus, it packs a lot of punch in one simple feature. In a few quick clicks you can alter the mood of your entire image and go from serene to surreal, as shown in Figure A. We’ll show you how.




Unleash the Gradient Map

You can apply the Gradient Map command from the menu (Image > Adjustments > Gradient Map) or you can apply it as an adjustment layer. Since we’re advocates of nondestructive image editing, we’ll use the adjustment layer.

But before we apply the adjustment layer, let’s explore how a gradient map works. Your image is defined by pixels with brightness values of 0 to 255. 0 represents the darkest pixels and 255 represents the brightest pixels.

When you apply a gradient map, Photoshop first translates the colors in your image to luminosity values, (grayscale) and then maps the pixels in the image to the corresponding colors in the gradient, based on those luminosity values.


Choose an image

First you need to choose an image. Any image will do; for our example, we’ll use the bicycle photo shown in Figure B. To follow along with our example, download the file from the URL given at the beginning of this article, extract the file bicycle.psd, launch Photoshop and open the file.



Note: To explore the gradient maps we used for the examples in this article, extract the finished low-resolution files castle.psd and bicycle1.psd. Our files have multiple Gradient Map adjustment layers; these should be viewed one at a time. Turn on the visibility for the Gradient Map adjustment layer you wish to see, and turn the visibility for other Gradient Map adjustment layers off.





Apply a gradient map

When you apply a gradient map, the default gradient is the foreground to background gradient. So you can set the colors at the base of the Toolbox before you apply the gradient map if you know what colors you’d like to use. But, if you’ll be adding more than one color to your gradient, or experimenting with some of the gradient presets, just jump right in.


To add a Gradient Map adjustment layer:

1.       Click on the Create New Fill Or Adjustment Layer new_adjustment located at the base of the Layers palette.

2.      Choose Gradient Map from the pop-up menu to open the Gradient Map dialog box.

3.      Select the Preview checkbox shown in the Gradient Map dialog box in


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