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Like most things in Photoshop, there are probably a half dozen ways to simulate a sepia tone image. What probably comes to mind when you hear sepia is most likely “old-time” photographs. But why is that so? Well, sepia toning was used for a few reasons, artistic and more prosaic.
True sepia toning began around the 1880s with photographic prints that were exposed to sepia in order to aid in replacing the metallic silver in the photo emulsion with a silver compound. By doing so the developer could change the color, obviously, but also increase the tonal range of the photo. It was also believed that the sepia toning increased the photo’s longevity by replacing the less stable metallic silver. Indeed, a lot of sepia prints remain to this day. Sepia, it turns out, is simply ink extracted from a cuttlefish (the European Common Cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis)), a cephalopod closely related to octopuses and squid!
Many of the sepia tone simulations in Photoshop are not terribly convincing. Some look too much like someone placed a beige filter over the image, without actual tone mapping of the sepia to the shadows, midtones, and highlights. While these are certainly not the only, or necessarily best, ways to go sepia, I would like to go over some of the ways Photoshop offers for sepia toning, so that you can judge for yourself what method may be best for any given situation.
First, you must start with a black and white or grayscale image. You can accomplish this so many ways digitally, or just shoot in black and white to begin with, so I’ll leave it up to you to pick a method for desaturating your photo.
You can open a gradient map layer, and choose an appropriate gradient. This one’s called “light brown” and ships with Photoshop. You can also alter the standard maps, or create a new, custom gradient map pretty easily. I set the layer’s opacity to 55%. Try changing the gradient map layer blend mode to overlay or soft light. If you go to soft light, you can increase the layer’s opacity for a more intense effect. This blend mode seems to help map the tones even more effectively.
This adjustment layer even comes with a filter named “sepia.” You definitely have to tweak the density level. It might help to play with the layer’s opacity and blend modes, as in method 1).
The black and white adjustment layer first became available in Photoshop CS3. It’s an excellent way to make a black and white image, because not only can you adjust the intensity of the tones with color sliders, but since it’s applied as a layer adjustment, it doesn’t actually alter the image’s pixels, and can be changed or deleted at any time. When you open this adjustment, there is a checkbox for “Tint.” If you check this, you can create a sepia look by clicking the small color box next to the check box, and picking a color you find close to sepia. You can’t blend this tint as easily as with some other methods, but the nice part is the ability to further modify your black and white settings, after the sepia tint is applied.
You can even use a color balance layer to simulate sepia. Using a black and white image in the RGB color mode, I just added some yellow and red to the midtones. Make sure your image isn’t in Grayscale mode, or you won’t be able to use this option, since there’s technically no color to balance!
Open the hue/saturation layer along with your desaturated image, choose the “Colorize” check box, and the layer will allow you to apply a tint. Choose a hue closest to what you like, and lower the saturation.
You can even use curves to simulate sepia toning! Most commonly it’s used for control over contrast, but open the curves adjustment layer, and click on the little pull-down menu so you can adjust curves for the individual RGB channels. Choose the green channel and pull the curve slightly below the midline, more or less in the center of the grid. This will increase the magenta in the image, and decrease the green. Similarly, choose the blue channel and pull the line down a bit more to increase yellow, and decrease blue.
Adding a solid color adjustment layer is not something I often do in Photoshop. But it’s an easy and editable way to tint an image. Open a new solid color layer on top of your image, and the color picker will automatically open. Choose a color to represent your desired tint and click OK. Now have some fun, and tweak the solid color layer’s opacity and blend modes. Don’t leave the blend mode at normal, or the image will look very murky. Your best bet will most likely be soft light or overlay, as these two map tones nicely into an image.
Creating a duotone in Photoshop can get you even closer to simulating a good sepia tone. But there are two reasons I’m not presenting it here. One, there’s already a great tutorial on duotones right here at Convert Duotones in Photoshop. Second, making a duotone requires some “no-turning-back” operations, like discarding color info, that are best avoided if possible.
There you have it. Seven ways to sepia, and I’m sure you can discover more. Personally, I’m leaning towards using the black and white adjustment layer to remove color, and then creating a solid color adjustment layer above it all to add the sepia tone. This gives you a lot of flexibility. The black and white adjustment layer makes fine tuning your tones easy, and can always be undone and tweaked in the future. The solid color layer lets you change the tint at any time also, and you can more completely control the opacity, and blend mode, of the sepia tint. Best of all, no cuttlefish were harmed in the making of this article.