How to Use a Photoshop Gradient Map For Stunning Black and White Photos?

DSC_2145-Edit-2_0,5 sec at f - 9,5_11 mm_ISO 100_NIKON D7100One of the best ways to use to convert an image to a toned black and white image is by using Photoshop’s Gradient Map tool. 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 tutorial, I will show you how to work with the Photoshop Gradient Map tool to achieve a professional looking toned black and white image.

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

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How to Make a Basic Black and White Conversion Using the Photoshop Gradient Map Tool

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 wil be the starting base of the Photoshop Gradient Map Tool.

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

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.

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

The gradient map defaults to a black and white, however, sometimes it looks inverted. Don’t worry, just click the reverse checkbox in the gradient map properties panel and your photo will instantly look normal again.

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

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.

Open gradient picker

From a photographer’s point of view, the presets available by default is a sorry sight except for the black and white preset. The other default presets are not very useful for photographers. But, don’t worry. You just have to activate another set of toning presets that are useful for photographers, the first time you want to use them.

Use Photoshop Built-in, but “Secret” Gradients Toning

Photoshop comes with a lot of gradients that are great for toning and split-toning your images. However, they are not activated by default and therefore unknown by most users.

Photoshop Gradient Picker Panel
The Gradient Picker picker panel with the default gradients available in Photoshop. Click the cog wheel icon to open the options menu, where you can select the photography toning gradient set

With the Gradient Picker panel open click on the small cog wheel in the upper right corner.

Clicking it will open up the options menu for the Gradient Picker. Scroll down towards the end of the list, and you will see a list of extra gradient sets that you can activate in Photoshop. Look for the Photographic Toning gradient set and click it.

Next, a dialogue will appear to let you decide whether you want to append this gradient set to the existing or replace them. If you are using the existing gradients just click append, otherwise click ‘OK’ to replace the current Photoshop gradients. Don’t worry; I will shortly show you how to return to the default gradient set.

Options menu select Photographic toning

Now you should have access to a whole range of Photographic Toning presets in the Gradient Picker panel.

Photography Toning Presets

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.

Options menu Small list

The top half of the Photographic Toning presets are single tone tinting presets that applies only a single tone to your image. The second half are split-toning gradients that create a gradient map consisting of two different colors.

To apply one of the Photographic Toning gradients just click on it to make Photoshop apply it to the Gradient layer.

Sephia Toning applied using Photoshop Gradient Map

How to modify Photoshop Gradient Maps?

Photoshop Gradient Map EditorIf you are not satisfied with the result of the gradient map, it is relatively easy to adjust it. With the properties panel open, click on the gradient fill bar to open the Gradient Editor.

In the middle of the Gradient Editor 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 controls the opacity of the gradient at specific locations of the gradient map. The arrows below control the color change in the gradient map.

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.

You can place arrows below the gradient fill to introduce a particular color in the shadows of your image if you put the arrow on the left side of the bar or add another color to use for the highlights of your image if your place the arrow on the right side of the gradient fill.

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.

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.

Open gradient map properties panel



How to return to the default Photoshop Gradients

I promised you earlier to show you have to reset the presets back to the default Photoshop Gradient Map presets. If you at some point want to deactivate or return to the default gradient set, just find the cogwheel under the Gradient Picker panel once again and click it to open the options menu. In the menu click the option Reset Gradients to return to the default Photoshop gradients.

Bonus Tip – Selectively Bring Back Color to Your Black and White Photo

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.

Sephia toned black and white photo with selective unmasking
After applying a custom Sephia toned gradient map, I unmasked the stone using a brush on the layer mask revealing the original colored image below. This makes the stone in the foreground pop in contrast to the rest of the image.

Concluding remarks

Photoshop actions for photographersI hope you this post helped you create awesome black and white images and help you master the Photoshop Gradient Map tool. 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.



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Hey I’m Peter. I’m the owner and editor of Photography-RAW. I make sure that you get the best articles about photography. Personally, I prefer to shot landscape, nature and macro photography. I hope you enjoy the site 🙂
Hey I’m Peter. I’m the owner and editor of Photography-RAW. I make sure that you get the best articles about photography. Personally, I prefer to shot landscape, nature and macro photography. I hope you enjoy the site 🙂

1 thought on “How to Use a Photoshop Gradient Map For Stunning Black and White Photos?”

  1. Hi Peter
    Thank you for the article on using gradient maps to process black and white images – great explanations. I have your E-Book Mono – Part 1 Vision and Capture, but don’t seem to be able to access Mono – Part 2 Processing. Can you help please?

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