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Have you ever found it hard to choose between processing an image in color or black and white? It can be a tough decision. Enriching colors that instantly captivate your attention versus a timeless black and white photograph full of texture and complex shadows.
There’s every chance you’ll process both versions because you can’t have the best of both worlds, right? Well, with split toning, maybe you can – sort of.
At its core, split toning is a pretty simple editing technique. You can create a split tone effect by simply introducing color into the highlights and/or shadows of your photograph.
It’s often used by photographers (and extensively by film makers) to recreate a film look and to create a consistent style across a series of images. In recent years, it’s become renowned for creating the ever so popular “orange and teal” look.
These days, the mere thought of split toning your photograph is greeted with groans of “not another Insta-image”. But for all of its popularity on social media platforms, perhaps split toning is most effective when applied to black and white photographs. This is where its subtle tones combine with texture and luminance to create sumptuous results.
Colors are powerful. Not only do they add excitement and interest, but they also set the tone for your images. By default, colors come with a little extra baggage – they’re moody, symbolic and represent a preconceived tone.
You could almost think of color as a way of spoon-feeding the viewer with the tone, style, and mood of your images. Essentially, colors can make your job of storytelling a lot easier.
With this in mind, you’d be forgiven for wanting to enhance the emotion of your photographs by pumping up the saturation of your colors. But there’s a consequence. They’re too powerful.
For all of their excitement and emotional qualities, colors have the potential to be overly dominant and cause major distractions. I’m not going to pretend I know the science behind why this is, but have you ever noticed that black and white photographs appear to offer a little more oomph? A particular grittiness.
It’s almost like they have a 3-dimensional quality that seduces your eyes and encourages them to roll around in the graduating tones. Okay, maybe it’s just me.
The theory goes that the presence of strong color can make it more difficult for your eyes to detect luminance, perceive depth, and absorb the finer detail in your images. A problem black and white photographs need not worry about.
Without color, your eyes turn into luminance seeking missiles as they journey deep into your image to revel in silky graduating tones, land on interesting shapes, and explore complex textures.
So how do you combine the moody nature of color with the textural qualities of a black and white image?
This is where split toning makes its grand entrance. Applying a subtle color to the highlights and shadows of your black and white photographs gives you a slice of the emotional qualities that color can offer, without disguising the depth and texture of your black and white photograph.
Who said you can’t have the best of both worlds?
Before you dive in and start splashing color around as if you’re celebrating the Holi festival, it’s a good idea to have a basic understanding of color theory. Then you’ll know exactly what colors to combine when you split tone your black and white photographs.
The Adobe color wheel is a great tool that represents the relationship between primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. Photographers, designers, and artists often apply basic color theory to the color wheel to create visually appealing color palettes for their work.
Here are three common color schemes you can use to develop a subtle, harmonious, or contrasting color palette for your split toned black and white photographs.
An easy way to understand the analogous color scheme, which also avoids you having to pronounce it, is to think of it as a really good set of next-door neighbors.
Analogous color schemes use colors that are directly next to one another on the color wheel. They are naturally harmonious and can often be found in nature.
Triadic color schemes use colors that are evenly distributed around the color wheel. This type of color scheme is typically more vibrant and interesting than an analogous one.
Colors that are directly opposite one another on the color wheel are known as complementary colors.
If you have watched almost any movie in the last 10 years or scrolled through your Instagram feed in the last 10 minutes, it’s highly likely you would have noticed a strong presence of orange and teal colors. This is a perfect example of a complementary color scheme.
So far I have briefly covered the advantages of color and black and white photographs and how, in theory, it’s somewhat possible to combine their qualities to get the best of both worlds using a split toning technique. I’ve also introduced a basic level of color theory, so you will know how to create visually attractive color combinations in your split toned images.
At this point, you might be wondering how to apply all this wonderful information and actually split tone your photographs. So, let’s dive in and bring it all together.
A common and very easy way to split tone your images would be to use the Lightroom Split Toning tab in the Develop Module.
This allows you to select a specific hue for the highlights and shadows, adjust the saturation, and the balance of the effect.
While this method is extremely fast and produces acceptable results, it lacks the ability to infuse your images with a triadic or analogous color scheme. More importantly, it doesn’t allow you to control how the split toning effect is applied to the different tones in your image.
Having more control can help you to create a silky split toned black and white photograph that makes you want to instantly hit print and proudly publish it for all to see. To gain this level of control you’ll need to take a deep breath and join me as we take a big brave step into Photoshop.
To get started you’ll need to open up Photoshop and load a series of luminosity masks.
If you’ve just exhaled that deep breath with a, “Huh!? What is that!?” there’s no need to run a “What’s a luminosity mask?” Google search. All the basic information you need (and a free action that does all the work for you) is available right here.
Originally developed and thoroughly documented by Tony Kuyper, luminosity masking is regarded as one of the most effective techniques to control your images in Photoshop.
Despite its complex sounding name, luminosity masking is a relatively easy technique you can use to apply subtle adjustments to your images in a clean and effective way.
