Photoshop: How I Use Gradient Maps and Blending Modes for Color Work

Adobe Photoshop is a visual cacophony of tools, tools, and more tools. There is seldom just one way to accomplish the look you are after, and beginners endlessly scour YouTube seeking the end-all answers to their questions only to find 27 different ways to, say, "add contrast." It can all be a bit confusing until you remember one key thing: There is no right and wrong. If you get the result you like, and those viewing your work seem to like it, then you've succeeded. To that end, I wanted to review one (of the dozens of possible) ways I utilize Gradient Maps for my color work in Photoshop.

Let's be clear though, I use Capture One Pro for most all of my color correction and what I call my "pre-color work." That is, I play with my images in Capture One until I feel the color is as close to my final vision as possible without going to Photoshop yet. I know certain looks I can easily achieve in Capture One, but other approaches I like to do require Photoshop. Depending on the project, the vision, and the images themselves, my color work approach can vary quite a bit. That said, lately I have been really embracing Gradient Maps in Photoshop because of the richness in both color and contrast that they can add.

As I stated above, you can achieve the same look (or darn close) with other approaches or combination of approaches. However, the results I get with Gradient Maps and Blending Modes in recent months are a "phase" I'm likely to be staying in for some time. I love it so much, I wanted to discuss it a bit and show what I have been doing with Gradient Maps in Photoshop, so I recorded the video tutorial seen above. It runs a little long, so I apologize for that, but you may be able to tell how giddy I am about my Gradient Map noodling this year.

Some of my work from this year where Gradient Maps and Blending Modes were used for the final color work and palette enhancement:

A light-handed use of Gradient Maps to add a little richness to an initially very hazy image on a San Francisco rooftop.

A fairly heavy handed use of Gradient Maps to enhance the existing palette of the shot, but also to increase contrast and color richness on a hazy, overcast shot of Kathrine I did on a humid, south Texas afternoon.

Marrying together all the warm tones of the shot with a Gradient Map and Soft Light Blending Mode (reduced opacity) got me the richness I wanted, sure, but in this particular shot of Rebecca in Red Rock Canyon, Nevada, I masked out the blue sky to preserve the contrast the complementary colors created (and not wash the sky in warm tones).

Even when I try for "true color," like this shot of Cindie in Jean, Nevada, I occasionally add a Gradient Map (usually using the main colors found on the image, or close to) that helps give everything a pop in richness in a smooth manner. Tweaking your Gradients while you are working on your shot can help you take it in a direction you may not have thought of in terms of highlights, shadows, and even specularity.

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26 Comments

Bill Peppas's picture

Complementary colors is the key to "poppy" images in every kind of photography ( well, except black & white obviously :D ), a point usually overlooked by many.

Nino Batista's picture

Fact!

Is it narrated by Quentin Tarantino? :D

Nino Batista's picture

As a matter of fact, yes! #connections

Denis Girard's picture

I'm using gradient maps to correct color cast in my images, using the colors present in my images, but I never thought about using these presets. Great tip Nino! I appreciate your work! thanks! ;)

THANK YOU for finally explaining this technique in a way that didn't make my eyes glaze over. I had watched a few other video tutorials on Gradient Map but just didn't really understand them.

I noticed your histograms before applying this technique had plenty of empty space on both right and left sides. Would you recommend processing slightly flatter in Capture One because this will add contrast?

Nino Batista's picture

Mostly, yes. I throttle myself, as it were, in C1 to ensure I "prepare the canvas", color wise, but not overdo it because [most of the time] I end up adding more color strength in Ps overall, or masked, etc.

Good to know and thank you for the valuable tutorial!

Jay Jay's picture

Do you have the originals to see what a before/after looks like? That would really help to see the effect the gradient has. :)

Nino Batista's picture

Didn't think to post that! Maybe next time...

Cody Schultz's picture

as sad as it may seem, i never truly thought of use gradient maps for anything but black and white images, let alone using the blending modes in conjunction. thanks a ton for the knowledge as always :)

Nino Batista's picture

Not "sad" at all, learning new things - and admitting such - is the path to success! No point in being overly proud or stubborn. Learn, ask questions, always evolve and practice! That's my view, and what I strive for as much as I can.

Matteo Manganiello's picture

Thanks a lot! I knew gradient maps and blending mode before, but I never imagined to use them also for some kind of portrait I do. This opens literally my mind! Thanks, you just double the opportunities to be creative I have during my workflow!

Rafael Orczy's picture

thanks for sharing the video!

Nour El Refai's picture

Great video, thanks for sharing.

Nomad Photographers's picture

Excellent video, very well explained. One question though, don't you think similar results can be achieved much quicker in Lightroom or would it be less subtle ?

Nino Batista's picture

Tomato, tomahto. Really its about control, and what works for your vision and eye. How to color your images? A thousand different ways!

david squire's picture

Rad article...

The entire time I was watching the video, my eye kept going to the heavy dark outline on her leg.

Nino Batista's picture

Oh that pesky camera shake when dragging the shutter whilst strobing!

Ben Pearse's picture

Thanks, this has some great info to go play with...

Thanks for the excellent tutorial Nino. Will definitely give this technique a try on my next shoot!

Excellent tutorial and loved the high energy talk. I watched the whole thing without feeling bored ... the choice of pictures to illustrate it on was smart too. ;-)

Awesome! Thank you Nino (Quentin..)

joao jorge tome's picture

obrigado pelo artigo. to ficando cada vez melhor com ajuda preciosa de todos voces da fstopper. Especialmente voce Nino. Um grande abraço

Nino Batista's picture

(using Google Translate): meu português não é bom - desculpe!