Advanced split toning techniques in black and white photography

The use of split toning is a way to add specific colors in tonal areas of a black and white photograph that has it origins in the analog darkroom. In the digital era the use of split toning has never gained as much popularity as single toning, for reasons I can only guess. My impression has always been that the various plug ins or the built-in features in Photoshop or Lightroom weren’t too subtle and sometimes took away from the essence of a Black and White photograph. But more importantly I think that there’s not much clarity in why and how split toning can or should be used. In this article I’ll explain what split toning can add to black and white and I will be suggesting a method that not only gives a lot of control but also very subtle results.

By Joel Tjintjelaar – (c) Copyright 2017 Joel Tjintjelaar – bwvision.com

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations in reviews.

Force of Life I – The Eye Amsterdam – split toning applied

WHAT IS SPLIT TONING

A split tone is an added color in traditionally a black and white photograph to the shadows area and another color to the highlights area to add mood or meaning to a photo. Usually the shadows will get a cooler color than the highlights area, which will usually get a warmer color. Preferably, those added colors are colors according to a harmonious color scheme like complementary colors or split complementary colors. It can be compared to color grading techniques in cinematography like the (in)famous ‘orange-and-teal’ look in many contemporary movies to create a specific uniform look and emphasize a mood. There are more color schemes in movies that are more subtle, just have a look at this interesting website. The featured image above is an image that has been processed using my own black and white method (but of course you can use any other method you would prefer) and then I added blues to the shadows and mid tones and warm yellow/orange to the highlights using a method I explain further down this article.

In the digital darkroom you can also apply split toning straight onto a color photograph, but the results are different and it’s more of a color workflow. In the next paragraphs it will hopefully become clear why I don’t prefer this method of applying split tones to color photographs but always go with the traditional way of using split tones on black and white photographs only.

WHY SPLIT TONING

To explain this I first need to take you for a short trip through the world of art, neuroscience and the biology of seeing.

Black and white photography offers a way of viewing and interpreting the world through the two dimensions of a photograph, that a color photograph can’t offer as effectively. Black and white purists would often say ‘colors distract’ or ‘color photography has less soul/mood’ or anything along those lines. There’s probably a certain truth to that and I would subscribe to many of those quotes but at the same time I’m also aware that colors can add mood, focus and a symbolic meaning to a photograph that aren’t available in a black and white photograph if done the right way.

To me personally there are a few characteristics of black and white photographs that I specifically love and are the reasons I prefer black and white photography over color photography:

  1. Black and white photography is for me a step away from reality: a distortion and abstraction of reality to come closer to a more authentic and personal interpretation of the world. There are experts in neuro-aesthetics who claim that a distorted, exaggerated or abstracted interpretation of reality in art, are the elements that are universally appreciated as being more aesthetic than a literal interpretation of objective reality in art. This is the so-called Peak shift principle as propagated by protagonists and neuroscientists V.S. Ramachandran and William Hirstein in ‘The science of art’.

Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, by experts considered to be a proto-cubist painting and seminal for cubism and modern art, is a distortion and abstraction of objective reality.

2. Black and white photography is an interpretation of the world around us in differences of luminance. What does that mean? It means that through the use of one color, the color gray, the differences between luminance values become clearly visible in a way that is almost impossible in color. Due to the visual distractions of different hues and saturation in color, it is very difficult to see the difference in luminance. This is important because it’s through differences of luminance that we can perceive depth and create depth in an image by adjusting the luminance values. Or in photography language: by differences in light contrasts. Colors only (hue and saturation) can’t create depth, it’s the luminance element of color only that creates depth (besides the depth created by perspective lines). The perception of depth is generated in the color blind part of the brain, the part of the brain that only detects differences in luminance. It’s for this reason that black and white photography offers more depth, when done right. Color has a symbolic and aesthetic function in art. Black and white photography is the art of creating images through differences in luminance.

Poppy Field – a famous painting by Claude Monet. The colors in the field are very visible and we can detect What it is. What’s not visible though is that the colors in the field have very similar luminance values: they’re equiluminant and therefore we can’t exactly determine Where they are. A very interesting effect of equiluminant colors, used by Monet in many of his paintings, is that the poppies look as if they’re moving. Margaret J. Livingstone has described this effect in detail in a must read book: Vision and Art – the biology of seeing.

The same Poppy Field painting by Monet but this time I’ve removed the colors in Photoshop simply by desaturating it. It reveals that the poppies in the field have the same or very similar luminance values since they’re invisible now due to the same luminance values. This to prove my point that it’s hard to detect differences in luminance in colors, unless you strip away the hues and saturation completely. Therefore creating depth, and perceiving depth, is more effective, clearer and easier in black and white.

