1. Photo & Video
  2. Post-Processing

Mastering the Art of Black and White Toning

Scroll to top
Read Time: 8 min

Every two weeks, we revisit some of our reader favorite posts from throughout the history of Phototuts+. This tutorial was first published in November of 2009.

Black and white photography is a beautiful medium and an artform practised by some of the world's greatest photographers. But newcomers to black and white photography, however much they enjoy it, may miss one thing - colour. The good news is that it's easy to add colour to black and white images. Photographers have been doing it for decades, both in the darkroom and digitally, through a process called toning.

The basic toning processes add a single colour to a black and white photo. Common examples are sepia, which can be anything from yellow to deep brown, and blue. More complex toning processes add two colours to the photo, for example blue and copper or sepia and gold. One colour is added to the shadows and the other to the highlights, creating an effect called split toning. This is more time consuming but the end result is often much classier and more professional looking than a single-colour tone.

Final Effect Preview


black and white toningblack and white toningblack and white toning


Toning adds emotional value to the black and white photo. Sepia tones are warm and somewhat nostalgic, and are very flattering for portraits of people as well as other subjects like landscapes and nude studies. Portrait studios offer sepia toned black and white images as part of their product range for this reason. Blue tones, on the other hand, impart a cold, desolate feel to the photo and are ideal for subject matter such as winter landscapes where the photographer wants to impart the coldness or remoteness of the environment.

The best toned photos aren't strong or garish. They can be very subtle, sometimes only slightly changing the neutral black and white tones of the original photo.

In the darkroom, toning is a time consuming and sometimes frustrating process. There are many factors that influence the results, including the paper and chemicals used by the photographer. What's more, some of the components used in toners are very hazardous. Sepia toner is a suspected carcinogen and most dangerous of all is Selenium toner (selenium is an extremely poisonous heavy metal). Most chemical toners extend the longevity of the print, but some, including blue toner, don't.

Digital toning, by contrast, is very quick and easy. Best of all the photographer has complete control over the tones and colours can be selected with precision. In this tutorial we'll show you some of the most common toning techniques for digital black and white photography. Instructions are given for both Photoshop CS and Photoshop Elements 6.0. The techniques use adjustment layers where possible for maximum creative control and non-destructive editing.

To get the best out of these toning techniques, apply them to a photo that you've already converted to black and white. Make sure you start with the photos in RGB mode.

Sepia Toning Using Hue/Saturation

This is the quickest and easiest toning technique there is. You can tone your photo virtually any colour that you like in just a few seconds. It's easy to go for strong colours with the Hue/Saturation tool, but it pays to remember that the best toning effects are often subtle, so use the the Saturation slider to keep the strength of the colours down.

Photoshop CS and Photoshop Elements:

1. Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Hue/Saturation

2. Click 'OK'

3. Tick the 'Colorize' box

4. Set Hue to 27 and Saturation to 27 for a deep brown sepia, or Hue to 42 and Saturation to 15 for a yellow sepia tone (the Hue slider controls the colour of the photo, and the Saturation slider the strength of the colour)

5. Click 'OK' when you're done


black and white toningblack and white toningblack and white toning


Other Tones Using Hue/Saturation

Try these settings for more colourful toning effects:

Blue: Hue 210, Saturation 13

Purple (selenium): Hue 250, Saturation 7

Red: Hue 0, Saturation 13

Copper: Hue 16, Saturation 20

Green: Hue 100, Saturation 5


black and white toningblack and white toningblack and white toning


Sepia Toning Using Curves

Most photographers use the Curves tool is for adjusting the brightness and contrast of their photos. But you can also use it to tone your black and white photos by making adjustments within the individual colour channels. All photos in the RGB mode (which is the mode you normally work in), even black and white ones, have three colour channels; red, green and blue. Selectively changing the brightness and contrast of these three channels gives you a very fine degree of control over the toning process.

Photoshop CS

1. Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Curves

2. Click 'OK'

3. Select the Blue channel in the Curves window

4. Grab the centre of the curve (which starts off as a straight blue line) and pull it gently towards the bottom right (try Output 118, Input 139) to turn the photo a yellow/green colour

5. Select the Red channel

6. Grab the centre of the curve and pull it gently towards the top left (try Output 134, Input 119) to turn the photo turns sepia

7. Make fine adjustments to the tone by switching between the channels, keeping the changes to the curves small for subtle tones

8. Click the 'OK' button when you're done


black and white toningblack and white toningblack and white toning


Curves can also be used to tone your photo with other colours. Adjust the blue channel by itself by moving the blue curve to the top left to create a blue tone (try Output 136, Input 126). Or the red channel for a red or copper tone (try Output 155, Input 131).

