Gradient Fill vs Gradient Map:  What’s the Difference?

Every time I say or hear the term “Gradient Fill” I can’t help but think of an old photography buff named Phil who comes around and spreads his knowledge.  All his friends say, “Oh yeah, that Gradient Phil, what a guy!”  Okay, that was a bad joke, I promise that the rest of this post and the following tutorial WILL be better.

A few weeks ago someone sent me an email asking me the difference between a Gradient Fill and a Gradient Map.  They were struggling with the concept of the Gradient Map and didn’t understand exactly what the gradient fill was doing.  I figured that would be a great video tutorial because while they both involve the term Gradient, they couldn’t be farther from each other.

In simple terms:

  • A Gradient Fill adds a directed wash of color.  It can be directed in many ways, from a linear gradient to a radial gradient, to a reflected gradient.  It is most useful as an adjustment layer and can be used in harmony with Blend Modes and Opacity for a killer look on your images.  At anytime the gradient can be adjusted, it is pretty darn intuitive!
  • The Gradient Tool is like the paint bucket with a directed wash.  It is best used with black to transparent and on masks because once you put it down on a layer it is difficult to adjust.
  • The Gradient Map is unlike its cousins, while they have the same name they come from a different bloodline so to speak.  The Gradient Map actually maps out the tonal values in the image to the gradient that you decide.  If you choose a black and white gradient, the darkest areas in your image will be black and the lightest areas will be white (Blake’s favorite Black and White base).  If you choose a red and orange gradient, your darkest portions of the image will be red and lightest portions will be orange.

Gradient Map in Photoshop

Gradient Fill in Photoshop


If you are still confused, reference this tutorial and see how they all operate.  While they may not be a staple in your workflow now, I am sure this tutorial will change your opinion on them, they are pretty darn powerful!

Blake Rudis
f.64 Academy and f.64 Elite are the brainchildren of Blake Rudis. While he is a landscape photographer, he is most passionate about post-processing images in Photoshop and mentoring others.

For Blake, it's all about the art and process synergy. He dives deep into complex topics and makes them easy to understand through his outside-the-box thinking so that you can use these tricks in your workflow today!
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