Split toning

Split toning explained

Split toning
Split toning effects can subtly combine cool and warm tones in the highlights and shadows.

Black and white toning effects can add a depth and an atmosphere to a photo that plain black and white doesn’t always achieve.

Traditionally, toning was carried out in the darkroom, but now it can be reproduced digitally.

Increasingly, though, photo-editing applications have ditched regular single-tone effects in favour of split-toning tools. If all you want is a regular sepia or cynanotype effect, this can seem like unnecessary complication. You might even have assumed that these older single-tone effects were no longer possible.

Actually, however, they are still possible, and with more control and subtlety than was available before.

How split toning works

Split-toning is often used to add a romantic or vintage ‘look’ to portraits, for example. As a rule, it combines a warm tone with a cool tone, such as yellow and blue, or red and blue. The highlights take on one tone, the shadows take on the other.

Split-toning tools typically offer offer independent highlight and shadow areas with a hue and saturation slider in each. You use the hue value to select the toning colour and saturation slider to control the strength.

However, you don’t have to use two different tones. You can also use split-toning tools to produce regular single-tone effects.

Split toning
Here’s the Split Tones panel in Capture One – other programs work in a similar way. Currently the image is neutral, with no highlight or shadow adjustments.

How to add a single overall tone with split toning tools

The simple approach is to use the same hue and saturation settings for both ‘halves’ of the split-tone adjustment. This will produce an all-over toning effect rather like those from regular single-tone tools.

A hue of 30 will give a sepia effect, for example, while a hue value of 220 will give a cyanotype effect. A saturation value of 20% is often a good starting point as a strength settings.

You can apply a single tone, e.g. sepia, by using exactly the same split tone hue and saturation settings for both shadows and highlights, but this can make the highlights look muddy.

If you apply identical settings to both the highlights and shadows you get an all-over toning effect as you’d expect, but the results can look a little ‘flat’. This overall toning adjustment makes the shadows richer, but the highlights muddier. Traditional darkroom toning tends to be subtler, acting more heavily on the darker tones while leaving the brighter tones cleaner and brighter – and this is something you can replicate with the split toning tools.

How to add subtler toning effects

The key to this improved toning effect is to reduce the highlight saturation value, or ‘zero’ it, so that only the shadows have the toning effect applied. This produces cleaner highlights and richer, subtler toning effect.

Split toning
The sepia toning effect is richer and brighter if you decrease the saturation in the highlights and increase it in the shadows.

It also reduces the toning effect on the image as a whole, but increasing the saturation value for the shadows will restore the strength of the effect while keeping those bright, clean highlights.

So might look like the replacement of old single-tone effects with modern split-toning tools is a bit of a nuisance, but actually these tools can also give you superior single-tone effects to those that were possible before.

Split toning
This cyanotype effect was created by shifting the hue for the highlights and shadows to 220, reducing the highlight saturation and increasing it for the shadows.