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Split toning is one of the most overlooked features in Lightroom (or any post-processing program for that matter). It’s a technique used mostly in the film industry and is apparent in just about any action movie poster. You know the ones, where the skin tones are super warm, while the background and shadows are cool and blue.
That’s all split toning is: adding a hue to your highlights and an opposing (but complementary) hue to your shadows. Most of the time, the best colors to stick with are an orange tone for your highlights and a blue tone for your shadows, although there are certainly exceptions.
The location was Ke’e Beach, an incredible spot on Kauai that is literally at the end of the road on the north side of the island. I was there with my workshop students and we had realized earlier on in the day that shooting conditions were going to be tough.
A think layer of vog (volcanic fog) had blown over all the way from the Big Island. It covered all of Kauai’s north side in a thick, desaturated haze. This made shooting conditions quite challenging. On top of all that, the ocean was quite angry that day! A rough sea is normal in the winter on Kauai, but this was something else.
Our goal at Ke’e Beach was to photograph the waves that exploded out of the sea and then fanned out, almost like seashells. But because of the conditions, the waves were just getting obliterated before they could fan out. Still, we didn’t give up. We focused on capturing the anger and drama of the ocean and everyone walked away with some great shots.
In the video below, I process an image from that evening from start to finish inside of Adobe Lightroom Classic CC. The problem with the shot is that it came out of the camera looking quite dull. Because of the thick haze and everything in the shot being backlit, the resulting RAW file looked almost monochromatic. The sky was grey and looked overcast, the rocks and water were dark, and it just looked uninspiring.
A common technique that a lot of photographers reach for in these situations is just embracing it and converting the image to black and white. But, if you’re looking for something new to add to your bag of tricks, split-toning can be quite effective at saving images as well.
For this image, I started out by doing what I could in the Basic module to bring out details, add contrast, and make the image pop. After a few other adjustments, I made my way down to the Split Toning module, adding a warm orange tone to the sky (the highlights) and a cool blue/teal tone to the rocks and water (the shadows).
The result is a dramatic looking shot that both effectively shows the power of the ocean that evening and also gives the impression of a warm, vibrant sunset.
Split toning is a powerful and fun technique. It can be used both to enhance already great images or save otherwise dull ones. When you discover this technique for the first time, you’ll have a blast going through your images and trying it out in different situations. And, just a heads up, it can be used on either color or black and white images. Regardless of the image type, you’re simply adding one hue to the highlights and another to the shadows.
Have you used split toning in Lightroom before or is this completely new to you? If you have done it, please share your favorite split toned image in the comments below. If not, give it a go and share your results.