Photoshop Elements Gradient Maps can create a wide range of effects from black and white conversions to sepia toning and colour tints, so how do they work?

Gradient maps take the brightness values in the picture and ‘map’ them on to any gradient you choose, and this is actually rather useful. Let’s say you pick a straightforward black-white gradient – the tool then maps all the pixels in your picture onto the different shades of grey along this gradient according to their original brightness.

In this instance, you’ll get a black and white conversion of a colour original, which is interesting in itself and the first effect in the walkthrough below. But there’s a lot more you can do with gradient maps, and I’ve chosen a picture of a vintage ice cream van at a local fair to demonstrate…

01 Create a gradient map adjustment layer

Elements Gradient Map

This picture’s nice enough, but the full-colour treatment doesn’t suit the subject. So first I use the drop-down menu on the Layers palette to create a new adjustment layer and then the Gradient Map option about half way down….

02 Choose your gradient

Elements Gradient Map

Elements will pick the first gradient on your list of presets. If it’s the regular black-white gradient, that’s fine because that’s the first one I want to feature. If not, you’ll need to click the gradient swatch in the Gradient Map panel (1). This opens the Gradient Editor panel, where you should be able to find and click on a regular black-white gradient (2).

Here’s what the picture looks like now. Using a black-white gradient converts the picture into black and white and it does a very good job. Gradient map conversions often have just a little more depth and richness than other conversion methods.

03 Add a sepia tone

Elements Gradient Map

But this is just the start. If you go back to the Gradient Editor, then click just below the gradient about half way along (1) you add a ‘Color Stop’. Now you click on this color stop to select it, and in the bottom left corner of the Gradient Editor panel you’ll see the ‘Color’ button. Click this (the centre of the button, not the arrow in the bottom corner), and Elements will display the ‘Select color stop’ panel…

(Don’t worry, all this is quicker and simpler than it sounds once you get used to it.)

Now use the vertical hue slider at the side of this panel to select a sepia tone (brown), then click in the main window to choose the saturation and lightness of the colour (2). It should be fairly dark and fairly un-saturated.

This adds another colour (this sepia tone) to the middle of the gradient. Your picture will still have black blacks and white whites, but a rich sepia tone will be blended in through the rest.

Take a look at the result. I think this is a lot subtler, richer and more controllable than regular sepia effects, and don’t forget you can go back to the Gradient Editor to change the colour and tone of that middle colour stop to fine-tune the effect.