The most important reason for me to work with split toning is that it is traditionally a black and white workflow, meaning working with differences in luminance values only, and then add colors in a targeted way at the very end of this black and white workflow to add some mood or meaning, or whatever you may prefer. The traditional black and white processing workflow will stay in tact and there are no (color) distractions when trying to create depth or presence. Also, and this may also be very personal: the use of split tones gives more definition and detail in especially the lightest areas of an image and will enhance the visibility of transitions between the highest tonal values (pure white) and tonal values in roughly tonal zone 9. See before and after images below where the split toned image seems to have more intense and pure whites in the top half of tonal zone 10 and some warmer tones in the lower half of tonal zone 10 and all lower zones. The neutral image looks more equiluminant in the area indicated with the red arrow. In other words, working with split tones on black and white images gives you the best of both worlds: the depth of black and white and the mood and symbolism of colors.

WHY NOT USE FULL COLORS OR SINGLE TONING LIKE SEPIA?

Like it is indicated in the previous paragraph, colors aren’t a step away from reality and colors will make the detection of luminance differences nearly impossible, therefore creating depth in an image, or in objects in an image, becomes less accurate and much harder. My goal is not only to move away from reality, as many steps as possible, by removing colors and enter a world that gets meaning and depth from the differences in luminance, but also to create presence: exaggerate or distort the perception of depth to enhance aesthetics.

Single toning like sepia to add colors to a monochromatic photograph isn’t the solution for me: it would be the same as pure black and white but with another base, single, color. It would still be monochromatic. While the added interest of working with split toning is that there are always at least two colors that are added in a meaningful way and that those colors can accentuate a contrast, a focal point or a symbolic meaning.

Selective coloring is an entirely different matter and is not the type of subtle aesthetics I’m looking for. Basically you’re adding a color to an otherwise black and white photograph to add more focus to an area, but I find this focus very dominant and distracting.

SOME COLOR THEORY FOR BETTER SPLIT TONING

Now you know why you could consider split toning in a black and white photograph, we will get to the essence and I will explain how you can create the split tones. First I will show you how the creation of split toning is usually done in the digital darkroom and then I will suggest my method of split toning, which is a more subtle and controlled way of creating split tones. We’re not talking about split toning using the presets from plugins like Siler Efex Pro2 or Topaz, but about a manual, customized way. But before we do that a little bit of color theory and the color wheel for some insight into color harmony so you can make a better decision what colors to use for your custom made split tones.

The color wheel is an abstract model of colors, showing the relationships between primary, secondary and other colors, used by visual designers and artists as an aid to better understand and use colors in their creations. They do that by deriving color schemes from the color wheel, based on color theories, that suggest a combination of colors that are considered to be more aesthetic, harmonious or contrasting for example. Below I’ve depicted four commonly used examples of color schemes with a short description.

A few phrases you need to know to better understand the color schemes:

  • primary colors are colors that cannot be mixed or formed by other colors are the colors red, yellow and blue.
  • secondary colors are colors formed by mixing primary colors
  • contrasting colors are colors that are not the same: the farther away the color is from the base color on the color wheel, the more contrasting. The exact opposite, and highest contrasting color on the color wheel is called a complementary color.
  • analogous colors are colors that are adjacent to the base color on the color wheel

The complementary scheme is a high contrast scheme that you see a lot in visual design. The trick is to pick the exact opposite color and not just a color close to it. It’s recommended to use a warm color vs a cool color. This is the color scheme I use the most in my split tones.

Analogous color schemes have colors adjacent to each other. It looks much like the monochromatic color scheme but obviously with more and richer colors. I’m using this color scheme when I want to approach a more monochromatic look in my split tones. An example is the Matrix split tone preset in my Black and White fine art adjustment panel.

The triadic color scheme is a more harmonious and less contrasty color scheme than the complementary color scheme and consists of colors on the color wheel that are equally spaced around the color wheel. A color scheme that due to its variety in colors and harmonious look is popular among visual artists.

Split-complementary color schemes are more subtle variations on the complementary scheme with less contrasting colors. A split-complementary scheme is created by selecting the two colors adjacent to the exact complementary color. I prefer this color scheme over the complementary color scheme and you can find many presets with split-complementary split tones in my Black and White fine art adjustment panel

CREATING SPLIT TONES THE TRADITIONAL DIGITAL WAY

The most common way to create split tones is through the color balance feature in Photoshop. Here’s the concept in a nutshell:

  • Create a fully processed black and white image
  • Duplicate the layer
  • Navigate to Image > Adjustments > Color Balance slider
  • Select the Shadows radio button
  • Add the desired color to the shadows by moving the sliders.
  • Do the same for mid tones and highlights and then click OK – it needs to be emphasized to only click OK after you’ve adjusted the sliders for all three areas. See the three screenshots below where I selected a blue tone for shadows and very similar one for the mid tones and a warmer yellow/orange tone for the highlights.

