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Home Photo Editing Photoshop How To Use the Gradient Tool in Photoshop

How To Use the Gradient Tool in Photoshop

Diverse, creative edits that make your images pop are possible when you apply the Photoshop gradient tool. Make a dull sky sing, infuse mood and mystery into a portrait, bring a landscape to life. Learning how to use the gradient tool in Photoshop will expand your editing potential more than you can imagine.

What is the Photoshop Gradient Tool?

The gradient tool creates a continuous, even blend of colors. It can also be used to blend color and transparency.  

There are various forms of this tool you can choose from depending on how you want to use the gradient tool in Photoshop. You can choose to create these types of gradients:

  • Linear,
  • Radial,
  • Angle, 
  • Reflected,
  • Or Diamond.

Overlaying any of these gradients on Photoshop images can add depth and interest to your photos. Adding colors subtly or as bold as you like can be made to look more natural when you apply the gradient tool in imaginative ways.

Where is the Gradient Tool in Photoshop?

You can find the gradient tool in Photoshop by going to the Tools menu on the left of your screen. It’s about halfway down the toolbar unless you’ve customized this. 

Photoshop gradient tool menu.

The icon may appear as a paint bucket. Click and hold on this icon and it will show you the gradient tool icon (as shown on the inset in the image above.) Click this to activate the gradient tool in Photoshop.

What is the Shortcut Key for the Gradient Tool?

The shortcut key for the gradient tool in Photoshop is ‘G’. Pressing the key will activate the tool from this toolset you used previously. If you had used the Paint Bucket tool last time, pressing G will activate it. By pressing G again you will scroll through to the 3D Material Drop tool. Press it once more and you’ll activate the gradient tool. Any time there are multiple tools within a set, continue to press the shortcut ket until you arrive at the tool you want to use.

How to use the Gradient Tool in Photoshop

There are many ways to use the gradient tool. These options include being able to apply it as a linear, radial, angle, reflected, or diamond gradient. There are also endless options as to how you can configure the color and transparency options for each of these.

Top Tip:

Rather than adding a gradient directly to the active layer, create a new layer to work with the gradient. By adding the gradient as a new layer in Photoshop you have whole realms of flexibility to edit it more creatively.

Thankfully, there is a great selection of presets to help you. Click on the drop-down indicator next to the gradient in the secondary top menu. Here you’ll find the presets. If you can’t see many, click and drag the edge of the panel to reveal more.  

screen grab of Photoshop gradient tool presets.

Once you’ve selected a preset, you can use it directly or you can customize the way it looks. To do this, single click on the gradient bar in the menu. This will bring up the Gradient Editor dialog box. Here you can endlessly customize the appearance of your gradient. Be careful, this can be a very deep rabbit hole to jump down.

gradient menu.
Photoshop gradient tool editor screen grab.

Creating a plane, linear gradient is the most common use of this tool. Over the generations of Photoshop, more options have been added. To apply any gradient to your image, with the gradient tool selected, simply click and drag your mouse. How the gradient appears on your canvas will depend on which option you have select. The linear option is the default. To change this, click one of the other icons beside the gradient panel in the secondary top menu.

Let’s take a look at the various gradient tool options and how you can use them when editing.

Linear Gradient

linear gradient example.

Clicking and dragging your mouse across your image will result in a gradient that looks something like this. To make this gradient I started at the bottom right of my photo.

I added a new layer to make my gradient on. Now I can alter the blend mode and opacity level to have the linear gradient interact in a way that enhances my photo.

In this example, I have chosen Soft Light as the blend mode. I have also reduced the opacity to 55%.

green bananas.

Top Tip:

Holding down the Shift key as you drag will restrain the movement to a straight line. This will follow the direction you start dragging.


Radial Gradient

When you click and drag with the radial gradient tool option selected, the gradient will shade from where you click to the edge in a circular shape. For this example, I have used a preset that ranges from white, through blue until black. I clicked in the center of the image and dragged to the edge.

radial grad example.

I had applied the radial gradient to a new layer above my photo. This allowed me to choose a blend mode and the opacity again to create the look on my photo I wanted. I set the blend mode to Color Burn and the Opacity to 35%

Fish out of water with radial gradient filter applied in photoshop.