Sepia Toning Using Color Fill

The Color Fill method is a quick and easy sepia toning technique that's also available in Photoshop Elements.

Photoshop CS and Photoshop Elements

1. Click the 'Create new fill or adjustment layer' icon on the Layers Palette (it's the half black, half white circle) and select 'Solid Color'.

2. Choose a sepia colour from the Color Picker (try Red 180, Green 130, Blue 100) and click 'OK'.

3. Change the Blending Mode from 'Normal' to 'Overlay'.

4. Move the 'Opacity' slider to around 50% for a more subtle tone.


black and white toningblack and white toningblack and white toning


This technique can also be used to tone the photo any colour you like. Try the following settings:

Blue: Red 70, Green 80, Blue 180, Opacity 30%

Copper: Red 250, Green 110, Blue 110, Opacity 25%


black and white toningblack and white toningblack and white toning


Split Blue and Copper Toning Using Color Balance

Split toning is a popular darkroom toning technique that is based on the principle that some chemical toners work on the dark tones of the photo first and others on the light tones. The result is a photo toned with two different colours. In the darkroom, photographers are restricted to using toners that work together in this way. Digitally, there are no restrictions and you can experiment with any colour combinations you like.

Split toning with copper and blue works best with high-contrast images. Using the Color Balance tool allows you to restrict toning to either dark tones or highlights. In other words, you can tone the shadows one colour and the highlights another, and the midtones will take on a blend of both colours.

Split toning takes longer than single-colour toning but the results will amaze you and are well worth the extra effort.

Photoshop CS

1. Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Color Balance

2. Click 'OK'

3. Set 'Tone Balance' to Shadows

4. Set the Cyan/Red slider to -30 and the Yellow/Blue slider to +30

5. Set 'Tone Balance' to Highlights

6. Set the Cyan/Red slider to +40 and the Yellow/Blue slider to -30.

7. Experiment with the settings so that the tones suit your photo and click 'OK' when you're done


black and white toningblack and white toningblack and white toning


Split Toning Using Gradient Map

The Gradient Map method is another split toning technique that allows you to use lots of colour combinations. For instance, you can create a very subtle split sepia tone by toning the dark tones of your photos a deep chocolate brown and the highlights a light cream. Or you can combine dark blue tones with light orange highlights. The possibilities are endless - and it also has the advantage of being available in Photoshop Elements.

Photoshop CS and Photoshop Elements

1. Start by setting the colours - click the 'Set foreground colour' swatch at the bottom of the toolbox

2. In the Color Picker set the colours to Red 100, Green 70, Blue 30

3. Click 'OK'

4. Click the 'Set background colour' swatch and set the colours to Red 255, Green 245, Blue 215 in the Colour Picker

5. Click 'OK'

6. Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Gradient Map

7. Click 'OK'

8. You'll see a smoothly blended gradient of the two colours you've selected in the Gradient Map dialogue box - click 'OK'

9. The photo looks kind of washed out - change the Blending Mode to Color to correct this.

10. Set the Opacity slider to 50% for a more subtle tone.

You can also experiment with the Overlay, Soft Light and Hard Light blending modes for different effects. All of these will increase the image's contrast. The Color blending mode retains the contrast of the original photo.


black and white toningblack and white toningblack and white toning


Try these other colour combinations:

Copper and blue:

Foreground: Red 75, Green 95, Blue 110;

Background: Red 230, Green 210, Blue 170

Sepia with neutral highlights:

Foreground: Red 70, Green 60, Blue 45

Background: Red 255, Green 255, Blue 255

Blue tone:

Foreground: Red 40, Green 70, Blue 105

Background: Red 170, Green 200, Blue 200


black and white toningblack and white toningblack and white toning



Hopefully you now feel prepared to experiment with your black and white photographs like a pro. Don't be afraid to try out unusual colour combinations - you never know what may work exceptionally well!

If you have any examples you'd like to share in the comments, feel free to leave a link to the photo.

Did you find this post useful?
Want a weekly email summary?
Subscribe below and we’ll send you a weekly email summary of all new Photo & Video tutorials. Never miss out on learning about the next big thing.
One subscription. Unlimited Downloads.
Get unlimited downloads