Written by Steve Patterson. Sunsets are one of the most commonly photographed aspects of nature, yet photos rarely manage to capture their intense beauty. What was once a sky filled with rich, golden hues often ends up looking cooler, less vivid, and ultimately less interesting. In this Photoshop tutorial, we'll learn how to combine a simple Gradient Map adjustment layer with one of Photoshop's most widely-used blend modes to easily improve and enhance our sunset photos, restoring those warm reds, oranges and yellows we remember.
This version of the tutorial has been fully updated for Photoshop CS6 and CC (Creative Cloud). If you're using Photoshop CS5 or earlier, you'll want to follow along with our original Warm Golden Sunsets tutorial.
Here's the photo I'll be using, taken on a summer evening at the beach:
I like how the sun is getting ready to dip below the horizon as a boat heads out across the lake, but the colors are quite muted and dull; not at all how I remember it. Here's the same image after warming it up and enhancing the colors. As always, I'll cover each step along the way so you can easily follow along with your own image:
Let's get started!
Step 1: Add A Gradient Map Adjustment Layer
With the image newly opened in Photoshop, we can see the photo not only in the main document area but also in the Layers panel. It's sitting on the Background layer, currently the only layer in the document:
As I mentioned at the beginning of the tutorial, we'll be using Photoshop's Gradient Map image adjustment to enhance the colors in the photo, but rather than applying the adjustment directly to the image itself and making permanent changes to the original version, we'll work non-destructively by adding the Gradient Map as an adjustment layer. To do that, click on the New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel:
Then choose Gradient Map from down near the bottom of the list:
If we look again in the Layers panel, we see the new Gradient Map adjustment layer (named "Gradient Map 1") sitting above the image. Everything we do with the Gradient Map adjustment will now be completely separate from the image itself:
Photoshop's Gradient Map adjustment gets its name from what it does; it lets us "map", or assign, different colors to different tonal values in the image. For example, we can use a Gradient Map to assign one color to the darker areas and another color to the lighter areas. We can take it a step further and map a third color to the midtones in between. In fact, if we wanted, we could divide the entire tonal range of an image into a rainbow of colors! And since we're working with gradients (hence the name "Gradient Map"), Photoshop can create smooth transitions between the colors for us.
By default, the Gradient Map uses your current Foreground and Background colors as the colors for the gradient. If your Foreground and Background colors are set to their defaults, with your Foreground color being black and the Background color being white, you'll see your image temporarily mapped to black and white. Obviously this isn't what we want, but we'll see how to edit the gradient's colors in a moment:
Step 2: Click On The Preview Bar To Edit The Gradient
If our sunset photo wasn't colorful enough before, it's even less so now, but that's okay because we can easily change the colors in the gradient. And because we're applying the Gradient Map as an adjustment layer, we can make as many changes to the gradient as we like without harming the original photo in any way. You'll find the options for the Gradient Map adjustment in Photoshop's Properties panel. Click directly on the gradient preview bar in the Properties panel to edit the gradient:
Step 3: Change The Left Color To Red
Clicking the preview bar opens the Gradient Editor. Here, you'll see another, larger gradient bar in the bottom half of the dialog box. Notice those two little squares with the triangles above them; one below the far left of the gradient and the other below the far right? Those are called color stops and we use them to edit the gradient's colors. We'll start with the color on the left which will be mapped to the darkest tones in the image. Double-click on the black color stop below the far left of the gradient:
This opens Photoshop's Color Picker where we can select a different color. Choose a bright, saturated red. If you want to use the same shade of red that I'm using, go down to the RGB values in the lower center of the Color Picker and set the R (Red) value to 240, the G (Green) value to 15 and the B (Blue) value also to 15. You may think that bright red is a strange choice for a color that's going to be mapped to the darkest tones in the image, but don't worry. It will darken up nicely when we change the Gradient Map's blend mode later on:
Click OK to exit out of the Color Picker when you're done, but don't exit out of the Gradient Editor just yet. We still have to change the color for the lightest tones. If we look at the image, we see that the darker tones now appear as various shades of red rather than black:
Step 4: Change The Right Color To Yellow
Next, we'll change the color that will be mapped to the lightest tones in the image. Double-click on the white color stop below the bottom right of the gradient:
This once again opens the Color Picker. This time, choose a bright, saturated yellow. To use the same shade of yellow that I'm using, set the R value to 245, the G value to 220 and the B value to 10:
Click OK to close out of the Color Picker. If we look at our gradient in the Gradient Editor, we see that we now have a gradient that transitions from red on the left to yellow on the right, with Photoshop blending the two colors together for us, giving us a nice orange in the midtones:
We're done editing our gradient, so click OK to close out of the Gradient Editor. Here's what my image looks like at this point, with the darkest tones mapped to red, the lightest tones mapped to yellow, and the midtones mapped to orange. Of course, the colors aren't blending in with the photo the way they should be, so we'll fix that next:
Step 5: Change The Blend Mode Of The Gradient Map To Overlay
We've added our Gradient Map adjustment layer and edited the colors in the gradient. Now we need to blend the colors in with the photo, and we can do that by changing the Gradient Map layer's blend mode. You'll find the Blend Mode option in the upper left of the Layers panel. Change it from Normal (the default setting) to Overlay:
If you've read through our Five Essential Blend Modes For Photo Editing tutorial, you know that the Overlay blend mode is used to boost contrast in an image, making light areas lighter and dark areas darker. If we look again at our image after changing the blend mode to Overlay, we see that the contrast has definitely been increased. The reds, oranges and yellows from our gradient are now blending in more naturally with the photo, with the reds now much darker and the yellows much lighter:
Step 6: Lower The Opacity Of The Gradient Map Layer
The only problem remaining is that the colors look too intense. To reduce the intensity so it looks more like a sunset and less like a nuclear explosion, all we need to do as a final step is lower the opacity of the Gradient Map adjustment layer. The Opacity option is found in the upper right of the Layers panel, directly across from the Blend Mode option. I'll lower mine down to 50% but you may prefer a different value for your image, so adjust it to taste:
And with that, we're done! If you want to compare your enhanced version of the image with the original version, simply click on the adjustment layer's visibility icon (the "eyeball" icon) in the Layers panel to temporarily turn the Gradient Map off:
With the adjustment layer turned off, the original version reappears:
Click the same visibility icon again to turn the Gradient Map adjustment layer back on and view your enhanced version. Here, after lowering the opacity to reduce the intensity of the colors, is my final result:
And there we have it! That's how to restore those warm, golden colors to your sunset photos using a simple Gradient Map adjustment layer and the Overlay blend mode in Photoshop! Check out our Photo Effects section for more Photoshop effects tutorials!