How to create contrast using the gradient map in Photoshop

Creating Contrast using the Gradient Map in Photoshop by Emma Wood

Converting images using the gradient map tool in Photoshop is the first thing that I do when I want to convert an image to black and white. The Gradient Map is a really handy tool that not only converts your image from colour to black and white but also one that allows you to create contrast even before you add any layers.  I thought I’d show you how I use it.

Here I have my SOOC shot, all I have done is adjust my white balance in Lightroom before taking the image into Photoshop.

Creating Contrast using the Gradient Map in Photoshop by Emma Wood

I click on the ‘create new fill or adjustment layer’ which is below my thumbnail.  It’s a round circle, half black and half white.  I then choose the gradient map option.

Creating Contrast using the Gradient Map in Photoshop by Emma Wood

Here is the image with just the gradient map conversion, and no tweaks.

Creating Contrast using the Gradient Map in Photoshop by Emma Wood

When I double click on the actual gradient layer, it will bring up the panel you can see below it. I can play with the smoothness (where it says 100) but I just keep it as high as it goes, since it gives me maximum contrast at 100. Increasing the contrast within the gradient map can also be achieved by playing with the sliders. The pointers on the left control the darks and shadows on my black and white image. If I slide it inwards it will increase the darks. The pointers on the right control the highlights, the more I slide them in, the brighter they become. And the middle pointer controls the mid tones of my image. If I want to increase the brightness of my mid tones, I just slide towards the left, and if I want my mid-tones darker, I slide towards the right.

Creating Contrast using the Gradient Map in Photoshop by Emma Wood

So while this isn’t a perfect black and white conversion I think it’s a good start and you can see that already I’ve produced some nice contrast but playing with the sliders has enabled me to open up the shadows a little more, particularly over the subjects faces.

Next, just to make the background a little darker and add extra tonal contrast, I add a curves layer and click on the multiply option in the top left hand corner.  This makes the whole image darker and from there I  bring the brightness back onto their hair and skin by masking off the layer with a soft black brush. This allows me to bring down the brights on the background without compromising the shadows and highlights over the subjects.

Creating Contrast using the Gradient Map in Photoshop by Emma Wood

I finish off the edit by cloning out distractions (the darker spot on the wall upper left) and then adding a slight matte effect and a little grain.

And here is the sooc shot (with wb adjustments) and the final image using the gradient map to achieve a black and white edit.

Creating Contrast using the Gradient Map in Photoshop by Emma Wood

Creating Contrast using the Gradient Map in Photoshop by Emma Wood

Emma WoodEmma Wood, England
CMU Instructor
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Emma currently resides in England with her pilot husband and 5 of their 7 children, the older kids are now off studying. Despite discovering photography as a means to document her children’s lives within the past few years, she has always had a love for photography, “particularly black and white which stems from my love of black and white films when I was a child.” Emma arms herself with a Nikon D700, a variety of prime lenses and a Lensbaby. She is the instructor of the CMU workshop, Timeless Photography and Emotive Expression.

Read all photography tutorials by Emma Wood.

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