by Gerald Boerner


JerryPhoto_8x8_P1010031 In the early days of photography, the prints produced on Salt Paper and Albumen Paper were fragile after they completed the Printing-out process to remove some of the remaining silver salts with a water bath. Depending on how well this washing had been done, the print may have had much of the unused silver salts in the highlight areas had been cleared so that the print would survive.

Unfortunately, this washing process was not always done sufficiently to assure the prints durability. Therefore, most of these Salt and Albumen Printing-Out paper images were toned following the clearing sequence. This consisted of placing the wet positive in a solution of a heavy metal like gold, selenium, or platinum. These solutions would bind with the remaining silver salts to form a more stable, non-photoreactive image with enhanced tonality.

In fact, most toning involved a two-step process with gold toning followed by sepia (iron) or selenium toning. The gave the images a more pleasing, richer look in the black areas. These toning processes also helped preserve the image since they inactivated the silver salts so that the prints could be shown in the light.

We still use toning processes in our wet darkrooms. Unfortunately, the expense of gold and platinum have caused those toning processes from continuing to any appreciable extent. We do use sepia and selenium toning to enhance our black and white images. In the digital darkrooms, programs like Photoshop allow us to continue to use sepia toning.  GLB


“People believe that photographs are true and therefore cannot be art.”
— Mason Cooley

“People taking photographs of their meals are not critics; they are from the United States.”
— Louis de Bernieres

“So I went to Chicago in 1940, I think, ’41, and the photographs that I made there, aside from fashion, were things that I was trying to express in a social conscious way.”
— Gordon Parks

“So successful has been the camera’s role in beautifying the world that photographs, rather than the world, have become the standard of the beautiful.”
— Susan Sontag

“The photographer begins to feel big and bloated and so big he can’t walk through one of these doors because he gets a good byline; he gets notices all over the world and so forth; but they’re really – the important people are the people he photographs.”
— Gordon Parks

“The idea of photographing an Arab man naked and having him simulate homosexual activity, and having an American GI woman in the photographs, is the end of society in their eyes.”
— Seymour Hersh

“Some time ago, we went to Asia and took a camera along, and I began to do what I’d done even years ago doing people. I couldn’t get interested in it. And I did hundreds of photographs of details of the monuments as sculpture.”
— Ben Shahn

“Photographs are still being taken but aren’t being shown. There’s one of a skeleton bound at the wrists with pants still around its ankles; if it was a woman, she was likely raped; if it was a man, he was possibly castrated.”
— Nicholas D. Kristof


This posting is intended for the educational use of photographers and photography students and complies with the “educational fair use” provisions of copyright law. For readers who might wish to reuse some of these images should check out their compliance with copyright limitations that might apply to that use.



Early Photographic Technique: Gold Toning

Vatican_Spiral1983 In photography, toning is a method of changing the colour of black-and-white photographs. In analog photography, toning is a chemical process carried out on silver-based photographic prints. The effects of these processes can be emulated with software in digital photography.

Beginning in the 1880s, sepia was produced by adding a pigment, made from the Sepia officinalis cuttlefish found in the English channel, to the positive print of a photograph. The term ‘sepia’ comes from the name of the pigment.

An Orotone or gold tone is one of many types of photographic print which can be made from a negative. An orotone photograph is created by printing a positive on a glass plate precoated with a silver gelatin emulsion. Following exposure and development, the emulsion is coated with banana oil impregnated with gold colored pigment, to yield a gold-toned image. Alternatively, the developed glass plate can be gold-leafed by hand using 23 carat gold leaf. Being printed on glass, Orotone images are extremely fragile and often require specialized frames in order to prevent breakage. Other types of prints can be made with the same negative used to make an orotone. Consequently, silver gelatin prints and platinotypes (platinum, palladium) prints are also made by those who produce orotone prints.

Historical Perspective

Edward Sheriff Curtis was a photographer of the American West and of Native American peoples.

