How to Do Sepia Photography

Cool Camera Stuff Image Gallery Sepia photography was popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. See more cool camera pictures.
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If you've ever seen a monochrome photo in a magazine ad or on a 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 trick called sepia toning, 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 -- evoking a sentimental feeling from you, as if you're recalling a faded memory from long ago [source: Blaker].

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, using sepia and other toners is a technique you definitely should learn. Not only does it give you more options artistically, but a sepia-toned photograph actually will 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 Photography Tips

Because 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.)

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 metallic silver in the image with a compound such as silver sulfide. Some people mix their own toner, but it's easier to buy a premixed commercial version [source: Frost].

First, wash the print in water for a minute or two, so the chemicals you'll apply 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 concentration 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 it achieves the desired tone. Your last step is to wash the print again and dry it [source: Frost].

Sepia toning a digital photo with Photoshop or another editing program is much simpler. First, if the image isn't already black-and-white, convert it to grayscale by clicking Layer, then New Adjustment Layer, then Photo Filter. 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].

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

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)