by Gerald Boerner


JerryPhoto_8x8_P1010031 Continuing from our discussion yesterday of the gold toning process, we are examining some other toning technologies that were used during the 19th century. Some of these technologies are still in use today. These include sepia, selenium, and platinum toning.

The whole reason these processes were used was simple: the Printing-Out process used or Salt Paper, Albumen Paper, and the Silver Collodium process did not necessarily remove all the unexposed silver compounds from the print. A fixing solution was not used to deactivate and remove this excess silver; over time the silver could turn dark in light and make the print image essentially disappear.

The toning process resulted in a heavy metal to combine with the silver salt so that the permanence of the print was more likely to be preserved. In addition, depending on which toning process was used, the black and white print would take on the color of the toning agent. Thus, not only were our prints preserved, but their image quality was enhanced.

Today, we tend to associate the sepia toned image with a 19th photography. Therefore, when you view your family’s photo album and see those beautiful toned prints from the 19th century, you will know why.  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: Other Toning Processes

Sir John Herschel by JM Cameron 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.

In photography, toning is a photographic print toning process carried out on silver-based (black-and-white) photographic prints to change their colour. Some toning processes can improve the chemical stability of the print and allow it to last longer. Other toning processes can make the print less stable.

Many early prints that exist today were toned with sepia toner.

Some photographic toning processes while printing have the capability to improve the chemical stability of the print and also allow its longer longevity, while few other toning processes make the print less stable. Most toners work by replacing the metallic silver in the emulsion with a silver compound, such as silver sulfide (Ag2S) in the case of sepia toning. The compound may be more stable than metallic silver and may also have a different color or tone. Different toning processes give different colors to the final print. In some cases, the printer may choose to tone some parts of a print more than others.

Print Toning is a photographic process performed on silver-based black-and-white photographic prints to change the color of the photograph. Toner also can increase the tonality of a print. This increases the range of visible shades without reducing contrast. Selenium toning is especially strong in this regard.

However, different toning processes deliver different colors to the final print of the photograph. Exceptions are in cases when the printer chooses to tone down some of the parts of the print more than its surroundings.

Many toners are highly toxic. It is extremely important that the chemicals are used in a well ventilated area. Do not sniff a chemical to identify it unless you are sure that the chemical is not toner. Wear proper gloves and face protection. Some toners are carcinogens.

Most of the Photographic Print Toners are used by replacing the metallic silver effect of the print in the emulsion with a silver compound. These compounds are made of silver sulfide (Ag2S) in case of sepia toning. This compound is known to be more stable than metallic silver and can be found in different colors (and tinges). Many old image prints are renewed back through its toning process with sepia toner.

Toning Processes

Selenium Toning

Selenium toning is the most popular of the archival toning processes, converting metallic silver to silver selenide. In a diluted toning solution, selenium toning gives a red-brown tone, while a strong solution gives a purple-brown tone.

Selenium toning may not produce prints quite as stable as sepia or gold toning. However, its appearance is much more subdued than sepia and it is cheaper than gold. Selenium toning also increases the tonal range available in the paper.

Different printers use somewhat different methods of selenium toning, but most often a fixed (and perhaps rinsed) print is placed in selenium toner solution and then rinsed, treated with hypo clearing agent, washed, and hardened.

Selenium toning in photograph is popular in the archival toning processes, while converting metallic silver to silver selenide. It includes a diluted toning solution where selenium toning transforms into a red-brown tone and a strong solution gives a purple-brown tone. The change in the color texture is highly dependent on the chemical make-up of the photographic emulsion. Such photographic toning has a drastic effect on a Chlorobromide paper print while a little effect on pure bromide paper prints. However Fiber-based photographic prints are more responsive to selenium toning.

Sepia Toning

Sepia toning picture was first taken in Chicago, Illinois, in 1949. ‘Sepia’ is coined from the name of an artists’ pigment made from the Sepia cuttlefish, found in the English Channel, Sepia officinalis, the Common Cuttlefish. In sepia toning in Photographic Prints consists of chemicals that convert the metallic silver in the print to a sulphide compound (resistant to the environmental pollutants e.g. as atmospheric sulphur compounds).