Angle Gradient

This gradient is a little challenging to use well. As you click and drag your mouse over and image the gradient shades in a clockwise direction. To create the example below I clicked and dragged from the center of the canvas part way to the right. As you can see, where the starting and ending color ends there’s a prominent hard line created.

angle grad example.

I’ve added two angle gradients to this image of the rice fields and hills. The first was a soft blue and white. The second, layered above it, was a black to white gradient I used the Overlay blend mode on the first gradient and set the Opacity level to 72%. For the top layer, I used color burn as the blend mode and set the Opacity to 19%. This helped enhance the sky.

angle grad screen grab.

Reflected Gradient

When you click and drag with the reflected gradient selected you create a new gradient that’s symmetrical from the starting point.

reflected grad example.

For this example, I used this gradient on a new layer above my image. I set the Blend mode to Overlay and the Opacity to 72%.

Angkor Wat with reflected gradient applied.

This Photoshop gradient can be used in many ways. It is particularly effective when applied to symmetrically composed images.

Diamond Gradient

With the diamond gradient options selected the gradient shades from the center to the corners when you click and drag. As with any gradient in Photoshop you can use two or more colors combined with transparency to achieve the desired effect.

Diamond Gradient screen grab.

I have applied a diamond gradient to my image. Using the gradient editor I set the colors and reduced the opacity of the yellow color at the center of my gradient. I then used the Transform tool to adjust the diamond shape so it better fit my image. I set the layer blend mode to Soft Light and the Opacity to 57%.

diamond Photoshop gradient tool applied to an image of a sea gypsy on his boat.

Using the Gradient Editor in Photoshop

I’ve run you through the basic options and presets that are most commonly used. You can use each of these directly on an image or by creating layers and applying the photoshop gradient tool to a layer. You can stack as many layers and gradients as you like until you reach the desired effect. Or until you exhaust yourself working through all the myriad of options.

Despite the options you have with the presets there will be times when you need more control so the gradient best suits the image you’re applying it to. This is when you use the Gradient Editor in Photoshop.

With the gradient editor, you are able to control the look of the gradients you create. You are not confined to using the preset colors. These are often a good starting point. But sometimes you need to match a color to your image or alter the level of transparency of one or more of the colors you are using in a gradient.

screen grab of gradient tool editor.

How to create a transparent gradient in Photoshop

Creating a transparent gradient in Photoshop is easy. Select the gradient tool and before you create a new gradient, click on the gradient in the secondary menu. This brings up the gradient editor dialog box.

Within this box, you have many options to control the gradient Photoshop will generate. 

You can start by choosing a gradient preset to work with. Something that’s already close to what you want or just anyone will do, especially if you have a clear idea of the gradient you will make.

Then you can select the gradient type and set the amount of smoothness. Below these options, you’ll see a slider with various control boxes at either end and in the middle. You can use the boxes at the top to control the transparency of the colors. The colors can be chosen using the boxes on the lower side of the slider.


First, select the colors you want by double-clicking on each box. You can select from the color picker or use the eyedropper tool to select a color from the image you are working on. Once you have the colors you want, then you’ll be able to more accurately set the transparency. 

Click OK and apply your gradient to a new layer. This may take a few attempts to achieve the look you want for the image you are editing. This is another good reason for adding the gradient you create to a new layer. This way you can turn the layer off and add another with a tweaked version of your gradient. 

When you are happy with your gradient you can go back into the gradient editor and save it so it can be used again at a later dare.

Conclusion

The gradient tool in Photoshop is very powerful and flexible to be configured to get the look you want. Creating a new gradient can subtly affect the look of an image or totally transform it.

As with many editing techniques in Photoshop, practicing to get the look you want takes time. Experimentation with colors and transparency may seem confusing at first. But the more you create different styles and colors of gradients the better you’ll become. Soon you will visualize when a photo will benefit from having one or more gradients applied to it.

Take your time. Choose a few images to work with that you think may gain a boost by adding a gradient to. Look for different photos that you can add a radial or diamond gradient to. It’s pretty easy to find ones that will benefit from a standard gradient. After all, this, in it’s simplest form, is much the same as using an old fashioned graduated filter or ND filter over your camera lens.

Avatar
KevinLJ
Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he's covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who's willing to learn.

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