How to create contrast using the gradient map in Photoshop

  • Creating Contrast using the Gradient Map in Photoshop by Emma Wood

How to create contrast using the gradient map in Photoshop

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


About the Author:

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. Visit Emma Wood online.


  1. ColieJ Apr 24 2012 at 8:29 am - Reply

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

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

    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 - Reply

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

  4. Amy Apr 24 2012 at 9:05 am - Reply

    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 - Reply

    Great tutorial! Thanks!

  6. Leah Cook Apr 24 2012 at 10:13 am - Reply

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

  7. Sarah Cutright Apr 24 2012 at 11:22 am - Reply

    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 - Reply

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

  9. Susy Apr 24 2012 at 12:28 pm - Reply

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

  10. Vera Apr 24 2012 at 12:58 pm - Reply

    Awesome! Thanks so much for a great tutorial!

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

    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 - Reply

    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 - Reply

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

  14. Lisa (Tout Petit Pix Apr 25 2012 at 4:26 am - Reply

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

  15. Maggie Apr 25 2012 at 5:07 am - Reply

    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. Lisa Benemelis Apr 25 2012 at 6:07 am - Reply

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

  17. heidi Apr 26 2012 at 7:50 am - Reply

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

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

    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 - Reply

    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. Tina Hursh Jun 15 2012 at 4:53 am - Reply

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

  21. Pierre Glock Oct 15 2012 at 11:51 pm - Reply

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

  22. Debbie Jul 08 2015 at 10:47 pm - Reply

    Thanks Emma. Question. I have PSE 10. There is no curves adjustment layer. Any alternative to the curves?

    • Emma Wood Jul 09 2015 at 8:20 am - Reply

      Hi Debbie, I just consulted my lovely friend and PSE 10 expert, Melissa Gibson. So you can do the same thing using levels. Just add a new levels adjustment layer, then pull the sliders around. Left slider = shadows, middle slider = mid tones, right slider = highlights. Then, brush off this change where you don’t want it applied.

      I hope this helps a bit 🙂

  23. Lisa Jul 09 2015 at 12:35 pm - Reply

    Does this work in CS6? I’m trying it and I can’t get the gradient editor to come up. Am I doing it wrong?

  24. Cristina Krause May 05 2016 at 2:12 pm - Reply

    Hello Emma would you explain the part about how to add a matte effect? thanks!

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