The film photography & darkroom work of David Kirby

How To: Tone a Print - Sepia - Part II - Split Toning

Welcome back to this, part 2 of the sepia toning tutorial I have been writing.  In Part I of the tutorial we looked at the basics of sepia toning, bleaching back our print right through to the shadows then bringing the detail back with the sepia toner.  In Part II we will look at at the logical next step in sepia toning - split toning.

Split toning is a phrase that is often used, and often misused.  It is regularly applied to prints that have had two or more toners applied to them, and this is mostly accurate; but really such prints should be called combination or multiple toned prints as split toning can also be achieved using a single toner.  But maybe I am just being picky!

So how do we use sepia toner to split tone a print?  Well let's think about our process from the previous tutorial for a moment.  When we put the print into the bleach we saw the highlights start to bleach out first, then the midtones and then finally the shadows.  So what happens if we pull the print out of the bleach bath before the print is fully bleached?  Our lower tones are preserved and the sepia toner will only be applied to the bleached areas.  Hey presto - a split tone!

Just by way of reminder here is our original untoned print:

So we are wanting to only partially bleach back our print, but this now presents us with a problem - the speed at which the print is bleached.  If you have tried the process from part 1 of the tutorial then you will no doubt have seen that the majority of the print bleaches back in around 1 minute.  Now imagine that you are bulk printing a particular image - how on earth are you going to ensure that each print is being pulled from the bleach at the same point, thereby giving consistency in your toning across your prints?  We need to gain better control of the bleaching stage before we move any further.

Fortunately the solution is elegantly simple - we can water-down the bleach so that the entire bleaching stage is slowed down.  Personally I like to dilute my mixed-up working bleach solution around 1:3 as I tend to take my bleaching quite far into the midtones, right up to the shadows.  1:3 means that the bleaching is still quite rapid but controllable, and stops me from sitting staring at a print slowly bleaching-back for 20 minutes.  If you are only wanting to bleach back highlights and get really fine control then use a great dilution, 1:7 say.

Now that we have diluted our bleach a little to give us more control, let's partially bleach-back our original print.  Once done wash the print as normal and then place it into the sepia toner (at your chosen colour strength of course).  Below are some side-by-side comparisons of the fully bleach and two partially bleached prints.

All of the above prints were made on Ilford MG IV RC VC developed in LPD and toned with Fotospeed ST20 sepia toner.  To the top left is the fully bleached-back print from part 1 of the tutorial, with the toned print to the right.  In the central row is a partially bleached print - note how the black areas of the print have kept their integrity and that the central area of the cloud at the top of the print has maintained its dark grey tonality.  To the right of this is the partially bleached print after the toning bath.  You can see how it is much more visually striking than the fully toned print, the shadows standing out stronger as their black tonality has been preserved.  There is also more of a contrast in the sky, with the grey of the clouds standing more apart from the sepia of the sky than in the fully bleached and toned print.  Finally, in the bottom left is a print which has had an even shorter bleach.  You can see the difference between this print and the previous one by comparing the density/tonality of the cloud at the top of the image.  Much more of the "body" of the cloud has been preserved, as has more of the detail in the water.  Once toned in the sepia we can see a much cooler image than our previous one, with a greyer look to the print overall and just hints of sepia around the cloud edges and in the water.

We can say that both the medium bleached print and the lightly bleached print are split toned because there is a clear distinction between the neutral/cold shadows and midtones and the warm sepia highlights.  You can see how the split toning process adds greater depth to the image when compared to the fully toned version, giving an overall "bolder" look.  The choice of where to put the split is totally within your control.  You may go right down to the base of the midtones and stop just short of the shadows, you may go for a very light bleach so that only the very lightest highlights are effected by the sepia; the choice is entirely yours!

As with full bleaching and toning paper and developer choice and toner additive concentrations will alter the final look of your sepia toning.  As before it is good to experiment to find a look that works for you and stick with it until you get the hang of the split toning process, then try other papers and developers and toner additive concentrations.

The last thing I would like to mention about split toning is possibly the best thing about it - as there are parts of the print that have been left untoned these are wide open for being hit by another toner.  Alas, friends, that is another story for another time.  I shall leave you with my best wishes for your experiments in split toning and let you know that in part 3 (the final part of my sepia toning tutorial) we will discuss some more advanced steps in sepia toning.  Oh, and happy printing!