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It can at times seem difficult to make our images unique, or at the very least more interesting. During our workflow we sometimes even discard photos because we feel they aren’t interesting, or that we have failed at an exposure or composition. What we often forget is that we can actually make our images stand out from the rest, and become less mundane, just by being slightly creative with our editing. Sometimes we can even go so far as to salvage an image that might otherwise have been introduced to the delete button. Just by using some powerful, yet simple, post-processing techniques we can discover hidden gems within our images.
One such technique which can add uniqueness and strength to an image, is the process of split toning. Most likely, you have already viewed many images that were split toned, even if you didn’t know anything about it. Many of the vintage looking photographs, that seem to be trending at the moment, almost always employ split tone processing to some extent. That’s not to say that split tone images are something new, in reality, the situation is actually quite the opposite. Split toning has its roots in film photography and dark-room printing. Before we begin to learn just how easily you can convert your images to split tone, let’s first take a brief look at what split toned images are, and examine (even more briefly) a little bit of the history behind the process.
Split toning is quite simply a process by which color tone is added to the highlight and shadow areas of an otherwise monochromatic photograph. Traditionally, the photo being processed with split tones begins its life as a black and white image capture. After the print has been fully made and developed, it is then introduced to other chemicals, which affect the image tones in different ways, depending on the relative compositions of the chemistry involved. In our world today, digital darkrooms now allow us to carry-over this technique of selective toning to our color prints. Color split tone images are quite possible and are often very pleasing. However, for our purposes here, we will keep the discussion limited to the process of using split toning as it relates to black and white photos exclusively.
It all started with the birth of the photographic process itself in the mid 1800s. The images produced during that era of early experimentation into the medium were very delicate, and extremely susceptible to degradation from physical touch, atmospheric conditions, as well as exposure to light post-development. As photography evolved, the pioneers of the art found they needed a way to make their finished prints more durable and longer lasting. This lead to the introduction of toners in the darkroom printing process. Essentially, most toners replace the metallic silver present in the print with a more stable silver compound.
The finished print tone of course depended on the type of toner used. A readily identifiable example of this is sepia tone. We’ve all seen them before; the warm and golden hues that look predominately old fashioned and can lend a sense of nostalgia to an image. Originally, sepia toned photographs were a result of a chemical process in the darkroom. The process involved treating the finished print with chemical compounds that converted the silver present into a silver compound called silver sulfide, which made for a much longer lasting finished print.
The split toning processes came about by using different toning agents in different stages, in different proportions. A photographer might treat a photo with one type of toner and then stop the process at a desired stage, leaving only the highlights unreacted. Then, another and different type of toner might be introduced, which would react with the remaining silver present in the shadows left over from the previous treatment. Thusly, the tones visible within the image would be split – hence split toning.
Ansel Adams, one of the most influential photo makers of the our time, also employed the use of split toning in his masterworks. This in itself is quite interesting since Adam’s was a realist in all ways. Meaning that he promoted straight photography with minimal manipulations in the darkroom aside from his own adjustments, using mostly dodging and burning. Ansel choose primarily selenium based toning agents for his work, which added a very slight blue hue to the shadows of most of his prints. He called the color tones eggplant, and indeed the coolness of bluish blacks produced images that are still counted among some of the most magnificent examples of photographic art ever made.
Now that you have an understanding of what the split tone processing is all about, we can move on to the fun stuff. Let’s take a look at how you can easily make your black and white images really stand out using split toning feature in Adobe Lightroom 6 (the split toning feature is also available in other image processing software including LR CC, Photoshop and ACR).
Let’s begin with a color image that we feel would benefit from being converted to black and white. Photos which transition well to black and white more often than not possess stark contrasts between the light and shadow areas, and have great texture within the subject matter.
This is quick snapshot of my dog Leia. The bright light coming through the door casts her profile nearly in silhouette and the high ISO made for a slightly grainy image, but really no remarkable color of which to speak. So I chose to convert it to black and white and use the grain in order to produce a gritty, and spontaneous look to the photo.
But, I still wanted more than just a black and white photo, so I decided to apply some slight split toning. Here we have the same photo of Leia opened in LR 6. The Split Tone panel is highlighted.
You’ll see a few options for controlling the highlight and shadow tonality, along with a hue and saturation slider for each. There is also a balance slider. The balance slider controls how the color tones are applied in relation to one another.
I adjusted the tones to make the highlights into a yellow hue, while the shadows I changed to a bluish-purple. I simply kept adjusting each slider until I achieved the look I wanted for the image.
Applying split toning to your black and white photographs can be an easy way to move beyond merely converting your photo to black and white. It adds interest to your shot, and helps to make it stand out from the ordinary. Luckily, digital photography has given us enormous range to experiment with our images, apply edits, and see the effects in real-time.
Here is another example of an image which has been processed using split toning (see others throughout the article as well). Try some split tone processing techniques for yourself and see what your black and white photos can become!
Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of articles this week featuring black and white photography tips. Look for earlier ones below and more daily over the next few days.
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