Advanced split toning techniques


The use of split toning is a way to add specific colors in tonal areas of a black and white photograph that has it origins in the analog darkroom. In the digital era the use of split toning has never gained as much popularity as single toning, for reasons I can only guess. My impression has always been that the various plug ins or the built-in features in Photoshop or Lightroom weren’t too subtle and sometimes took away from the essence of a Black and White photograph. But more importantly I think that there’s not much clarity in why and how split toning can or should be used. In this article I’ll explain what split toning can add to black and white and I will be suggesting a method that not only gives a lot of control but also very subtle results.

What Is Split Toning?

A split tone is an added color in traditionally a black and white photograph to the shadows area and another color to the highlights area to add mood or meaning to a photo. Usually the shadows will get a cooler color than the highlights area, which will usually get a warmer color. Preferably, those added colors are colors according to a harmonious color scheme like complementary colors or split complementary colors. It can be compared to color grading techniques in cinematography like the (in)famous ‘orange-and-teal’ look in many contemporary movies to create a specific uniform look and emphasize a mood. There are more color schemes in movies that are more subtle, just have a look at this interesting website. The featured image above is an image that has been processed using my own black and white method (but of course you can use any other method you would prefer) and then I added blues to the shadows and mid tones and warm yellow/orange to the highlights using a method I explain further down this article.

In the digital darkroom you can also apply split toning straight onto a color photograph, but the results are different and it’s more of a color workflow. In the next paragraphs it will hopefully become clear why I don’t prefer this method of applying split tones to color photographs but always go with the traditional way of using split tones on black and white photographs only.

Why Split Toning

To explain this I first need to take you for a short trip through the world of art, neuroscience and the biology of seeing.

Black and white photography offers a way of viewing and interpreting the world through the two dimensions of a photograph, that a color photograph can’t offer as effectively. Black and white purists would often say ‘colors distract’ or ‘color photography has less soul/mood’ or anything along those lines. There’s probably a certain truth to that and I would subscribe to many of those quotes but at the same time I’m also aware that colors can add mood, focus and a symbolic meaning to a photograph that aren’t available in a black and white photograph if done the right way.

To me personally there are a few characteristics of black and white photographs that I specifically love and are the reasons I prefer black and white photography over color photography:

  • Black and white photography is for me a step away from reality: a distortion and abstraction of reality to come closer to a more authentic and personal interpretation of the world. There are experts in neuro-aesthetics who claim that a distorted, exaggerated or abstracted interpretation of reality in art, are the elements that are universally appreciated as being more aesthetic than a literal interpretation of objective reality in art. This is the so-called Peak shift principle as propagated by protagonists and neuroscientists V.S. Ramachandran and William Hirstein in ‘The science of art’.
  • Black and white photography is an interpretation of the world around us in differences of luminance. What does that mean? It means that through the use of one color, the color gray, the differences between luminance values become clearly visible in a way that is almost impossible in color. Due to the visual distractions of different hues and saturation in color, it is very difficult to see the difference in luminance. This is important because it’s through differences of luminance that we can perceive depth and create depth in an image by adjusting the luminance values. Or in photography language: by differences in light contrasts. Colors only (hue and saturation) can’t create depth, it’s the luminance element of color only that creates depth (besides the depth created by perspective lines). The perception of depth is generated in the color blind part of the brain, the part of the brain that only detects differences in luminance. It’s for this reason that black and white photography offers more depth, when done right. Color has a symbolic and aesthetic function in art. Black and white photography is the art of creating images through differences in luminance.

The most important reason for me to work with split toning is that it is traditionally a black and white workflow, meaning working with differences in luminance values only, and then add colors in a targeted way at the very end of this black and white workflow to add some mood or meaning, or whatever you may prefer. The traditional black and white processing workflow will stay in tact and there are no (color) distractions when trying to create depth or presence. Also, and this may also be very personal: the use of split tones gives more definition and detail in especially the lightest areas of an image and will enhance the visibility of transitions between the highest tonal values (pure white) and tonal values in roughly tonal zone 9. See before and after images below where the split toned image seems to have more intense and pure whites in the top half of tonal zone 10 and some warmer tones in the lower half of tonal zone 10 and all lower zones. The neutral image looks more equiluminant in the area indicated with the red arrow. In other words, working with split tones on black and white images gives you the best of both worlds: the depth of black and white and the mood and symbolism of colors.

Why Not Use Full Colors Or Single Toning Like Sepia?

Like it is indicated in the previous paragraph, colors aren’t a step away from reality and colors will make the detection of luminance differences nearly impossible, therefore creating depth in an image, or in objects in an image, becomes less accurate and much harder. My goal is not only to move away from reality, as many steps as possible, by removing colors and enter a world that gets meaning and depth from the differences in luminance, but also to create presence: exaggerate or distort the perception of depth to enhance aesthetics.

Single toning like sepia to add colors to a monochromatic photograph isn’t the solution for me: it would be the same as pure black and white but with another base, single, color. It would still be monochromatic. While the added interest of working with split toning is that there are always at least two colors that are added in a meaningful way and that those colors can accentuate a contrast, a focal point or a symbolic meaning.

Selective coloring is an entirely different matter and is not the type of subtle aesthetics I’m looking for. Basically you’re adding a color to an otherwise black and white photograph to add more focus to an area, but I find this focus very dominant and distracting.

Some Color Theory For Better Split Toning

Now you know why you could consider split toning in a black and white photograph, we will get to the essence and I will explain how you can create the split tones. First I will show you how the creation of split toning is usually done in the digital darkroom and then I will suggest my method of split toning, which is a more subtle and controlled way of creating split tones. We’re not talking about split toning using the presets from plugins like Siler Efex Pro2 or Topaz, but about a manual, customized way. But before we do that a little bit of color theory and the color wheel for some insight into color harmony so you can make a better decision what colors to use for your custom made split tones.

The color wheel is an abstract model of colors, showing the relationships between primary, secondary and other colors, used by visual designers and artists as an aid to better understand and use colors in their creations. They do that by deriving color schemes from the color wheel, based on color theories, that suggest a combination of colors that are considered to be more aesthetic, harmonious or contrasting for example. Below I’ve depicted four commonly used examples of color schemes with a short description.

A few phrases you need to know to better understand the color schemes:

  • primary colors are colors that cannot be mixed or formed by other colors are the colors red, yellow and blue.
  • secondary colors are colors formed by mixing primary colors
  • contrasting colors are colors that are not the same: the farther away the color is from the base color on the color wheel, the more contrasting. The exact opposite, and highest contrasting color on the color wheel is called a complementary color.
  • analogous colors are colors that are adjacent to the base color on the color wheel

Creating Split Tones The Traditional Digital Way

The most common way to create split tones is through the color balance feature in Photoshop. Here’s the concept in a nutshell:
  • Create a fully processed black and white image
  • Duplicate the layer
  • Navigate to Image > Adjustments > Color Balance slider
  • Select the Shadows radio button
  • Add the desired color to the shadows by moving the sliders.
  • Do the same for mid tones and highlights and then click OK – it needs to be emphasized to only click OK after you’ve adjusted the sliders for all three areas. See the three screenshots below where I selected a blue tone for shadows and very similar one for the mid tones and a warmer yellow/orange tone for the highlights.