Post-Processing » Photoshop Tutorials » How to Add a Black and White Gradient Map in Photoshop?

How to Add a Black and White Gradient Map in Photoshop?

One of the best ways to use to convert an image to a toned black and white image is by applying a black to white gradient map in Photoshop. With the gradient map tool, you can create a lot of kick-ass looking toned black and white photos, but you can also create some crazy stuff which looks horrible, so take care.

In this Photoshop Gradient Map tutorial, I will show you how to use a white to black gradient to convert an image into black and white

What are Gradient Maps in Photoshop

Gradient maps is an adjustment layer that you can apply to an image. It changes the colors of your image according to the luminosity values of the image and the colors you choose. By selecting a white color for the highlight and a black color for the shadows, you can easily convert a color image into a black and white.

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Here is the original color image that I will convert into a toned black and white photo using a gradient map in Photoshop.

original image
Original image before applying a gradient map

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__CONFIG_colors_palette__{“active_palette”:0,”config”:{“colors”:{“62516”:{“name”:”Main Accent”,”parent”:-1}},”gradients”:[]},”palettes”:[{“name”:”Default Palette”,”value”:{“colors”:{“62516”:{“val”:”var(–tcb-color-4)”,”hsl”:{“h”:46,”s”:0.8692,”l”:0.01}}},”gradients”:[]}}]}__CONFIG_colors_palette__
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How to Make a Basic Black and White Conversion Using the Photoshop Gradient Tool

Click the Add a New Adjustment Layer icon at the bottom of the Layer panel and select Gradient Map

After opening the image, you want to process in Photoshop, begin by resetting your foreground and background colors to white and black. You need to do this because the foreground and background colors will be the starting base of the Photoshop Gradient Map Tool.

This also means that you can use this as a shortcut and set your foreground color to white and your background color to gray, to start with a white to gray gradient. Or switch the foreground/background colors around to start with a grey to white gradient instead.

You can reset your foreground and background colors to the default black and white colors by pressing D.

The next step is to add a Gradient Map Adjustment layer. You can do this by clicking the New Adjustment Layer icon at the bottom of the layer panel, and select Gradient Map from the list. You can also access the gradient map tool from the adjustments panel. Just look for an icon with a linear gradient bar.

The gradient map defaults to a black to white gradient, however, this makes the image look like it is inverted. Don’t worry, just click the reverse checkbox in the gradient map properties panel and your photo will instantly look normal again. This is the number one reason for users to think that a Photoshop gradient map is not working correctly.

Clicking on the gradient fill fading from black to white will open up the Gradient Editor, which we will do later on.

Use Photoshop Built-in Gradients Toning Presets

If you, on the other hand, choose the little downward pointing arrow just to the left of the gradient fill you open up the presets gallery or Gradient Picker panel directly without the gradient editor dialog.

Open gradient picker

Photoshop comes with a lot of gradients map presets. However, except for the black and white presets, I prefer to set the colors in the gradient map for making my own split-toned image maps.

If you instead click on the linear gradient shown in the properties for the gradient map adjustment layer, you will get to the Gradient Editor. Here you can also see the folder with the gradient preset. Simply click one to apply it

If you want a better view for previewing the gradient presets, just click the cogwheel again and select small list or large list from the options menu. Choosing a list will make a short description appear beside each of the thumbnails.

Default gradient settings applied

How to modify Photoshop Gradient Maps?

modify gradient map

If you are not satisfied with the result of the gradient map, it is relatively easy to adjust it. With the Gradient Editor dialog box open you can adjust the gradient at the lower half of the dialog.

Here you will see the gradient fill bar again, but with small arrows above it pointing down and some arrows below pointing up.

These arrows control the flow of the gradient map. The arrows above control the opacity of the gradient at specific locations of the gradient map. The arrows below control the color change in the gradient map. I usually leave the opacity controls alone.

The gradient fill bar is a way to visually display the entire tone scale of your image. The shadows are on the left, mid-tones in the middle of the bar, and the highlights to the right of the gradient fill bar.

If you toggled Reverse on in the Gradient Map properties, before opening up the dialog, this will be reversed with the highlights to the left, and shadows to the right.

You add new colors by clicking in the area just below the gradient fill bar between two other colors. To change the color, click on the color field at the bottom of the Gradient Editor, to bring up the color picker tool. If you want to shift the gradient a bit left click and drag on the small diamond-shaped slider between any two colors. It will only appear, once you have selected one of the colors in the gradient.

To remove a color that you have previously added. Click the color and drag it downwards, and release the mouse. Alternatively, click

In the example above, where I have added dark bluish color, between the midtones and the dark shadows. This introduce a cool blue look the the black and white image. Or you can add another color to use for the highlights of your image if you place the arrow between the midtones and the highlights in the gradient fill.

cool blue look by using gradient map

Split Toning Using Gradient Maps in Photoshop

If you want your image to become a split-tone image you just need to change the colors of the gradient fill bar to contain two different colors in each end of the gradient fill bar. For promising results, don’t be too aggressive with the color change but instead use subtle colors.

You are also not limited to only using two different colors for a split-tone image, but instead, you can put lots of arrows with different colors in the gradient fill, but the results will likely not be satisfactory.

The space between the arrow determines how fast one color transitions to the next color. When you are finished tweaking the colors for the gradients fill click the OK button to close the dialog window.

If you need to modify the colors again click on the adjustment icon on the gradient map adjustment layer in the Layers panel.

Selectively Bring Back Color to Your Black and White Photo

If you want to experiment a bit with color grading or selective apply coloring back into you image, there are two approaches.

1. Mask out part of the gradient map

Mask out some of the gradient map to reveal the original color image below. You can do this by using a black brush on the layer mask for the gradient map layer. Try to begin with 50% opacity so the effect doesn’t become to abrupt between the toned image and the area you might want to leave in color.

selective coloring
After applying a custom gradient map, I unmasked the light tower using a brush on the layer mask revealing the original colored image below.

2. Play with Blending Modes

If you combine different blending modes with a lower layer opacity, you can also achieve interesting effects, in the area between black and white and color images. In the sample below, I have applied a standard black and white gradient map and changed the blending mode to saturation, and lowered the opacity of the gradient map to 70%.

blending mode saturation applied to black and white gradient map.

Concluding remarks

In this post, you have learned how to add a gradient map adjustment layer in Photoshop to create black and white images. There are other ways to work with black and white images in Photoshop, but using gradient maps puts you in the driver’s seat concerning controlling how tones are applied to your image no matter whether your goal is to create a single tone or split-tone image.

If you want some shortcuts on using Photoshop I suggest you check out my Photoshop Actions for Photographers package. This package also includes Photoshop gradient map actions.

What is your experience with using gradient maps in Photoshop? Share your thoughts below.

If you don’t have Photoshop, you can get it on Adobe’s website.

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