You are done now. Usually the mid tones are assigned the same color as the shadow, but you’re free to do it differently as long as you keep in mind the Color Theory as a guideline. Using a complementary color scheme with cool tones for the shadows and mid tones and warm colors for the highlights is a good starting point.

This is the most used method and generally a good one, but looking at the way the colors are added by moving one or two sliders (very rarely moving the third slider will add to your goals) per tonal area, it is clear that you can’t choose the exact complementary color and that you can’t adjust the range of the shadows, mid tones or highlights. In case you have a very dark image you can only compensate it by over-saturating the highlights for example, else the selected tone for the shadows will dominate.

I’ve developed the following method that is more accurate and gives you more control over the range of shadows, mid tones or highlights.

CREATING SPLIT TONES THE MORE ADVANCED WAY

The method I’m presenting here is also the same method I’m using in the split toning presets in my Black and White fine art adjustments panel. The pros of this method compared to the normal method:

  • You can exactly choose the right (complementary) color
  • You can set the range of shadows, mid tones or highlights

The cons:

  • Unless you have an action set or a panel with which you can quickly create luminosity masks, you will need to create them manually and this will cost you a bit more time. I would recommend using an action set or purchase one of the panels that have the luminosity masks as a built-in feature.

GENERAL PRINCIPLES FOR SUBTLE SPLIT TONING

  • For the shadows I would choose a saturation value between 10 and 25, regardless the hue. This because the darker you go, the more intense and saturated the colors will look, the more you need to compensate it.
  • For the mid tones I would choose a saturation value between 15 and 30, regardless the hue.
  • For the highlights I would choose a saturation value between 20 and 35, regardless the hue.
  • Go with complementary, split-complementary or analogous color schemes for split-tones, or go with the triadic if you prefer. You can use the Adobe color wheel to exactly determine the complementary color.
  • You can also change the lightness in the Hue/Saturation panel in case you want to increase/decrease the contrasts.

Of course you can deviate from these principles and experiment away as much as you like, but try to maintain uniformity and consistency in aesthetics throughout your work.

WORKFLOW

  1. Create a black and white image as usual and make it final.
  2. Create a set of luminosity masks with at least 4 lights, 4 darks and 1 mid tones from the finished black and white image – not the original color version! This is different from using luminosity masks for ‘normal’ image editing where you always need to create a full set of luminosity masks from the original color version.
  3. Duplicate the layer – this will be your only working layer to which you apply all split tones.
  4. Now you have a set of luminosity masks that you will use to add the color tones. Which luminosity masks should be used? That depends on the effect you want to have and also on the type of image. A low-key image needs a different choice of luminosity masks than a high-key image. Here are a few guidelines:
    • For the average image, selecting Luminosity masks Lights3, Darks3 and Mid tones1 (it’s never another mid tones mask) is usually a good and subtle choice. I would never recommend using Lights1 and Darks1: the added split tones wouldn’t be subtle enough and would be too dominant. Alternatively choosing Lights2, Darks2 and Mid tones1 is also a good starting point, albeit a little less subtle.
    • For a low-key image the suggested selection would be: Lights2, Darks3 and Mid tones1 to give the split tone in the limited highlights a more visible range.
    • For a high-key image the suggested selection would be: Lights3, Darks2 and Mid tones1, again to balance it out better.
    • You could also select Lights4 or Darks4 in some cases for more subtlety
    • The above are all rough guidelines, it largely depends on the personal taste and the effect you want to achieve. Just experiment but stay subtle!
  5. If your image mode is set to Gray Scale, then make sure you first set it to RGB and preferably 16 bits by navigating to Image > Mode.
  6. Load luminosity mask Darks3 (you can also start with Lights, whatever you prefer)
  7. While still loaded, navigate to Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation. This will show the Hue/Saturation panel.
  8. Tick the Colorize box – this will change the Hue slider to go from 0 to 360, indicating all possible hues that are available on the color wheel.
  9. Choose the color you want to add to the shadows, then click OK.
  10. Repeat step 6 to 9 for Lights3 and Mid tones1 and add the colors for those areas to the same layer. You’re done now.

The Eye Amsterdam – steps 1 to 5 on a finished black and white image. Checked with green the luminosity masks you should choose from. Checked with red the luminosity masks you can remove.

