Photoshop Techniques: Gradient Mask and Photo Filters

For this blog, you’ll need working knowledge of Photoshop’s adjustment layers and masks. If you do not, I recommend you catch up on layers and masks from my previous blogs.

Image enhancement has so many meanings and the way we approach it varies from image to image. For our purposes here, enhancement means placing greater emphasis on certain natural qualities of an image, be it through contrast or color adjustments. What I mean by ‘natural’ is simply the elements captured within the frame including the mood of the image. I am not talking about adding or removing things or adjusting their realism. Instead, I am talking about subtle color or contrast adjustments.

There are many ways to edit an image but the one I talk about here is selective application of the Photo Filter adjustment. To apply it selectively, I use the Gradient Tool for masking. This is a strategy I often use in images that have a big sky on the top of the image with a foreground interest on the lower portion. I may use the photo filter on the sky to bring out a color in the clouds that will transition smoothly toward the foreground area. Sometimes, I may apply another photo filter to the foreground to transition smoothly toward the sky. First, I must identify the area of the image I want to apply the effect. Next, I follow these simple steps:

  1. Create a Photo Filter adjustment layer.
  2. Adjust the photo filter color and density as you like. Remember, this can be changed at any time.
  3. With the layer mask highlighted, choose the Gradient tool, settings are basic white to black, linear, 100% smoothness, 100% opacity.
  4. Apply the gradient tool across the image as desired.
  5. Continue to adjust the photo filter and the gradient mask as desired.
  6. To apply a second filter, repeat steps 1 through 5.

At this point, you may continue reading, or you may wish to watch my video to demonstrate the above steps. Either way, it is best to open an image in Photoshop to work with as you read along.

Step 1 – apply a photo filter

Open the Adjustment Layers menu and choose Photo Filter. Note that a layer mask appears next to the layer icon. It is white, indicating the filter effect is revealed on the entire image.

Step 2 – adjust the photo filter effects.

In the Properties screen, choose a filter from the drop-down menu.

The density and illuminance can be changed as well. You also want to make sure the camera icon in the top left corner is chosen.

By double clicking on color, the color picker window appears and from there, hue, saturation and brightness can be altered. Remember, you can change any of these adjustments at any time.

Step 3 – prepare the gradient tool for the layer mask.

Click on the layer mask to highlight it (white border surrounding the icon). Next, click on the Gradient Tool and note the horizontal tab running across the top of the screen.

There are several default settings, and there is no need to uncheck or check any of them. Make sure opacity is 100%. There are five small icons to the left of ‘Mode’, circled in red below. Click on the icon at the left end, this is the linear gradient that we will use. The small horizontal window should have white transitioning to black. If not, click on the small arrow to reveal a drop-down menu. Be sure it is set on Basic, foreground to background as you see highlighted in blue here.

You also want to make sure the transition smoothness is 100%, so double click on the horizontal window and a gradient editor window opens. Make sure smoothness is 100% and close the window.

On the lower portion of the vertical tools window, look for the two overlapping small squares, one should be white, the other should be black. These are your foreground and background colors. Make sure the foreground is white (the top square). Click on the small arrows to switch them.

Step 4 – apply the gradient tool to the layer mask.

If you wish to apply the photo filter to the top portion, place the cursor at the very top in the middle, click & hold, and drag down. A line appears and this indicates the areas that will transition from reveal to conceal. Remember, white reveals, black conceals. What you are doing is using the linear gradient tool to transition from white to black, or from reveal to conceal. The gray area (the smooth transition area) means reveal is partial. In the image below, you can see the layer mask after the gradient tool was applied. The next image shows the results. You can see the red filter coming through on the revealed portion.

With the gradient tool, you can redo it with each click and drag. The longer the dragged line, the greater is the transition area. Play around with it until you get the effect you want. You can also apply the line from the bottom, from the side or anywhere you want for that matter.

Step 5 - Continue to make adjustments as you wish.

Step 6 – repeat the above steps to apply a second filter. Here is an example where multiple filters are applied.


One last thing. You can also alter the photo filter effect by adjusting the opacity of the layer. The effect is basically the same as adjusting the density slider. And you can also adjust the blending mode. 

Open the small window in the layers panel that reads “Normal”. Clicking on the arrow will open a drop-down menu.

These are blend mode options and if you scroll through, you will see each effect appear on your image. Some are strange, but a few of them (such as Multiply, Overlay or Soft light) may improve or add to the filter effects.

Now, it is up to you to experiment with these new editing tools and see what you can come up with. And always remember, if you don’t like your edits, you can change, hide, or remove them at any time! No loss.

Thanks for looking on and if you want to learn more about Photoshop layers and masks in Photoshop, need help with your editing workflow or simply want to get started in Photoshop, I offer tutorials at $75/hour. Please check out my website and feel free to contact me at