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 photo
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 photo
Here is the image with just the gradient map conversion, and no tweaks.
Creating Contrast using the Gradient Map in Photoshop photo

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 photo

So while this isn’t a perfect black and white conversion I think it’s a great start and you can see that already I’ve produced some nice contrast to the otherwise bland gradient map conversion that I began with.

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 her hair and skin by masking off the layer with a soft black brush.

Creating Contrast using the Gradient Map in Photoshop photo

I finish my edit off by cloning out the distractions, cropping and adding a curves level with an s-bend.

Creating Contrast using the Gradient Map in Photoshop photo

And my final edit and SOOC side by side:

Creating Contrast using the Gradient Map in Photoshop photo

Creating Contrast using the Gradient Map in Photoshop photoEmma Wood, United Arab Emirates
CMU Instructor | CM Mentor
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Emma currently resides in the United Arab Emirates with her pilot husband and 5 of their 7 children, the older kids are now studying in the UK. She loves any chance she gets to spend some one on one time with her children, watching a movie with her husband, or getting out and about and exploring new places. Emma starts her day with a Latte and can’t live without her earl grey tea, camera, iPhone, MacBook Air, avocados and miso soup. 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.” Her passion is black and white photography, often described as moody and earthy, and bringing out beauty from the most simple concepts. Emma arms herself with a Nikon D700, a variety of prime lenses and a Lensbaby. She is the instructor of the CMU workshops Shooting 103: Foundations of Composition, Shooting 107: The Art of Mobile Photography, and Shooting 205: Timeless Photography and Emotive Expression.

Read all photography tutorials by Emma Wood.

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21 Responses to “Creating Contrast using the Gradient Map in Photoshop”

  1. ColieJ
    Apr 24 2012 at 8:29 am #

    Thanks so much Emma! Your action is my go-to for BW conversion.

  2. Melissa Everett
    Apr 24 2012 at 8:47 am #

    Love this Emma! Any peek inside of your workflow is just heaven to me! Thank you, thank you!

  3. celestejones
    Apr 24 2012 at 9:05 am #

    omg…i have to try this tonight. thanks emma!

  4. Apr 24 2012 at 9:05 am #

    Gradient maps for B&W conversions have been my favorite for a while now! I still need to learn more about curves though… I find them quite confusing!

  5. Bonnie C
    Apr 24 2012 at 9:39 am #

    Great tutorial! Thanks!

  6. Apr 24 2012 at 10:13 am #

    you. are. FABULOUS. so wonderful of you to share your skills with us, Emma!!

  7. Apr 24 2012 at 11:22 am #

    That was an awesome tutorial! I've never used the gradient map for a straight B&W conversion, but now I'm definitely going to give it a try! Thanks!

  8. Lara Gowder
    Apr 24 2012 at 12:05 pm #

    Thank you, Emma for sharing! I cannot wait to try this! :)

  9. Susy
    Apr 24 2012 at 12:28 pm #

    Thank you so much for this Emma! I love your b&w!

  10. Vera
    Apr 24 2012 at 12:58 pm #

    Awesome! Thanks so much for a great tutorial!

  11. Meredith R.
    Apr 24 2012 at 3:13 pm #

    I don't have photoshop but I loved getting a peak into your workflow for B&w's. Thanks!

  12. Rachel Potter
    Apr 24 2012 at 6:31 pm #

    This is so well timed! Just a few nights ago I was trying to duplicate one of your BW edits… Thank you for this… I got no where close to your gorgeousness!

  13. msn
    Apr 24 2012 at 7:11 pm #

    Can't wait to try this. Thank you!!!!

  14. Apr 25 2012 at 4:26 am #

    Simply amazing Emma. Thank you so much for sharing!!

  15. Maggie
    Apr 25 2012 at 5:07 am #

    Emma, I adore your work! Thanks so much for sharing this. One of these days I am going to have to do a mentoring session with you.

  16. Apr 25 2012 at 6:07 am #

    This is wonderful, Emma. Thank you so much for sharing this tutorial. :) You are awesome!!

  17. Apr 26 2012 at 7:50 am #

    YAY YAY YAY!!! Thanks! I have never done it this way, off to play! :)

  18. Phani Morgan
    Apr 27 2012 at 5:23 pm #

    I just followed your tutorial. It's super easy to understand and follow. I love the results on my images! Thank you!

  19. Mara Vaughan
    Apr 27 2012 at 9:40 pm #

    Thank you Emma! I love your black and whites and am so thrilled that you shared this info with us!! Can’t wait to try it out!

  20. Jun 15 2012 at 4:53 am #

    Thank you so much Emma!!! I cannot wait to try it!!! <3

  21. Oct 15 2012 at 11:51 pm #

    Good post! We will be linking to this particularly great content on our website. Keep up the good writing.

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