An Oasis in the Badlands The making of orotone prints was contemporary art in the early twentieth century. Orotones are often to be seen in interiors associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. Many of these orotones are by Seattle photographer Edward S. Curtis who produced hundreds of orotone photographs of Native Americans during his career. Curtis developed the Curt-tone using techniques which he claimed were superior.

Canyon de Chelly Curtis’ Endorsement of the Orotone Process: "The ordinary photographic print, however good, lacks depth and transparency, or more strictly speaking, translucency.We all know how beautiful are the stones and pebbles in the limpid brook of the forest where the water absorbs the blue of the sky and the green of the foliage, yet when we take the same iridescent pebbles from the water and dry them they are dull and lifeless, so it is with the ordinary photographic print, but in the Curt-Tones all the transparency is retained and they are as full of life and sparkle as an opal."

Scully & Osterman on Gold Toning

Most people don’t realize how much depth of printing establishes the final image tone and are confused when they get weak tones from a toning formula. This is often the case when negatives don’t have enough silver density, spectral density or have a fogged base.

This bicarbonate type toner gives warm red brown to cool brown to purple brown tonality depending on the depth of printing and depth of toning. It can be used immediately after mixing.

Percent solutions were rarely used in the nineteenth century. Toning formulas were based on the method of adding gold by the grain to the toning solution. The standard for making and using a gold chloride toning solution begins with dissolving 1.0 gram of gold chloride into a given quantity of water as follows. A gram is equal to 15.4 grains.

Gold Chloride Stock Solution

Gold chloride, 1.0 g (15.4 grains)
Distilled water, 154.0 ml

Based on the above example, every 10 ml will give you 1 grain of pure gold. So when a vintage formula calls for x quantity of water and so many grains of gold, it’s very easy. The pH is adjusted by test papers.

Gold-Bicarbonate Toning Formula for Albumen, Salt, and Collodion Paper

Gold, 2.0 grains (20.0 ml of the stock solution given above)
Distilled water, 700.0 ml
Add: Bicarbonate of soda to test pH 8

More water or more gold can be added to make the bath more controllable if needed. For toning salt prints (which tone much faster) we start with 1.0 gram gold and tweak as needed.

Sel d’Or (gold with hypo) One-Step Fix/Tone for Salt and Albumen

This was the very first toning approach for photographic prints and was taken directly from the technique used to gild daguerreotypes except that in that technique heat was applied to the underside of the plate during the process.

We usually mix this formula “to taste” but essentially it’s about 4 to 6 grains of gold stock solution added to a mixture of 1,000 ml with 150.0 grams hypo and a pinch of bicarbonate. The print will initially lighten up when first applied, but then darken gradually as gold replaces the silver.

Like all gold toners, the action is more effective if performed slowly. Adjust the gold or water content to require between 5 to 10 minutes at room temperature for complete toning.

Gold Toning Process (Ilford Photo)

Gold toning used alone gives blue blacks, but used with sepia toners produces orange-red effects.

Most commercial gold toners are single solution toners. When used on their own, gold toners will shift the image colour of a print to a blue black. However, when used in combination with a sepia toner – they will produce attractive orange-red colours.


The mechanism involves gold metal being deposited onto the silver of the image. Examples of commercial gold toners include :- Berg gold protective solution, Photographers Formulary Gold 231, and Tetenal gold toner.

Prints toned in gold toners generally have similar density and contrast to untoned prints – the image being used should receive normal exposure and be fully developed. For detailed processing methods – refer to the instructions supplied with the chosen gold toner.

Double Toning: Gold plus Selenium or Sepia

Double toning is a technique that is particularly useful with warm-tone chloride or chlorobromide emulsions.  Such emulsions are quite susceptible to color changes as a result of developer and toner choice.  Double toning can sometimes provide a depth and variety of color that cannot be obtained with the use of a single toner.


