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“Toning” And Colorizing Monochrome Images; Expanding The Monochrome Palette Bookmark and Share

The image color of even a conventional black and white silver print is rarely black, white and grayscale shades. It may be warm (golden) or cold (blue) neutral or toned (sepia, magenta). Over many years print makers and chemists developed paper and developer combinations, as well as after-printing toners, to add additional color to monochrome silver prints. For example, using a warm-tone paper such as Agfa Portriga and a warm-tone enhancing developer, such as Selectol Soft, could alter image color. This yielded brownish blacks and creamy whites. A cold-tone paper could be developed in Dektol and after fixing toned in a mild dilution of rapid selenium toner for added “snap”, resulting in a “harder” bright white/deep black effect.

Early photographs, like this nineteenth century ambrotype (#1), were given a touch of color through toning or the mixing of certain emulsion/developer combinations. It is almost rare to find a neutral-toned black and white in old prints like this.

Silver papers were and are toned sepia, brown and even blue for various image effects, as well as for archival reasons. The image color of a monochrome print is one of the keys to its beauty, one that a discerning eye will always appreciate. If you ever wondered where all the terminology around black and white prints in the digital realm stems from you need not look further than the black and white chemical darkroom. In fact, it seems the prime aim of many manufacturers, and indeed many print makers, is to make a digital inkjet print look as close to a silver paper print as possible. Ironic.

All Photos © 2010, George Schaub, All Rights Reserved

There is a long tradition of “toning” or colorizing black and white photos. Now that all digital images start as color, options are greater than ever before as color and saturation can be easily manipulated in programs. This beach scene (#2) was “toned” blue using the hue/saturation controls on a “desaturated” image.


There’s something about toning that adds a timeless, or at least nostalgic touch to an image, particularly if the subject matter lends itself to that kind of interpretation. Here a scan from a film photo made in 1984 is given a cyanotype treatment (#3 and #4).



Yet, given the irony, the ability to emulate and even expand on potential image color possibilities in the digital darkroom is very wide. Anyone who has struggled to maintain consistent image color throughout an edition or portfolio, or who has tried a variety of toner dilutions to get an image just right will especially appreciate it. The ink and paper options and the processing potential available today are one of the most exciting elements in expressive digital printing.

Digital allows you to emulate virtually any photographic and graphic medium, new and old. This twilight view of the Empire State Building (#5) started as a “straight” shot that was manipulated to emulate a tinted photogravure.


A study of prints made by photomechanical means other than conventional darkroom methods also reveals the amazing image color possibilities of the photographic image. Platinum, palladium, cyanotype, Van Dyke Brown and even photogravure show very seductive image color effects. Some of these arcane processes are kept alive by a dedicated core of artists, and are often referred to as alternative or personal processes. While digital ink mixing cannot hope to obtain the patina of these images (the surface characteristics) they certainly can emulate the look and visual feel. They do this without mixing often-dangerous chemicals.

The Cynaotype process goes back to the beginnings of photography itself and was in fact invented by the man who discovered hypo, Sir John Herschel. It is still used today by fans of alternative processes. Here’s a cyanotype emulation that started as a digital file that was desaturated with color added using the hue and saturation controls (#6).


In addition, there are options for adding a dash of color to a black and white print for visual interest, or even applying color to make a print look like an old hand colored postcard or portrait. Handcoloring, first used to add color to photographs before color film and paper was readily available, is a fun way to make your own color interpretation on a black and white scene.

This red rhinoceros in the Pompidou Museum in Paris (#7) sits in a monochrome room thanks to first selecting the red object and then inverting the selection and treating the room with a black and white NAL.


There are two choices when working with black and white images. One is to use the Grayscale mode and the other RGB, or Color mode. For our purposes here we want the image to be in RGB mode. If you scanned or converted into Grayscale mode simply go to Image>Mode>RGB or similar command to convert it to a form that will “take” the color you are going to give it. Even though your foundation image looks like monochrome or black and white on the screen, you are now working with a color-ready file.

Easy Options
There are a number of ways to add overall color tone to a “neutral” black and white image. You can do this in camera, where an option in Monochrome mode is to add a sepia, blue or green cast. This is a fairly heavy-handed approach as you have no real control over the degree of the effect. The best bet is to do this in processing on a duplicate Layer of the image. You can then fade or drop the opacity of the effect as you see fit.

You can use Photoshop, Lightroom or Aperture or any other image processing program that allows you to add a quick color cast. Simply use the HSL (Hue/Saturation/Luminance) controls and choose “colorize” as you find the tint, opacity and saturation of the desired tone to match each image. There are also numerous plug-ins that can give you “toned” images with push button ease.

This began as a color photo made inside the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. The main adjustment was in hue/saturation (#8), with a sepia tone chosen and a drop in saturation with the colorize box checked. After this main step I added some noise and played with the overall Levels to emulate an old sepia print (#9).



Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro ( is a plug-in that allows you to first make conversions to black and white or desaturated color and then you can override and change the effect easily as it creates a layer in Photoshop. That’s what I did here using the Monday Morning Nik filter on a shot of an old sled in the shade of a doorway (#10). I then desaturated the result and added a slight sepia wash through hue/saturation and Layer Mask brush strokes (#11 and #12).



There are numerous programs and plug-ins that make toning a very simple task. Here the Nik plug-in, Color Efex Pro, shows a blue and brown tone work screen. Note the sliders on the right that allow for customization of the effects (#13 and #14).



Duotones And Split Tones
If you’re feeling that color cast toning does not offer the refinement you are seeking, or you just want to make it more interesting, you can work in the duotone realm. Duotones are really for reproduction printing, but you can modify and play with them for your home or studio printing as well. A close relation to duotones is the split toning technique, the easier option of the two. The duotone option is only available in Photoshop, while split-toning is available in numerous programs and plug-ins.

In Photoshop, in order to work on duotones you have to first change the mode from RGB into Grayscale and then go to Duotone. Follow this path in the Image>Mode menu. When you do this you will be presented with the Duotone dialog box. You can access different inks for the mix by clicking on the box at the top and choose duotone (two inks), tritone (three inks) or for the truly brave, quadtones (four inks).

Let’s say you choose tritones. Three boxes show up where you get to select the color inks you are going to use. Click on one of the boxes and the Color Picker shows up. You can use the field of color or custom colors, which is more of a slider bar through the spectrum. This is where you set colors for your mix.

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