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Three Ways to Apply Tonal Effects in Photoshop

We are used to thinking about photography in terms of color or black and white, but before we arrived here, though, there were a series of processes that resulted in images being monochrome. In this tutorial, I’ll show you how to get those looks so you can think outside the box and achieve different tonal effects that will make your photos unique.

Intro Tonal Effects Photoshop Tutorial

Adding a tonal effect can give your photos from different collections a unified look. It can also help to set the atmosphere of a scene, or simply give a nostalgic and antique look. Before photography became as we know it to be today, there were many experiments and formulas chemists used that became popular throughout history.

Many of them had a particular color. The most popular are sepia and cyan and now it’s possible to achieve these and any other tonal effect with just a few clicks. I’ll show you three different ways to achieve it so you can choose which method suits you best.


First of all, you need to work with a black and white image. There are many different ways to achieve this in Photoshop. The one I’m choosing is Menu > Image > Adjustments > Black and White because it gives you a lot of control.

Three Ways to Apply Tonal Effects in Photoshop

Once you have your starting image as black and white, you need to add a solid color adjustment layer. To do this go to the Layers palette and click the adjustment layers button on the bottom and choose the Solid Color option from there.

A pop-up window will open where you can choose the color you want for that layer. There’s no right or wrong here, it’s a matter of taste but for a sepia tone go somewhere in between the yellow and the red and when you’re happy just click OK.

Solid Color Tonal Effects Photoshop Tutorial

Now the color should have covered the entire image, which is normal as you added a solid color. But you still need to merge it with the image, so open the blending options menu from the top of the Layers palette and choose Soft Light.

Solid Color Soft Light Tonal Effects Photoshop Tutorial

You can also check out the other blending possibilities to see if there’s something that suits you better, but Soft Light usually works best for me. You can make a final adjustment on the layer opacity if you think it needs tweaking and that’s it!

Sepia Tonal Effects Photoshop Tutorial


To achieve a cyan tone on your photo you need to start with a black and white image the same as the previous process, so I’ll use the opportunity to show you another way of converting your color photo into black and white.

Go to the Layers palette, add an adjustment layer. and from the drop-down menu choose Black and White. On the Properties window, you’ll have the same adjustments as the previous method as I used above.

The difference is that now you’ll have the black and white adjustment on a different layer so you can come back and tweak it or change the opacity at any time.

Adjustments Layer BlackandWhite Tonal Effects Photoshop Tutorial

Next add another adjustment layer, this time choosing Levels from the menu. In the Properties window, you can see a histogram of your image that shows you the blacks, whites, and mid-tones in your image and a corresponding slider to each of them for you to adjust.

Start moving the sliders to increase the contrast of your image as this will give a better result when you apply the cyan color to it.

Adjustments Layer Levels Histogram Tonal Effects Photoshop Tutorial

The final step you need to do is to add a third adjustment layer, this time using the Hue/Saturation option. On the Properties window move the Hue slider towards the blue end until you find a tone that you like, around the 215 is usually pretty good. If you feel the blue is too intense just decrease the saturation value a little until you are satisfied with the result.

Adjustments Layer Hue Saturation Tonal Effects Photoshop Tutorial

Now you have a snowy photo with a nice cold tone to boost the mood!

Cyan Tonal Effects Photoshop Tutorial


If you are thinking that sepia or cyan are very nice effects but it would be even better if you apply both or even more, you don’t have to worry. Photoshop has thought about that too.

First, you have to open your black and white image (or convert your image to black and white as we did above). Then go to Menu > Image > Mode and choose the Duotone option. This is correct even if you want three or four tones, you will modify that later.

Duotone Tonal Effects Photoshop Tutorial

A pop-up window will open where you can choose the number of inks (tones) that you want in your image just by clicking on the drop-down menu. For this example, I’m choosing Tritone so three fields will be available to choose the inks.

Triotone Tonal Effects Photoshop Tutorial

You can set the color of each ink by clicking in the second square which will open a pop-up window with a color picker. So just click on the tone you like and hit OK. Then name it in the field to the right of the ink. Repeat this process for each ink color.

Duotone Color Picker Tonal Effects Photoshop Tutorial

Now the colors you selected are all covering the image in the same way. But you can modify that by choosing which ink will affect more which tones. For example, I choose the magenta for the darkest tones and the yellow for the lighter tones, but you can choose any tone and any adjustment you want.

Just click on the first square which will open the Curves window. By default, it will have a diagonal straight line that goes from 0 (black) to 255 (whites) you can experiment moving it all you like until you get the look of your image right.

Duotone Curves Tonal Effects Photoshop Tutorial

Because of all the possibilities, this is the hardest technique but also the more personalized one that will give you a very unique result. Try it out and let me know in the comments how it goes!

Duotone Tonal Effects Photoshop Tutorial jpg

Your turn

So there you have three methods for applying tonal effects using Photoshop. Do you use any of these for your images? Which method do you prefer? Do you have another technique you like? Please share your tonal effects images and ideas in the comment area below.

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Ana Mireles
Ana Mireles

is a photographer and artistic researcher. She has been awarded and exhibited in Mexico, Italy, and the Netherlands. Through theory and practice, she explores the cultural aspect of photography, how it helps us relate to each other, the world, and ourselves. She has also a passion for teaching, communication, and social media. You can find more about her and her work at her website or acquire some of her works here.

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