This image was created from two separate photos, using Photoshop’s Gradient tool.

Photoshop's Gradient tool may not be on most users' lists of go-to editing options. But it should be. In combination with layer masks, the Gradient tool lets you create natural-looking composite images. In this tutorial I'll show you how to combine a compelling foreground element with an interesting sky to create a seamless, believable landscape image.

In an upcoming article we'll explore how to use the Gradient tool to modify layer mask-enabled adjustments to brightness, contrast and toning. But first things first. Here, I'll show you how to make two separate images blend seamlessly into one.

When two is better than one

If your instinct is to resist the whole notion of composite imagery because it feels like 'cheating', you should know that the idea of combining pictures together has a long photographic tradition. Swedish photographer Oscar Gustave Rejlander pioneered the photomontage a.k.a. 'combination printing' in the 1850s! In addition to solving the problem of capturing both sky and foreground on the low-latitude, blue-insensitive emulsions of the day, many 19th century masters appreciated that combination printing is a wonderful way for photographic artists to realize their personal vision, just as painters do.

Here our goal is to seamlessly blend the two images below into a the single image shown at the start of the article. Since we're combining two images, you may be wondering why I don't just use the Quick Selection tool to cut the sky out of one image and paste it over the existing sky in the other image.

Here I have an interesting foreground: a weathered, abandoned and tiny 19th-century New Mexico homestead. The total living space couldn’t have been more than 100 sq. ft.! The problem here though is that the sky isn’t so exciting. This image has a luminous, dramatic sky, but no real focal point for the eye to rest on. Neither of these images really succeeds on its own – but combined together (as seen above) they’re lovely.

The problem is that masking or silhouetting the horizon line is much harder than you may think. The roofline won’t be a problem, and the soft edges of the mountains at the horizon are do-able, but those tree limbs and leaves will be a source of heartbreak! Chances are, even after hours of careful work using Channels, Image Calculations or the Pen tools, something will still look 'funny' around those trees.

So let’s just skip all that. Using the Gradient tool in a layer mask is fun, effective, and best of all, speedy. Of course, there are some projects that need a complex silhouette, but when you're blending things like sky and clouds, using a gradient is not only easier, but produces better results.

Layer masks and gradients explained

The concept of layer masks can be hard to grasp, even for experienced Photoshop users. So before we go any further, here’s a good, simple way to think about them. Masks have only one job: they hide stuff. A mask on a pixel layer makes it possible to hide parts of that layer without destroying any pixels. By using masks instead of the Eraser or History brushes, you can always change your mind about any edits because you're never deleting pixels, only changing their visibility. Better still, you can restore the visibility of any hidden items even after the image file has been saved, closed, and reopened.

When a layer mask is white, it reveals the layer to which it is attached. A black layer mask does just the opposite. It hides the layer to which it is attached. But of course, a mask does not have to be filled completely with black or white. And that's where gradients come in.

When making a gradient inside a layer mask, the thing to remember is that a black-to-white gradient means 'hidden-to-revealed' or 'invisible-to-visible'. A white-to-black gradient means exactly the opposite: 'revealed-to-hidden' or 'visible-to-invisible'.

Gradient tool options

When you select the Gradient tool there are two options you need to set: the gradient's colors and its shape.

You can set the Gradient options to display as thumbnails or in a list view, at a choice of sizes. You can even opt for a text-only view to save room if you're working on a small monitor.

In this tutorial we'll be using the Black, White option to fill in the layer mask. These are the colors we want to use to hide and reveal parts of the layer. The Black, White option is, by default the third item in the Gradient flyout menu shown above. Note that if you set Photoshop's foreground/background swatches to their defaults, (keyboard shortcut: D), then choosing the Foreground to Background option in the Gradient flyout menu will give the same effect.

You also want to make sure to select a Linear Gradient in the options bar. In a followup article on gradient masking, I’ll be using both the Radial and Reflected Gradients. (If anyone can tell me a practical use for the Angle or Diamond Gradients, I’d love to hear from you.)

Once the Gradient tool is selected you can decide the shape of your gradient. You can apply it as a straight-line (linear), radial or reflected blend (shown here). For this tutorial only the Linear Gradient will be employed.

I'll be honest, it takes a little practice to get the hang of using the Gradient tool and its options, but the idea is pretty straightforward. The Gradient tool (unlike a Gradient Fill or Gradient Map Adjustment Layer) is similar to the Brush tool. As with brushes, the color black in a mask hides stuff; white makes it visible. And as I'll demonstrate later, gray partially hides a layer.

Here's where gradients differ though. You create one by click-dragging. A longer click+drag results in a more gradual transition, a shorter click-drag creates a more abrupt transition. To experiment with the Gradient tool I suggest creating a new, blank canvas (File>New) and drawing different gradients on the white Background layer. It’s a great way to make sense of this very useful tool.

Continue to page 2 of our Photoshop Gradient article...