Look familiar? This is our composite-image landscape from Part 1, with color and tone adjustments.

As discussed in the previous article: 'Photoshop Gradient Tool: Blending Images' (aka Part 1), whether I’m just doing basic 'darkroom' work, or creating a composite image, using Photoshop’s Gradient tool in a Layer Mask is one of my go-to techniques. Quick, powerful, and all but invisible because of their feathered transitions... Gradients are a largely underused tool that should be a part of every power-Photoshop user's repertoire.

This Photoshop tutorial is the second of two articles that focus on using Gradient tools. Gradients (in addition to Brushes and Selections - and even in conjunction with them) offer a fast, easy, seamless way to make local changes to an image. As we saw in Part 1, Gradients are handy for making simple composites. They’re also ideal for fundamental darkroom tasks, like burning & dodging and color adjustments. While most users may only be familiar with a single type of gradient,Photoshop offers many options. Here we're going to be using Linear, Reflected and Radial gradients.

Our starting place for this tutorial is this composite created from two images in Part 1. As we proceed, you can follow along step-by-step using the image above, or you can use your own variation created from the moderate-resolution JPEGs of foreground and sky, provided at the top of page 2, in Part 1.

Picking up where we left off at the end of Part 1, let's use Adjustment Layers with Gradients inside the Masks to selectively deliver darkroom-style adjustments quickly and powerfully. We will complete work on the composite image by making the homestead lighter, more contrasty, and warmer - all of which will make it more interesting. We will also darken the sky, especially at the outside edges of the picture. As with all darkroom work, these adjustments are designed to re-direct attention to the primary subject, in this case the buildings.


Step 1

To add contrast to the homestead, I'm going to add a Levels Adjustment Layer above the pixel layer(s). I found Levels values of 15/1.10/201 look good, but you can choose whatever settings you think best. Using the Gradient tool set to Reflected Gradient, Foreground to Background, set the foreground color to white, and the background color to black. Click+drag up from the center of the buildings to the just above the roofline.

The Gradient created in the Levels Adjustment Layer’s Mask (below) will make the Levels adjustment visible in a horizontal stripe across the canvas. Tip: I often use the Reflected Gradient to adjust color, contrast, or density along the horizon in landscape images; Hold down the Shift key as you drag in order to constrain the angle of the Gradient to exactly horizontal.

Reflected Gradient, white (foreground)-to-black (background). Reflected gradients differ from regular linear gradients by mirroring the same (linear) gradient on both sides of the point where you start dragging. 

Checking your Work

At each stage of the process, check your work. Option/Alt+click on the Layer Mask thumbnail in the Layers Panel to see a preview of the Mask. Toggle the visibility of an Adjustment Layer by turning the eyeball (to the left of the layer in the layers panel) on and off. Redo the Gradient if you’d like to change the visible area (a Foreground to Background or Black to White Gradient will replace any previous Gradient) and/or re-adjust the Adjustment Layer to modify its effect.

Multiple Gradients in One Mask

You’ve probably noticed adding a second Gradient when one already exists causes the first Gradient to be entirely replaced by the second. To add multiple Gradients to one mask, or to modify an existing Gradient with additional Gradients, set the Gradient Picker to Foreground to Transparent.

In order to hide the Levels Adjustment layer at the sides of the picture, (as shown in the photograph at the top of this article, and in the layer mask shown below) use a Foreground to Transparent, Linear Gradient, with the foreground color set to black. Click+drag from the edge of the canvas on the left to near the edge of the homestead. Check your work, and then repeat the process on the other side of the picture, so the Levels adjustment is only visible in a feathered oval shape around the homestead, as seen in the mask below.

Reflected Gradient (from previous illustration) - with two Foreground (black) -to-Transparent Linear Gradients added on the sides.

Of course, this could easily have been done with a feathered selection, or with brushes - but the point of this tutorial is to explore the Gradient tool! Still, part of the fun is that you can modify a mask using any combination of tools that introduce black, white or gray. Let's use a soft Brush to further hide the visibility of the Levels layer wherever the adjustment isn't making the picture better. In this case, there’s some nice shadow detail inside the doors and windows of the homestead that's blocked up by the Levels layer.

Use the Brush tool in those areas, painting in black to hide the adjustment and restore shadow detail. Tip: 'Soft Round Opacity Pressure' or 'Airbrush Soft-Round 50%' are good Brush presets for this kind of masking. Because of their feathered edges (which are similar to Gradients) they create smoother, less noticeable transitions.

The third stage of modifying the Levels Adjustment Layer mask: soft brushstrokes added.

Within the Mask on the Levels Adjustment Layer we’ve combined a Foreground to Background Reflected Gradient, two Foreground to Transparent Linear Gradients, and several brushstrokes. We could also create and fill Selections - or erase to modify the Mask. The more I use the Gradient tools, though, the more uses I find for them.

Step 2

In addition to adding contrast on the homestead, let’s warm up the color on the foreground. Create a Color Balance Adjustment Layer. I set mine to +14/-7/-33, Midtones only. You can choose your own settings, or even a different kind of Adjustment layer if you prefer. Use the Gradient tool set to Linear Gradient, Foreground to Background, set the foreground color to white and the background color to black, and click+drag up from the bottom of the canvas to just above the roofline of the building.

This will make the bottom part of the mask white and the top black, with a feathered transition between. Photoshop 'reads' this as: 'show the Color Balance Adjustment layer at the bottom of the image, and gradually make it disappear by the middle of the image.' Check your work once again, and revise the color or the mask, as you wish.

The mask for the Color Balance Adjustment Layer: a simple Linear Gradient.

Click here to go to page 2 of Jan Miele's article 'Photoshop Gradient Tool: Part 2'