The film photography & darkroom work of David Kirby

How To: Tone a Print - Sepia - Part I - Basic Sepia Toning

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.

About Sepia

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...

The original untoned print.

This is just a straight print from a scene I shot in Skye last year.  It hasn't been dodged or burned or altered in any way.  I have chosen this because it has a little highlight tone, good strong blacks and a good range of mid-tones.  The paper used is Ilford MG IV RC VC, my go-to paper for tutorials and work prints etc. 

Our print is ready, now what?

The basic sepia process is actually very simple - put your print in the bleach tray and agitate it as you would when developing (if you use trays for developing).  You will notice the highlights start to disappear first, then the mid-tones will start to go, then finally the shadows.  This normally takes up to a few minutes to complete, but naturally it depends on the image being bleached.  If your print has no shadow tones then it will bleach a lot quicker than a print that is mostly black.  Here is a picture of our work print after it has been fully bleached back.

The bleached-back print.  Note how the print has taken on a buff/biscuit colour.  This is what you want to look for when bleaching the print as this will show the area that the bleach has effected.  Here you can see that the bleach has been taken right down to the shadows.

No doubt you can see the difference between the original and the bleached-back print.  Once the bleaching stage is done remove the print from the tray, give it a quick rinse under the tap to remove any excess bleach then pop your print into a wash.  For resin prints a 5 minute wash should do, for fibre prints you will need a longer wash, as usual - around 15 minutes. 

Now that your print is bleached and washed it's time to tone.  Slip your bleached print into the toning solution and agitate it as you would when tray developing.  The bleached parts of the image should start to come back with their new sepia tone almost immediately and in around 60 seconds your print should be back to its normal density, albeit with a sepia tone.  Like so...

Our work print, fully toned.

Apologies that the image quality above isn't the best but my house has the unique ability to totally avoid natural light ingress.  As you can see the toning has gone right down from the highlights to the shadows, a sepia all the way through.  Success!  High-fives all around!

Give your print a wash now - 30 minutes for fibre paper, 10 minutes for resin.  Leave to dry then admire your finished print.


Before we finish up I would like to discuss a few things which can cause a variation on the above process.

  • Paper Choice - As with all things darkroom, paper choice will make a huge difference.  A warmtone paper will "take" to sepia toning more than a neutral paper, which in turn will take to sepia toning more than a cooltone paper.  Even papers made by different manufacturers will vary - an Ilford warmtone paper will tone differently to an Agfa warmtone paper.  In the end it comes down to personal preference, try experimenting with the same print on a few different papers and see what you come up with.
  • Developer Choice - The developer you choose will have as much an effect on your final print tone as your paper choice will.  A warmtone developer will pronounce the sepia effect more than a cooltone developer.  And this is again altered depending on which paper you use.  A warmtone paper in a warmtone developer will give the most pronounced sepia tone, a coldtone paper in a coldtone developer will give very little sepia tone.  But there is nothing to say that you can't "cross-process".  What about a warmtone paper in a coldtone developer?  Or a coldtone paper in a neutral developer?  Or a neutral paper in a warmtone developer.  We can start to see just how many options are available to us for final print tone, even before we have commenced our actual toning.  Experiment with different developer and paper combinations to find one that you like.
  • Part 3 Additive - In our above walkthrough we used 15ml of the Part 3 additive which gave us a classic sepia colour.  But the colour of the sepia can be altered by adding more or less of the additive.  More of the additive will give a darker sepia tone, closer to a brown; whilst less of the additive will give a more yellow colour.  Again, it comes down to personal preference - experiment with differing quantities of the additive and see which colour takes your fancy for your print.

Closing Remarks

And that is about it for basic sepia toning.  But we're nowhere near the end of the road, there is so much more we can do with sepia before we even begin to move onto other toners.  In Part 2 of our sepia toning tutorial we will look at split toning, followed by more advanced toning techniques in Part 3.  Until then, happy printing, dear readers!