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If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you know that I love black-and-white photography. In November 2011, my post A Black and White World was Freshly Pressed — what an honor! Thank you to my followers and those who just stop by to check out my blog.

In particular, I love low-key black-and-white, and in the post Low Key Black and White I shared a couple of pictures to which I applied toning. Some friends over the years have asked me about toning. They wonder if it’s black and white, why is a color tone added? So, I thought I would provide some history and some techniques regarding toning black-and-white photographs in a series of posts.

The most common toning is Sepia. With today’s technology, most people convert a color photograph to monochrome, and then slap a sepia tone on  it and call it vintage. In my opinion, toning can be overdone, and sometimes produces garish images. Also, I think not all photographs are good candidates for black-and-white. In the absence of color, your composition, texture, and tone must be strong. Toning the photograph in the print stage can alter the mood of the photograph. Of course, selecting the right toner is the artist’s preference; nonetheless, it should be chosen carefully.

Traditional toning was applied when the photograph was printed to paper, and it was simply a method of changing the color of black-and-white photographs. In analog photography, toning is a chemical process carried out on silver-based photographic prints. Although the black-and-white photograph is now toned, it is still considered a black-and-white photograph as it is monochromatic. These days, this process can be replicated easily in the digital darkroom. Some editing software only offers Sepia, while others such as Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro 2 offer a variety of tones. In my opinion, if you are serious about black-and-white photography, invest the US $100 in the Silver Efex Pro 2 — you won’t regret it.

Interestingly, in the early days the primary motivation of toning was to enhance the photograph’s archival qualities. In the case of Sepia toning, chemicals are used to convert the metallic silver in the print to a sulfide compound, which is much more resistant to the effects of environmental pollutants such as atmospheric sulfur compounds. As a result of this process, the photograph has a warmer feel to it. Sepia is a dark brown-gray color, named after the rich brown pigment derived from the ink sac of the common cuttlefish Sepia.

Selenium toning is a popular archival toning process; it converts metallic silver to silver selenide. In a diluted toning solution, selenium toning gives a red-brown tone, while a strong solution gives a purple-brown tone.

In upcoming posts in this series, I will discuss other toning processes such as ambrotype, cyanotype, copper, and coffee. I will provide background history of each  process, example photographs, and discuss the creative process I used to choose the tones. In this post however, I will share some simple examples:

NOTE: Click on pictures for larger version, but please don’t steal my work — see my copyright notice below. If you’re a charitable organization or an educational institution, and you’d like to use any of my images, send me a message. But please, ask me first. Thank you. If you do decide to purchase a print, all purchases will benefit the Friends of the Wounded Veterans.

1933 Cadillac just screams “Sepia” tone.

The bluish tone of this photograph appropriately conveys the chilly weather of the Aleutian Islands.

The yellowish tone, in my opinion, best conveys the warmth of the sunset.

The subtle yellow tone complements the corn field.

I chose this tone because it reminded me of the cool, fall evening on the Chesapeake Bay.

The dark ambiance and low, “warm” lighting is reminiscent of film noir style.