To illustrate steps 6 to 9 more clearly I’ve used the example photo of the Eye Amsterdam, with example recipe below according to my general principles for subtle split toned black and white images. Keep in mind these general principles are based on my personal and artistic preferences.

EXAMPLE RECIPE AND VISUAL WORKFLOW

The following recipe is used on my Eye Amsterdam photo and is a similar recipe that I’ve used for the Gotham preset in the Black and White Fine Art Adjustments panel but I’ve made a few minor changes.

Since I’ve decided to use a blue (cool) hue for the shadows and mid tones with a value of 230 (just slide the slider till you see the color you like and memorize the value) on the color wheel, with a complementary (warm) color for the highlights, I needed to determine the value of this warm color through the Adobe color wheel like this:

Fill out the value 230 for the square indicated as base color in the HSB row. The first value is Hue and is the most relevant. I always leave S(aturation) to 90 so to make the color more visible on the color wheel and B(rightness) to 100. The S and B values don’t play any further role, they just need to be filled out. I only need the value of the corresponding complementary hue. If you fill out that box you will see that the H value in the two boxes on the right with the complementary colors will receive a value of 45. That’s what I’m going to use for the highlights.

After executing steps 1 to 5 in the workflow the following is a visual representation of steps 6 to 9 for each tonal area after loading the indicated luminosity masks first.

Shadows area: Load Luminosity mask Darks3 – Hue of 230 (blue) – Saturation of 20 – Lightness of -10. I would sometimes change the lightness for the shadows to a negative value to increase the contrast between shadows and highlights. If your image already has the right contrasts, then leave it to 0.

Mid tones area: Load Luminosity mask Mid tones1 – Hue of 230 (blue) – Saturation of 25 – Lightness of -15. I would also sometimes change the lightness for the mid tones to a negative value if they have the same hue as the shadows. I would increase the lightness of mid tones if they have the same hue as the highlights.

Highlights area: Load Luminosity mask Lights3 – Hue of 45 (yellow/orange) – Saturation of 34 – Lightness of +15. In this case I increased the lightness to counter the increased shadows and increase contrast between highlights and shadows overall. Again, leave at 0 if you don’t want to change the contrast.

Before and After with split toning applied according to the recipe described in this article.

ONE MORE THING

Actually a few more things. The split tone recipe used for the example is a split tone recipe that I’ve called the Gotham preset in the Black and White Quick Adjustments Panel based on complementary subtle split tones. There are other interesting split toning presets in the Black and White panel so if you don’t feel like creating split tones yourself, you could consider the panel. If you have an interesting recipe to share with the public, then leave it in the comment boxes below while indicating the luminosity masks used and the exact Hue, Saturation and Lightness settings.

Finally, I hope you will find that this way of creating split tones gives you more predictable, accurate and also more subtle results and perhaps I’ve also convinced you that using split toning as a final touch to a black and white image, can add a mood or symbolic meaning that you might otherwise miss in a normal black and white image.

If you want to know more about my Black and White workflow, use of luminosity masks or fine art photography in general then I can highly recommend the eBook From Basics to Fine-art, that I co-wrote with Julia Anna Gospodarou

10 replies
  1. Thibaut Froehly
    Thibaut Froehly says:

    Thank you for the reply Joel!
    This makes sense. Now that I sometimes analyze pictures on the color wheel, I am amazed by the difference between what color I percieve and what the color is really made of. The best example is the green that is often actually yellow 🙂
    Thank you for the book recommandation, that is surely a must read. I add it to my list.

    Reply
  2. Thibaut Froehly
    Thibaut Froehly says:

    Thank you very much Joel for putting all these detailed informations together and for sharing them!
    Even though I don’t do black and white, it is still very useful information to understand colors, depth and contrast. The undestanding and control of these parameters help a lot to express the message.

    I read that colors also can create depth, warm tones seeming close and cooler tones seeming distant. I personally find it’s true on the Monet painting with the red flowers seeming closer to the blue sky. I guess this is more subjective perception and it is also accentuated by the fact that the flowers are in the foreground…

    Reply
    • Joel Tjintjelaar
      Joel Tjintjelaar says:

      Thanks for your comment Thibaut, and I’ve also seen an analysis on a Van Gogh painting on how the warm colors seem closer and cool colors more distant, but I think this has to do with subjective perception indeed, not so much with a physical fact. In this context it could be interesting to read Josef Albers’ book “Interaction of Color” considered to be the authoritative work on color. He states for example the following: “In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is — as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art.”. Anyway, I can recommend reading this book.
      – Joel

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