Sepia toning is probably what comes to mind first when non-photographers think about altering image colour; they immediately think of the browns and yellows of all those old photographs they have of their ancestors sitting in a shoe box. I phrased that poorly - I meant the photos were in a shoe box, not people's ancestors.
Even for many photographers (and perhaps some of you reading this article) this may be the goal - to reproduce that "vintage" look (note, this term now seems to apply to literally any non-digital picture). However, there is much more to sepia toning than just producing a fully yellow-brown image, as we will go on to see. Before we start toning, however, it would be good to look at some of the properties of sepia toner.
Sepia toning is archival, which means that if you sepia tone a print it is going to keep better over time than an untoned print. However, you get a colour change. If that is what you want then all well and good, but if you are after a toner that doesn't alter the colour of your print then this is the wrong toner for you! There are many different sepia toners currently available on the market, all of which work by converting the silver within your print to silver sulphide. I tend to use a Fotospeed sepia toner as it is readily available and relatively cheap, plus you can get all of the components of the toner kit individually which is handy. If you are working on a tight budget you might want to look into mixing your own toner from raw materials, however I won't be discussing mixing formulae in this tutorial.
The most common type of sepia toner available is also referred to as thiocarbamide, thiourea or variable sepia toner. It tends to be odourless, unlike sulphide sepia toners which give off a rotten egg smell which may see you banned from using the bathroom for toning. The best thing about these kinds of toner is the fact that by adding or subtracting certain amounts of the supplied additive solution, differing intensities of colour can be achieved - from pale yellow through to deep brown (as usual this will be effected by developer and paper choice etc). This opens up a whole world of exploration in sepia toning for those willing to put in some time and effort to experiment. For now, though, let's start by running through what's in the box, how to mix everything and how to start toning your print.
What's In The Box?
The sepia kit I use is the Fotospeed ST-20 (here do be a link), which you can pick up from pretty much any photography store which sells darkroom stuff. The kit comes in three parts, conveniently identified as Parts 1, 2 and 3. Part 1 is a bleach, Part 2 is the toner and Part 3 is the toner additive. When you get the kit the bottles will be rather on the small side, however as I mentioned earlier you can buy the bigger bottles separately if you are feeling flush with cash and devil-may-care. But how to mix this stuff?!
Mixing the Solutions
Let's start at the beginning - Part 1, the bleach. The bleach is a mixture of Potassium Ferricyanide and Potassium Bromide (which you can buy on their own as powders if you feel like getting kinky and mixing your own from scratch). As with most of the chemicals we deal with they aren't supposed to be drunk or poured neat onto our eyes, so take care when handling and use gloves whenever you can.
The instructions from Fotospeed say to mix the bleach at a dilution of 1+9 with water. This will make your image bleach back extremely quickly which, for full image bleaching, is what we want. We will want to tweak this later on as we vary our process, but for now 1+9 will be fine.
Moving onto Part 2, the toner. This is what will do the actual toning (hence the name, duh) and, once again, Fotospeed recommend a dilution of 1+9. Be careful because you don't want to mix everything up at once. Sepia toner will start to degrade very quickly in ambient air so only mix up as much as you need for your current toning session right before you are wanting to start toning. If possible save up a few prints to tone all at once, then you are getting good volume from your mixed up solution before it expires.
Now onto Part 3, the additive. This can seem to be a bit of an afterthought, "oh, and don't forget to add the Part 3", but it is actually the Part 3 which lets you control the final intensity of the toner colour. A chart is supplied with the toner kit advising how much of the Part 3 to add to the working solution to get the colour you want. For now let's go for a classic sepia colour by adding 15ml of Part 3 to the working solution.
And that's about it really. Have a good read through the instructions provided with your kit and then re-read them, then after that have another read through. Then sleep on it and read them again. One thing I should mention is that you should not mix the bleach and the working solution together - it's pretty obvious but I thought I had best mention it in case you are reading this tutorial at 3 in the morning during a serious bout of insomnia. You should have a mixed up quantity of bleach and then separately you should have a mixed up quantity of the Part 2 solution with the Part 3 additive added in. Once you've got that you're good to go.
Oh, one thing you will definitely need is good light. Don't do this in your dimly-lit bathroom at midnight as you won;t be able to see the extent of the toning properly and come the morning you will be kicking yourself. Save it for daylight or a nice, bright room.
The last thing I want to say is in regard to solution quantity. As I mentioned earlier the toner solution degrades rapidly and me, being somewhat of a skinflint when it comes to darkroom materials, doesn't want to waste any of my precious solution. As such I only mix as much solution as I need for each session. I tend to only tone a few prints at a time, so I opt for around 300ml to 400ml of toner and bleach solution. It's up to you how much you mix but watch out for solution exhaustion - the last thing you want is for your toner to expire mid-session.
The question now is, how to actually tone?
Basic Sepia toning
The first thing you need to do is ensure that your print has been properly processed. Evenly developed. Properly fixed. Thoroughly washed. Also make sure that your print surface has been handled as little as possible, finger and tong marks WILL show up on the surface of your print and that is the last thing you want after all those hours in the darkroom.
So, your print is nice and washed (note, if working from a dry print give it a dunk in some clean water to get the emulsion thoroughly soaked), you have a tray of bleach mixed up, and you have your toner and toner additive solution in another tray all good to go. For the sake of this tutorial let's pretend that we have made a print together. This print in fact...