Luminosity masks are commonly used among landscape and architecture photographers to seamlessly blend bracketed exposures, gradually build contrast, and create silky black and white photographs. They work by creating a series of selections that isolate the highlights, mid-tones, and shadows on a granular level, which allows you to target specific tones based on their luminance (brightness) value.
Sadly, the process of creating luminosity masks is nowhere near as fun as using them. So, to save you (and me) from:
Here’s a link to download a Photoshop Action that includes all the information you need to install and create luminosity masks in a just a few clicks.
Essentially, having a selection of luminosity masks at your disposal gives you ultimate control over your photographs. It means you’re able to work with the highlights, mid-tones, and shadows independently of one another. Which, if you’re partial to the odd black and white photograph, provides you with the perfect system to create a beautiful split toning effect.
With your luminosity masks created, head over to the Adobe color wheel to create a visually attractive color palette. Note down the hex value of your desired colors, as you will need these in the next step. For this example, we’ll create a complementary color scheme.
Create a Solid Color Adjustment Layer and enter the hex code of the color you’d like to introduce into your shadows.
Change the blend mode of the Solid Color Adjustment Layer to “Color”. As you do so, you’ll notice that your entire image will be colorized with the hue you selected. Now select the default white layer mask and delete it by dragging it to the trash can icon.
Navigate to the Channels tab and locate the luminosity masks you created using the Photoshop action in step one. You’ll notice that seven luminosity masks with varying degrees of intensity have been created for your highlights, likewise for your shadows, and two luminosity masks will target the mid-tones of your image.
The aim here is to apply one of these luminosity masks to the Solid Color Adjustment Layer you just created. This will restrict the effect of the adjustment layer to only appear in specific areas of your image.
Clicking on each of the luminosity masks allows you to preview the target areas of your image.
Luminosity masks work much in the same way as regular masks. The white areas of the mask will reveal the effect and the black areas of the mask will conceal it. The grey areas of a luminosity mask will partially reveal the effect which helps to create a subtle and clean finish.
The general aim is to select a luminosity mask with just enough white (and gray) in the areas where you’d like the color to be visible. As a rule of thumb, when choosing a luminosity mask to add color into your highlights, selecting the “Lights 2” or “Lights 3” mask usually works well.
If you intend to introduce a color into the shadows of your image (like in this example), then you may find that using the “Darks 2”, “Darks 3” or “Darks 4” luminosity masks will provide you with a silky-smooth finish.
With your chosen Luminosity Mask selected click on the “Load mask as selection” button at the bottom of the Channels panel. Upon doing so, you’ll notice that the marching ants appear to indicate the selection.
Navigate back to your layers tab, select your solid color layer and click the “Add Layer Mask” button. This will create a layer mask using the luminosity selection which will restrict the Solid Color Adjustment Layer to only be visible in the white areas of the mask.
In the example, you can see that the blue color tone is now only visible in the darker areas of the image.
At this stage, there’s every chance the effect will look a little too strong and not very subtle. This is where working with adjustment layers and masks gives you complete control.
To refine the effect, double-click on the Solid Color Adjustment Layer to reduce the saturation and brightness. If need be, you can also adjust the overall opacity of the Solid Color Adjustment Layer to soften the effect.
If your effect is still too strong then you may want to consider deleting the layer mask and repeating steps 5 and 6 to select a luminosity mask with a softer selection.
To help keep your layers neat and tidy, you can rename the Solid Color Adjustment Layer to “Shadows”.
Repeat steps 3-8 to apply your desired color to the mid-tones. Only this time, when you get to step 5, you’ll need to select the “Midtones 1” luminosity mask.
Note: When you load the “Midtones 1” luminosity mask as a selection, Photoshop will display a warning which states “No pixels are more than 50% selected. The selection edges will not be visible.”
You can safely ignore this warning. Your mid-tones will still be selected, this message is just Photoshop’s way of saying, “Woah there! You are making a selection so subtle that the marching ants can’t show you where it will apply.”
Finally, you can now introduce a color into your highlights.
To do this, you’ll need to repeat steps 3-8, modifying step 5 to select a “Light” luminosity mask. Often the “Lights 2” or “Lights 3” masks will create subtle results.
Here’s an example of the shadow, mid-tone, and highlight layers combining to split tone the image.
As you can see, the subtle toning helps to add a little emotion to the cityscape without losing the sense of depth of the original black and white image. And because the toning has been applied with luminosity masks and layers, you’re able to tweak and control the precise tone until it has a silky quality that makes you want to jump inside the image and roll around in its graduating tones.
Here are a few examples of different color schemes applied to the cityscape using the exact same process.
Whether you are looking for a way to add a little more emotion into your black and white photographs or simply trying to work out if you prefer an image in color or monochrome, you may find that split toning a black and white image can often give you the best of both worlds.
And besides, in a world full of heavy saturation, smartphone filters, and HDR, it can be refreshing to strip away excess color and produce a sumptuous split toned black and white photograph.
I hope this encourages you to play with the color wheel and experiment with split toning effects. If you decide to give it a try, I’d be delighted to see your photographs in the comments below.
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