Split Tone

Descent 1

“Those who want to be serious photographers, you’re really going to have to edit your work. You’re going to have to understand what you’re doing. You’re going to have to not just shoot, shoot, shoot. To stop and look at your work is the most important thing you can do.”  – Annie Leibovitz

Photograph.sept1895Historically toning is a method of changing the color of black-and-white photographs. It is a chemical process carried out on silver-based photographic prints. Sepia toning is created by changing the silver to a silver sulphide.  Other processes can replace the silver ions with other metals like iron (blue) , copper  (red) or gold (blue black or reddish gold).  This darkroom process cannot be performed with a color photograph.

In digital photography toning can also be emulated with software like lightroom or NIK filters.  The colour transition can be global or limited to just the shadows or highlights.  Split toning is the process of applying 2 seperate tones, one to the highlights, the other to the shadows.  Often the tone will be opposites on the colour wheel. (Eg Red – Green, or Cyan blue – Orange or Magenta – Yellow).  Unlike the chemical process this can be applied to the monochrome as well as the colour image.  There is a small dialog in Lightroom that performs this function with great ease using a series of 5 sliders.


The picture at the top of the page of a stair case has had a single magenta tone added to the shadows using Lightroom.  The original picture (left) has a completely different mood.  The added tone helps to lift the blues in the shadows and the red of the boys t-shirt.  Overall it creates a rich and moody effect.  It resembles the colour filters used widely with film cameras.  A smoky filter or a bicoloured blue – brown filter can turn a sunset from something ordinary, to extra special.

Split Tone LR

Above is a screen shot of the light room split tone dialog in action.  You can see that I have applied a purple- green split tone to this picture of a water iris.  The result is a slightly darker richer more colourful image.  I think this is a very useful tool for single or double colour enhancement in Lightroom.

Why don’t they have this filter in Photoshop?  Good question.  I have had a look around on the internet and there appears to be a work around to get a similar effect.

Split tone PS

In the image above I have taken a screen shot of my “work around” in progress.  On the bottom left is a snapshot of the original image.  On the right in the layers dialog you can see that I have 3 adjustment layers.  On the bottom is a curves layer (the curve manipulation is depicted bottom right).  Above that is the Colour balance adjustment.  This is the layer where I emulate the split tone filter, by creating different adjustments in the shadows and highlights.  There are 3 sliders for the red green and blue channels restively.  In my opinion this is a little harder to use than the light room hue slider.  Lastly I have created a brown blue gradient that I have blended using the “soft light” method that acts like a bicolour filter.  The resulting image certainly gives a lift to the colours of the original image.

The last step that I have mentioned – a bicolour filter – can be created more easily in NIK filters.

Bicolour filter chimneys

The image above is a screen shot of NIK “colour effex pro” with a user defined bicolour filter in operation.  The dialog is quite versatile, in that I can add control points and mask away areas where the filter is too vibrant (top left corner).  I used this filter a few years back with my image of a dolphin surfacing.  This is another filter that can add a striking and beautiful rich colour to an image.

Port River Dolphin 2

OK.  That’s all very good.  But what about working in the monochrome?  You know I played for quite a while in Lightroom, but I think I got better results in the end using the Photoshop technique.

On the left I have the monochrome picture of Frances.  On the right I have created a red green split tone.  I have retained the bicolored filter at a 45 degree angle which has created a pleasing gradation in the highlights.  It makes quite a striking graphic image, similar to what you might find in a magazine.  There is certainly a lot of scope for experimentation.  Here are some more of my experiments.


Hopefully I have shown you how to create a split one, but we haven’t looked at how it works.  What is the rationale for doing this?

Perhaps the starting point of colour manipulation is colour cast correction.   A photograph taken under incandescent lights looks horribly orange – Yuk! If you know that you will be shooting in artifical light you might adjust the white balance before taking the shot.  Often it is too late and you don’t notice until you get home.  Luckily there are powerful tools to rescue the photo.  You can adjust colour many ways.  The RGB sliders are hard to use.  The HSL is a more intuitive scheme.  The curves tool has an eye dropper tool that can be used to automatically direct  light dark or midtone colour balance.

The split tone schemes however are heading in the opposite direction.  We are going from the normal colour balance and creating a colour cast.  You can image this can go horribly wrong and look a total mess.  I can attest to that.  So what do you need to do to make it work?

A starting point might be to go to the Cokin website and look at their catalog.   The filters for landscape work are either cooling (blues) or warming (orange browns and yellows).  You may choose either in order to change the feel of your image.  What does it need? Experiment.  Try the tones of the cokin filters and see if you can emulate the effects that they have in the catalog.

As a general rule I have found that there is no point in adding a colour that is already dominant in an image.  For instance a green filter over a green forest scene causes everything to blow out and you loose details.  An orange warming filter on the other hand can bring out fine details in the leaves and trunks.  Try and think – what is the opposite to the dominant.


The filter will however draw attention to small areas with the same colour as the filter.  If for instance you had a  grey desert with a single green tree.  You might really emphasize the tree with the green filter.

I have often found that the filter colours work best when they are slightly darker and more saturated than I first predicted.  You have to experiment and see what works best.

The various filters that I have discussed are powerful tools for improving your images.  I recommend that you take Annie Leibovitz advice and learn how to edit your images.