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Gradient Maps and Blend Modes in After Effects

Aaron Williams
By Aaron Williams
By Aaron Williams

Combining gradient mapping and blend modes can be used to create fun, unique looks in After Effects.

Adobe After Effects

In this post, we share a quick way to give your footage unique color grades in Adobe After Effects.

One of my favorite ways to add fun looks to photos in Photoshop is to combine gradient maps with blend modes:

The gradient map layer

This particular gradient map combination is a favorite of mine that works well on a lot of images (especially outdoor):

The base image

As you’ll see below, I added a gradient map to the image and changed the blend mode to “Screen”:

Photoshop settings

The image with a gradient map applied in Photoshop

Gradient Maps in After Effects

Technically, gradient map layers don’t exist in After Effects. However, you can mimic the effect with the tinting effects: Tint, Tritone, CC Toner, and Colorama. A gradient map recolors an image by using the gradient you set to replace the grayscale gradient in a black and white image. So, using a gradient like this:

A purple-orange gradient map

Results in this:

A raw gradient map applied

Now that we can mimic the effect of a gradient map, put these effects on an adjustment layers and you get the ability to apply blend modes, just like in Photoshop!

We’ll start out by using the gradient  above again and applying it to an adjustment layer. You can get a ton of different looks by changing the blend modes; some work better or more often with others depending on the colors you choose. This first gradient map has a lot of options that actually look pretty interesting:

(Click images for larger view)

Darken Blend Mode
Darken
Multiply Blend Mode
Multiply blend mode

Add 
Blend Mode
Add
Lighten Blend Mode
Lighten

Screen
 Blend Mode
Screen
 

Color Dodge Blend Mode
Color Dodge


Overlay
 Blend Mode
Overlay
 

Overlay w/ Adjustment at 50%
Overlay 50 Opacity


Soft Light
 Blend Mode
Soft Light    

Here’s another gradient:

A blue-yellow gradient

This particular combination of colors really only had good results with two of the After Effects blend modes:

Screen Blend Mode
Screen
Soft Light Blend Mode
Soft Light

Here’s another gradient combination:

A red-green gradient

Lighten
Lighten

And another:

A green-red gradient

Soft Light
Soft Light

Now here’s one that uses the tritone filter to add a third color to the mix:

A cyan-brown-blue gradient

Overlay
Overlay

With the CC Toner effect, you can fine tune your results even more, leaving the highlights and shadows alone to preserve good black and white points, but still adding a tint in those areas:

A cyan-red-yellow gradient

Screen:
Screen

Using a sepia color scheme gives some good results:

A sepia tone gradient

Screen:
Screen

Overlay:

Overlay

You can even recreate the popular “Blockbuster” look:

A blue-brown-tan gradient

Overlay:
Overlay

Soft Light:
Soft Light

Gradients with Colorama in After Effects

For ultimate control of the gradient, Colorama is the way to go. It’s a little unweildly to use since its gradient tool is radial instead of linear, but you can really fine tune the results or use multiple colors:

a blue-cyan gradient

Soft Light:
Soft Light

Color dodge (with the base image adjusted for exposure to compensate):

Color Dodge

The color dodge effect made the shot too bright, so I dropped a levels filter on the original image to bring down the exposure:

color dodge adjustment

Experiment with exposure and contrast adjustments on the original image underneath the adjustment layer, as well as with different opacities on the adjustment layer to really get it looking the way you want it. After Effects does a great job of live-updating the look as you change your colors, so you can even pick a bland mode and fine-tune your colors live for the desired result!