Vintage sepia toning photo effect for black white photos

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Toning is a method that has been around since the very beginning of photography. It consists of changing the color of black-and-white photographs through the use of different chemicals. Initially performed to achieve greater archival properties for photographic prints, it was also done for the aesthetic qualities of certain toners. It involves many different dangerous chemicals from Selenium to Gold Chloride as well as different papers and developers. There are many variants possible so trail and error is a must. It can be a daunting practice for most amateur photographers. Luckily, we can use Photoshop to achieve these subtle tones without having to prepare a darkroom or toxic chemicals! In this tutorial, we’re going to be recreating the ever popular sepia tone.


The first thing we’re going to do is convert the color image to Black & White by using the Black & White layer adjustment found at the bottom of your layers palette. This will bring up the Black and White conversion window from where you can choose a variety of predefined adjustments that simulate different photo filters. Choose the filter setting most suitable for your image. You can also leave it in “Default” and tweak each color rendition separately. Now that we have a Black & White image we’re ready to tone!


Perhaps the earliest of toning techniques and the most common for its warm brown color is the sepia tone. There are many ways of achieving a sepia tone in Photoshop but perhaps the easiest is simply going to your Photo Filters Adjustment Layer located at the bottom of your layers palette.layer_adjustment

In your Photo Filters window select Sepia from your dropdown menu and dial in the Density with the slider. I’d say about 50% will do. Make sure you have the Preserve Luminosity setting selected otherwise the result will be quiet murky.


The best way of achieving a more controlled sepia tone is using your Curves Adjustment Layer. Open that up and select your green channel and drag the curve down from the middle to add some magenta. Around 115 for Output and 140 for Input will do.


Next go to your Blue Channel and do the same. Around 105 for Output and 150 for Input. That will give your image a nice brown tone.


Finally, go to your Red Channel and just add a little bit of cyan by dropping the curve just a little bit. Around 120 for Output and 135 for Input. Careful not to add to much cyan or you’ll get a green color cast.


If you find that by dropping the curves on all the channels you have darkened your image too much you can go to the RGB channel and lift that up a bit to recover some luminosity.


Your sepia curves adjustment should be set. Remember you can dial it back a bit if it seems too much by simple using the opacity level for that layer. You can also apply a blend mode to this adjustment layer but bear in mind that it will alter the contrast and density of your image depending on the blend mode chosen. To save this Curves Adjustment as a preset in order to have it available for any image you wish, simply select this Curves Adjustment from the dropdown menu in your Curves window. Do this by going to the top-right corner of the Curves window and selecting “Save Curves Preset”. Call it “Sepia Tone” and that’s it!


The last thing I want to do to this image is to simply integrate the sepia tone more realistically by eliminating the effect of the adjustment in certain areas. I will be doing this by use of the Layer’s Mask. A Layer’s Mask is created with each Adjustment Layer so you should see a white box next to your Curve Adjustment layer. What I’m looking for is to eliminate the effect from the highlights. To do this, first we will need to merge everything onto a new layer by pressing SHIFT + CTRL + ALT +E. With this new layer selected go to Select > Color Range. In the color range window select the whitest point in the image and try to get as much of it as possible by setting a high amount of “Fuzziness”. I’d say between 90 to 120 depending on your image and the amount of highlights in it.


Press OK and you will have the highlight selected in your image. Now go to Select > Refine Edge. In this window you can tweak your selection with an array of settings ranging from Feather to Contrast. Once you have the selection you desire, go to the Output part of the window and from the dropdown menu select Output to:“Layer Mask”.


You now will have that highlight selection as a Layer Mask next to your merged layer. Invert that Layer Mask by selecting it and pressing CTRL + I and while holding down the SHIFT key, drag it on top of the Layer Mask below it. It will prompt you to replace Layer Mask. Say yes and now your Curves Adjustment Layer has the highlights masked out by that Layer Mask! You can delete the merge layer with it’s Layer Mask if you wish since we won’t be using it.


If you find that it masked out too much you can see the Layer Mask by holding down the ALT key and clicking on it and then simply lower the intensity of the darker areas. The easiest way of doing this is taking your eraser tool and with an Opacity of around 20% and erase over the whole image area. Make sure the brush size is large for one clean swipe or small if you want to recover color in very specific areas.


The result should show a stronger sepia tone in the midtones to dark shadows and a more subtle effect on the highlights. This will avoid the effect looking like a straight up filter that covers the whole image and will make the effect more realistic.

Hope the tutorial has been helpful. Good luck with your photos!

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