Gradient Maps in Photomanipulation – Tutorial

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Hi, folks! In this handy tutorial, we’re going to be talking about gradient maps. What are they? How do they work? How can you use them in photomanipulations? See below!

What are gradient maps and how do they work?

A gradient map is a type of an adjustment layer in Photoshop, which (unlike a traditional gradient fill, which fills an area using a linear or radiant blend of colors) uses the lightness/darkness values in the image as a map for how the colours are applied. This means that you can manipulate each value separately, assigning a different colour to your midtones, shadows, highlights and everything in between. It allows you to change the colour of an object in a much more believable and realistic way than, for example, using the Colour or Hue blending modes.



To use a Gradient Map, you need to go into Layer -> New Adjustment Layer -> Gradient Map menu in Photoshop. Remember that if you want it to affect only a specific layer, you can always use it as a Clipping Mask by checking the Use Previous Layer to Create Clipping Mask box while creating the layer or right clicking your layer afterwards and choosing Create Clipping Mask. Read this: if you don’t know how Clipping Masks work.



1. Okay; after choosing the Gradient Map from the New Adjustment Layer menu and clicking OK, you can see the properties panel with a gradient and two check boxes – Dither and ReverseReverse is pretty self-explanatory – it reserves the gradient, and Dither is an option that lets Photoshop apply random noise to reduce the banding effect that sometimes happens with gradients.

Let’s click on the gradient itself, which will take you to the Gradient Editor.

2. The first thing you’ll seeare Presets, marked with a helpful number 2. These are the basic gradients Photoshop offers, but you can always create your own by clicking New if you want to save a gradient for later use.

3. Number three on the image is Gradient Type – here, you can choose from Solid or Noise – the second type is basically a set of randomly generated and distributed colours within a range you define.

4. Smoothness – controls how gradual transitions between colours are.

5. Opacity Stops – the sliders above control opacity. For example, if you want the darker colours in your gradient to be less visible on the image, you can decrease the value in one of the windows below.

6. Colour Stops – the most important part, here – colour stops. Here’s where you actually create your gradient and manipulate the colours – to do that, double click on one of the stops. By clicking anywhere on the actual gradient, you will create another colour stop. You can also move the stops around to control the transitions.

How can you use this with photomanipulations?

Time for some practical applications of all that theory – I’ll show you how to turn regular objects into gold and change your model’s hair colour.

The more advanced aspect here is that to use gradient maps correctly and get really realistic results, you have to know a thing or two about colour theory. Remember that all objects are afftected by the environment in terms of light and colours, and vice versa, and study how do different objects look in different settings in real life. Also, don’t be afraid of colour picking – it’s fantastic if you’re able to properly figure out the right colours yourself, but if you’re having trouble, remember to use all the tools you have on hand.

Make it gold

Gold is a tricky material to get right. It’s a metal, so it’s reflective, and due to that, it easily catches light and colours from its surroundings. Thankfully, gradient maps are an awesome way of turning regular objects into any metal you want with a bit of creativity – be it gold, silver, bronze.



Here’s a regular statue from

The first step is to separate it from the background, so here’s a tip: best ways of cutting things out are the Pen Tool (P)Quick Selection Tool (W) in newer Photoshop versions, or Fluid Mask plugin if you have some extra cash laying around. Do yourself a favour and don’t torture yourself with the Eraser tool, there’s enough suffering in the world.

Also, remember that it’s always best to use Layer Masks to edit things undestructively. Here’s a simple tutorial by @eclipsy on Layer Masks if you don’t know how they work:

And here’s the statue changed to gold, with my gradient settings visible. I applied it to the statue by using a Clipping Mask. Feel free to colour pick from this screenshot if you want to achieve a similar effect, but what if you want to get gold with a slightly different colour scheme?

I’m afraid there’s only one way of doing it – namely, study the material you want to mimic. Below, you can see two different photos of gold objects, with the main colours marked on the images. Pay attention to how each of these palettes differs slightly, and how incredibly highly saturated the colours of gold can be.


Remember – to get a truly realistic effect, you have to not only know what sort of colours your material uses, but also how it interacts with its surroundings! The best way to do it is by experimenting – try playing with both hues, saturation and the number of colours you’re using on the gradient to get the best results.

Change the hair colour


Let’s say that this lovely lady in the photo, coming from, has the perfect pose, face and clothes for your character, but the one you’re trying to portray has a blonde hair. Since hair never uses just one colour, simply applying a darker tone using blending modes wouldn’t work – here’s where gradient maps come in.



Quick Tip: while changing the blending mode of just one colour wouldn’t help, don’t be afraid to play with blending modes and opacity of a gradient map.

I got this effect by using a Gradient Map set to the Linear Dodge (Add) blending mode on 50% Opacity. 

Remember also to make the transitions soft – you can achieve that by using a soft brush on the edges of your layer mask. You can use this trick for manipulation every facet of your model’s appearance, including skin tone, eye colour etc.

That’s it!

Did you find this tutorial helpful? Are you going to try out layer masks in your own work? Discuss below!



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