Sepia Photographic Toning can be found in three forms:

  1. Sodium sulphide toners
  2. Thiourea (or ‘thiocarbamide’) toners
  3. Polysulphide or ‘direct’ toners

Sepia Toned Photo A sepia-toned picture,
taken in Chicago, Illinois,
in 1949

Beginning in the 1880s, sepia toning was produced by adding a pigment made from the Sepia cuttlefish, found in the English channel to the positive print of a photograph. The chemical process involved converts any remaining metallic silver to a sulphide which is much more resistant to breakdown over time. This is why many old photographs are sepia toned—those are the ones that have survived until today.

Although sepia toning began as a printing method, today it is seen as a genre, much like black and white photography.

Sepia-toned images are heavily associated with the 1800s and "that old-time feel." Many photographs of the American Old West were recorded in sepia tones, particularly Edward Weston’s photos of Carmel.

The Kansas scenes in The Wizard of Oz were in sepia tone, until Technicolor takes over in the land of Oz.

Wings of Desire movie by Wim Wenders is filmed in sepia mostly, to depict that the movie protagonists, invisible angels, lack the usual human senses; when the angels are not present, the movie is shown in full color.

Gold and Platinum Toning

Metal replacement toners replace the metallic silver, through a series of chemical reactions, with a ferrocyanide salt of a transition metal. Some metals, such as platinum or gold can protect the image. Others, such as iron (blue toner) or copper (red toner) may reduce the lifetime of the image.

Metal replacement toning with Gold alone results in a blue-black tone. It is often combined with a sepia toner to produce a more attractive orange-red tone.

Dye Toners

Dye toners replace the metallic silver with a dye. The image will have a reduced lifetime compared with an ordinary silver print.

Digital Image Toning

Toning can be simulated digitally, either in-camera or as a later post-process.

The in-camera effect, as well as beginner tutorials given for software like Photoshop or The GIMP, use a simple tint which is usually a poor imitation. More sophisticated software tends to implement sepia tones using the duotone feature.

The Sepia Toning Process

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.

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.

What you need

You will start out with a photograph printed on black & white paper (salt paper, albumen paper, collodion paper, or silver gelatin paper. This process is intended to be performed on silver prints, not those made with alternative processes.

The toner:

Sepia toner
About 5
Why you need it: Comprises two parts (A and B) A is the bleach that removes the black tones and B is the toner that brings back the detail and gives the bleached print its brownish tone.

The toning trays:

Three plastic trays big enough to cope with your paper size
About 10
Why you need them: A set of trays makes it easier to handle the print while toning. Make sure they are at least the same size as the print preferably bigger so you have room to slip your fingers down the side to pick up the print. 
Alternatives: You could use just one print and pour out the solutions after each stage. You can also use cat litter trays or seed trays without holes. If you do printing you should have a set already that can be used providing you wash them out thoroughly after use.

Safety equipment:

Rubber gloves
About 5
Why you need them: If your skin is sensitive you can easily develop a rash when using chemicals so you should always use either gloves or print tongues to handle the prints.
Alternatives: A well ventilated area to work in preferably with running water.

Mixing jugs:

1 litre mixing jug
About 4
Why you need it: Most sepia toners come in either powder or concentrated liquid form so you have to mix them with water to make a working solution.
Alternatives: A cooking measure can be used, but make sure you never use it again for the kitchen.

Storage jugs:

Two 1 litre containers to store the chemicals 
About 4
Why you need them: Sepia toner can often be reused so you can keep it made up in suitable containers.
Alternatives: Old pop bottles can be used but make sure you place a big warning label on and keep them well out of the reach of children.
A squeegee 
About 9
Why you need it: Use this to wipe water off the print so dries quickly without water marks.
Alternatives: A wiper blade from a car can be used, but make sure it’s not worn or you’ll scratch the print. If you don’t use a squeegee, try to hang the print up or stand it vertically so water drains off quickly.

