The film photography & darkroom work of David Kirby

How To: Tone A Print - Preparation

Yes, finally, at long last I am starting my toning tutorials.  I have been promising them to many of my readers for a few months now and I don't feel I can put these articles off any longer.

So, toning.  There seems to be a bit of a trend in black & white printing at the moment where a lot of people don't tone and I honestly don't know why.  Leaving a print untoned is like going to a five star restaurant every week and ordering the same thing.  Yes, you are getting a great experience but you are not getting much variety or exploring much of what is on offer.  Maybe people just prefer their black & white prints to be black and white or maybe they just don't know how to tone, I don't know.  What I do know is that there is not a lot of information available on toning.  Articles on the web are scattered, some darkroom books cover toning but rarely go into very much detail.  I am hoping that this introduction article and the following series of articles; each dealing with a different toner, followed by a few articles on combining toners; will prove to be a useful resource for many of you and, hopefully, will introduce you to a whole new world of printing.

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That being said there is one book here that I absolutely have to mention and that is this book.  If in life you only ever purchase one darkroom-related book, let it be this one.  This book is THE tome to read if you want to know anything about toning.  Tim Rudman (the man) goes into more detail than I ever could if I spent a month writing these articles.  Tim has done all kinds of tests on all kinds of papers with all kinds of toners.  Unfortunately the book is now out of print but can be picked up occasionally on the used market.  If you are feeling particularly rich you can pick a copy up from Amazon for £100, still worth it!!  Until then I guess you will have to make do with these tutorials and what you can find online or in old books.

But before we get into the individual toners and what they do we have much to discuss.  Why tone?  What kinds of toners are there?  What equipment will I need?  Do I need to process my print differently?  These and other questions will (hopefully) be answered in this and the following articles.

Why Tone? 

"Well why not"  is the obvious response, but doesn't really help us here does it? You may tone for a variety of reasons - to add more drama or enhance the mood of a print, to increase archival ability & longevity of the print or to give a contrast boost. Be warned though, toning will not rescue a bad print.

Colours & Toner Types

Toners come in many colours, the most common of which are selenium, sepia, copper (red), blue, green and gold (blue).  Some of them are single bath (or direct) toners, and some are  two bath toners where you have to bleach the print prior to applying the toner.  Some toners work from the shadow tones up to the highlights and some toners work from the highlights down.  I will discuss what each toner does in future articles covering that toner.


Equipment-wise there is very little you will need on top of what you already have in your darkroom.  A dedicated tray for each toner and bleach is handy if you are tray-rich.  Otherwise you will be washing your tray out between each toning bath, which can be a huge pain if you are combining toners on one print.  A few extra tongs is handy too, or disposable gloves if you prefer to use your hands.  Obviously you will need toners and the usual mixing jugs and graduates as well.  That's about it I think.


Like it or not technique plays a key role in the outcome of your toning.   Personally I enjoy the more technical side of photography, hence why I write so many tutorials.  Some printers just view it as a means to an end.  Whichever way you view technique as long as you are careful you should have no problem.  The main key is to keep your print processing as top notch as possible - thorough washing between steps (especially after fixing) and most importantly of all never ever handle the print surface.  It sounds obvious really but far too often you can end up with fingerprints on your print surface through poor handling.

Proper fixing is absolutely critical.  Use fresh fixer wherever possible and never over or under-fix your print.  I find fixing to be a tricky step - at least with developing you can pretty much see when it is done!  If there is any residual fixer left in your print after washing it is without fail going to show up when you tone - spots, stains and streaks are not what you want to see after all those hours you have spent printing and washing"

Prints may also have to be exposed differently depending upon what toning you plan to carry out.  For example sepia toning generally causes a slight loss of highlight detail which requires compensating for during the main exposure.  With selenium toning density is added to shadow areas and so a slightly reduced exposure may be required to ensure that shadow detail is not lost in key areas.  Getting to know each toner's characteristics will help you to make sure you have the best print possible to tone with.

Decisions, Decisions

As with so many things in this wonderful obsession of ours there are many variables to consider when toning.  This means that prior to making every print decision need to be made.  Most of these are decisions which you make anyway, but keeping in mind how you want your final print to look when toned will help you on your way to making the right choices. 

As mentioned in the technique section you may need to decide whether to add an extra exposure to your highlights or cut some exposure form your shadows.  Your choice of paper will also have an outcome upon how effective toning is.  For example sepia and copper toning is more pronounced on warmtone papers than neutral papers, and is very subtle on coldtone papers.  Selenium toners can go red and brown on warmtone papers whereas coldtone papers will produce a cool blue in selenium.  And different paper brands will respond differently to different toner brands - Agfa WT paper and Ilford WT paper will show different hues in sepia, despite both being warmtone.

Developer choice also plays a key role - a warmtone paper developed in warmtone developer will have a more pronounced response in sepia and copper toner than a warmtone paper developed in neutral or coldtone developer.  And the same is true of all other toners, the type of developer used will have a significant impact upon the look of your final print.

Image and toner choice are possibly the most important decisions to be made however.  When you select an image for printing sometimes your mind will just automatically know what toner/toners to use to convey to the viewer what you want them to see and feel.  With some images, however, it isn't always clear just what toner to use or, indeed, how you want your final image to print; and a bit of experimentation is required.  Some toners look best on soft, light images, whilst others are strongest on darker moodier images.  Often toners can be combined to give you the best of both worlds and this is also something which should also be considered.  The classic example of this is sepia & selenium which, when combined onto warmtone paper, can give striking results - soft sepia highlights and deep, strong shadows.


As can be seen there is much to consider when toning a print.  But please don't let this put you off! Toning is a relatively simple and wonderful thing to do and is yet another feather in your cap of darkroom printing.  So, whether you are entirely new to this process or have some experience I hope my next few articles will be of use to you.  I will be working through each of the most common toners and discussing the basics.  Then in a follow-up article for each toner I will discuss some more advanced steps.  Finally I will post an article or two covering combining toners.  First up though let's start with a classic - sepia toning. 

Until my next post, happy printing!