Agfa Portriga Grade 3, toned in selenium and gold. In the original, the shadows show subtle hints of purple-brown, while the high values reflect blue.  The colors are very difficult to reproduce accurately. 

Before I proceed, I need to state clearly that the illustrations provided in this article can only approximate the tonal qualities of the actual prints.  If your monitor has been carefully calibrated, you will see an image that is close to the original, but probably still not perfect.  Calibration is an inexact art, and I have found that scanners also tend to see and render colors differently than the human eye.  I have done my utmost to make these scans as close to the original as possible, but I have not succeeded perfectly. The quality of your monitor, its state of calibration, your color depth and screen resolution (as well as any intoxicants you may have imbibed) will affect how you see these illustrations.

     My early experiments with double toning took place in the late-80’s [late-1980’s]. At that time I was working primarily with Agfa Portriga developed in Dektol or the Agfa 113 amidol formula and toned in selenium and gold.  The gold toners I worked with were Ansco 231 and Dupont 6-T. Double toning Agfa Portriga in selenium and gold produces a unique range of purple-blues and purple-blacks with cool blue midtones. The process works equally well with Agfa Insignia and most other warm tone papers.


This is a print on Agfa Portriga Rapid grade 3, developed in Agfa Neutol and toned in selenium and gold.  Looking at the print color, most photographers would assume it was on a bromide paper, but it has very subtle purple-brown blacks and light blue midtones.

     A print that has been partially toned in selenium may be deeply toned in gold toner to produce a deep blue-black color with hints of purple. This is considerably warmer and richer than the very cold blue obtained with gold toner alone, and is probably as close as you can get to a neutral black image color with a warm-tone paper.  Double toning adds a depth and richness to the blacks that may not be obtainable otherwise. The richness of the blacks can be subtly enhanced with an amidol developer.

     Unlike selenium, which selectively tones the low values first, gold toners tend to affect the entire image at once. Double toning adds considerable density to the print, so it is necessary to print with less density and contrast than you desire in the final product. I often find it necessary to make several prints, each successively a bit lighter, in order to obtain one that gives the exact effect I am seeking.

     Most of the time, I am looking for a rather subtle effect from gold toner, so I find it very wasteful to mix an entire gold toner formula–the solution doesn’t keep and I almost always have more toner than I can use in a single session. Dupont 6-T gold toner was actually designed as an after-bath to modify image tones with a thiourea bleach-and-redevelop toning system, but I have found it extremely useful as a stand-alone toner. Dupont 6-T only requires 6 grams of potassium thiocyanate. It also calls for an entire gram of gold chloride, but this is where I modify the formula. I dissolve the gram of gold chloride in 100 ml of distilled water to make a 1% solution which keeps perfectly well in a brown glass bottle (it is light sensitive, so it is best stored in the dark).  With this modification, Dupont 6-2 becomes economical to use.  To tone a single print, I add only 1-2 ml of 1% gold chloride solution. For very subtle effects, I use the toner at about 80° F. At this temperature, toning takes 20-30 minutes and the process is easily stopped before it goes too far. If the toner is heated to 105° F. the toning only takes a minute or two, but can easily get out of control.


We’ve all seen those old photos of grandma’s that had lovely olde-worlde brown tones. While some are old images that were badly processed and have turned a brown colour because they’ve stained with age, most were deliberately made this way using a process known as sepia toning.


A sepia toned print not only gives a pleasant tonal range, it also has a longer archival lifetime than an untreated print, because silver sulphide is more stable than pure silver.



Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:

Wikipedia: Photographic Print Toning…

Wikipedia: Orotone…

Web Sites and Blogs:

Ilford Photo: Gold Toning…

Unblinking Eye: Double Toning (Ed Buffaloe)…

George Eastman House: Osterman, Mark. "Scully & Osterman on Gold Toning",_Mark._%22Scully_%26_Osterman_on_Gold_Toning%22

ePhotozine: Sepia Toning…–a-digital-imaging-guide-4669

Brainy Quote: Photograph Quotes…