The Toning Process

sepia Sequence of staining:

  1. Arrange the three trays out on a table or bench. Make sure you cover the surface to protect it from staining chemicals. An old sheet can be used or several layers of newspaper.
  2. Pre soak your prints that you are going to tone if the are dry
  3. While the prints are soaking prepare the Sepia toner. It usually comes in two parts. Part A is the bleach bath and part B is the toner, both are mixed with water. Pour the bleach mix into the first tray, fill the second with water and pour the toner into the third.
  4. Take the print that you want to tone and slip it into the bleach bath and agitate  constantly. This converts the silver image back into silver bromide and makes most or all of the image disappear. The bleaching time, along with print contrast and paper choice, determines how deep the sepia tones will be. A print that is left in the bleach longer will result in deeper sepia tones while a darker grey/brown tone can be produced by only partially bleaching the image. As a guide bleach for between two and eight minutes
  5. Thoroughly wash the print for about two minutes to remove any trace of bleach from the paper.
  6. Slip the print into the toner, which converts the silver bromide to the brown silver sulphide.
  7. Wash the print for about 30 minutes, ideally in several water changes to save using running water.
  8. Dry it 


Tip 1
Sepia toner mostly affects the mid tones (greyish areas of a photograph). It has little affect on he black areas and makes highlights go a touch whiter. So when you intend toning it’s a good idea to make prints with less contrast than normal with a small amount of grey in the whitest tones and also overall darker than you normally would print them. 

Tip 2
The emulsions used in photographic paper contain either silver bromide or a mix of silver bromide and silver chloride. An emulsion using silver chloride gives a deeper, rich, brown tone.

Tip 3
Try toning several identical prints, varying the time to produce different degrees of toning. Also try the same print exposed at different levels or on different grades of paper. Then you can find a suitable combination to use in future toning sessions.

Types of toner

Sulphide based sepia toner:

This is the type of toner that gives off a smell of sulphur that’s like bad eggs Hydrogen sulphide is also poisonous so you must work in a very well ventilated room. It makes a yellowish brown image and the colour isn’t controllable.

Part A (Bleach) comprises:
Potassium ferricyanide
Potassium bromide

Part B (Toner) comprises:
Sodium sulphide

Odorless sepia toner:

Using Thoiurea (Thiocarbamide) instead of sodium sulphide results in a much more pleasant odourless solution.

You also have much more control of the colour because Thiocarbamide toners allow a range of tones depending on the amounts of thiourea and sodium hydroxide in the toner. Increasing the thiourea content and reducing the sodium hydroxide content produces a lighter brown.

Part A (Bleach) comprises:
Potassium ferricyanide
Potassium bromide

Part B (Toner) comprises:
Sodium hydroxide

Several manufacturers produce ready-made sepia toners including Fotospeed, Kodak, Jessops and Paterson. You can also buy the raw chemicals from the likes of Silverprint and Rayco.

The Results of the Toning Process

Monochrome prints

In general, black-and-white prints using either silver or carbon-based media may last longer than some colour prints. Some black-and-white prints are produced using ink-jet printers, or color photographic paper using the RA 4 process.

Salt and Albumen Prints

Since these prints develop themselves by washing the excess light-sensitive silver from the print, any silver compounds that remain undeveloped and not washed out will turn dark when exposed to light. This degrades the image. Therefore, almost all of these prints were toned immediately after a thorough washing process.

Gelatin Silver Prints

To achieve a long lifespan, gelatin silver prints must be thoroughly fixed and washed. Besides rendering the image insensitive to further light exposure, fixer converts undeveloped silver salts in the emulsion into products that can easily be washed away. Effective fixing and washing removes all unexposed silver salts and leaves only a small amount of residual fixer. Any significant quantity of fixer (thiosulphate) left in the print after washing will cause the image to deteriorate over time. Many other factors play a critical role in the long-term stability of gelatin silver prints. The temperature and relative humidity of the storage environment, and the air pollutants to which a silver image is exposed are three of the most important factors.

Toning can increase the longevity of silver-based prints by replacing or coating the metallic silver with more inert metals such as gold, silver sulphide or selenium.

Platinum, Palladium and other Inert Metals

Images composed of more inert metals, like platinum, palladium and gold are less prone to decay than those in silver. Amateur Photographer’s Dictionary of Photography said "Owing to the chemically inert nature of platinum, a print so made is far more permanent than any print having a silver image can be". Indeed, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Conservation Journal states that "…the majority of the deterioration seen in such prints is usually associated with the supports, which are often yellowed and brittle, rather than the actual image."



Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:

Wikipedia: Photographic Print Toning…

Wikipedia: Print Permanence…

Web Sites and Blogs: Photographic Print Toning…

Maps of World: Photographic Print Toning…

ePHOTOzine: Sepia Toning — A Digital Imaging Guide…–a-digital-imaging-guide-4669

Brainy Quote: Photograph Quotes…