Sepia Tone Photography: How To Do It

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 
Sepia tone photo of couple in early 20th century garb.
Cool Camera Stuff Image Gallery Sepia photography was popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. See more cool camera pictures.
Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock

If you've ever seen a monochrome photo in a magazine ad or on an album or CD cover that has a rusty, antique-looking reddish-brown tone, you may have been puzzled how the photographer made a recently taken picture look so old and weathered. What you're admiring is a technical effect called sepia tone, in which the photographer artificially washes over an image with a color to create a warmer effect.

Sometimes the goal is to make the new photo look like an old photograph. Other times, it's meant to evoke a sentimental feeling or dreamy effect, as if you're recalling a faded memory from long ago [source: Blaker]. While modern smartphone apps can create this effect in no time, we're going to explain how to do sepia tone photography the old-fashioned way and via digital editing.


Sepia Tone Definition

Sepia photography refers to a type of monochrome photography in which the images are rendered in shades of brown, instead of the grayscale tones typical of black and white photography. This brown tinting effect gives sepia photographs a warm, antique appearance.

A sepia photo can create an unusual, painting-like effect that leaves a more unique impression on the viewer than typical black and white photos.


The Chemical Process of Sepia Tone Filter

Color toning of photographic images has been around for a long time. In the 1890s and early 1900s, a new school of art called Tonalism developed in England and the United States; painters of this movement created indistinct imagery, used muted colors and tended toward a somber, melancholy tone. Photographers of the same period, such as Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, tried to evoke the same feeling in their prints.

In those days, photographers used chemical baths to print their images, and they used dyes, called chemical toners, to alter the coloring of their photographs. Preparations like Berg's Brown/Copper Toning Solution and Kodak Poly-Toner could produce a range of brown, sepia and even metallic coppery tones, depending on how they were applied. They altered the chemical emulsion that coated the photographic paper and contained the image, rather than the paper itself [source: Blaker].


Sepia toning is a great tool for photographers. It can enhance the beauty of period architecture photos and rustic natural panoramas, for example. Portraits of people whose faces are worn with lines and wrinkles are also good candidates for sepia toning. If you still work with conventional film and develop your own pictures in a chemical darkroom, working with sepia images is a skill you should definitely learn. Not only does it give you more options artistically, but a sepia photographic print will actually retain its range of tones better as it ages than an unaltered print [source: Frost].

If you stick with digital photography, giving photographs a sepia tone is a lot simpler and doesn't require messy, expensive chemicals. All that's needed is a sophisticated photo-editing program like Photoshop, and a little knowledge and creativity. On the next page, we'll explain how you can create your own sepia-toned photos, either in a conventional darkroom or on a computer.


Sepia Toner Photography Tips

Since sepia tone softens the light in a photo, you'll get the best results with an image that's exposed well, with good contrast and a fairly full range of shades of white, gray and black. (Of course, that's the sort of image you generally want to produce, even if you're not going to alter it.) That's why a black and white image has historically benefited the most from this technique.

In a conventional darkroom, sepia toning — unlike other types of toning, such as selenium — is a multistep process. The toner actually alters the chemical composition of the photograph, replacing the traditional metallic silver in the image with a silver sulfide compound. Some people mix their own toner, but it's easier to buy a premixed commercial version [source: Frost].


Bleach Process for the Sepia Effect

First, wash the print in water for a minute or two, so the chemicals involved will spread cleanly and evenly. Then, immerse it in a tray of weak bleach solution, which will fade the image and soften the highlights. Photographer and author Lee Frost recommends a concentrated form of no more than one part bleach to 20 parts water, which slows the process and gives you more ability to control it [source: Frost].

After bleaching, you should wash the print again for 20 to 25 minutes in cold water to remove the bleach. While it's washing, you can mix the toner solution in a tray. Most toners recommend a mixture of one part toner to nine parts water, but Frost again suggests that you make the solution even weaker.


Then add the final ingredient, 10 to 15 milliliters of sodium hydrochloride, which controls the intensity of the sepia color. The more you add, the darker the tone will be. Then, soak the print in the mixture and pull it when you've achieved the desired tone. Your last step is to wash the print again and dry it [source: Frost].

Using Photoshop for Sepia Toning

Understandably, many photographers don't have the equipment or access to a darkroom to make their sepia photography. Luckily, it's never been easier to create sepia photos — without the toning process or environmental pollutants!

Sepia toning a digital photo with Photoshop or another editing program is much simpler. First, if they aren't already, you'll want to covert your photos to black and white images. To do this, convert them to grayscale by clicking Layer, then New Adjustment Layer, then Photo Filter. From there, you can follow guidelines to add a solid color adjustment layer and adjust the background layer as well. If the image is too dark, you can modify the curves adjustment layer to lighten things up.


When the New Layer dialogue box comes up, set the values to Color-none, Mode-normal and Opacity-100 percent. In the Photo Filter dialogue box, enter these settings: Filter-Sepia, Density-50 percent, Preserve Luminosity-selected. You can experiment with altering the density to change the image [source: Apple]. And just like that, you'll have a sepia toned image!

For more on photography basics, check out the links on the next page.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Apple, Jennifer. "Create a Sepia Tone Effect in Photoshop." (Dec. 12, 2010)
  • Blaker, Alfred A. "Photography: Art and Technique." W.H. Freeman and Co. 1980. (Dec. 12, 2010)
  • Frost, Lee. "Lee Frost's Simple Art of Black and White Photography." David and Charles Ltd. 2004. (Dec. 12, 2010)
  • Kulik, Marko. "Sepia toning black and white photographs (Traditional method)." (Dec. 12, 2010)