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Better B&W With Digital Toning

Long ago in the darkroom, just when I thought I understood black-and-white printing, my teacher introduced another challenge: toning. Toning adds a hint of color to a chemical print and can aid in its archival stability by augmenting silver with more stable metals. In the digital world, toning has nothing to do with archival processing, but the technique is still important for making beautiful black-and-white prints.

Let’s assume by this point you have the basic black-and-white conversion skills under control. Even if you make the best grayscale conversions available, you may find yourself longing for something more. Perhaps it’s simply a warm tone to add an inviting feel to your image, or maybe you’re struggling to re-create the look of your favorite analog black-and-white process. This is where digital toning becomes important.

Straight B&W


Toning can add dimension, depth and even subtle psychological cues to black-and-white photographs. An image of an old Western scene, for instance, could look a little more antique with a subtle sepia patina. Likewise, a clean, cool modern scene may benefit from a subtle hint of blue to play up the cool vibe.

There’s another reason to consider toning black-and-white images, one that’s especially helpful if you plan to make your own inkjet prints. Crafting truly colorless black-and-white prints on a home inkjet printer can challenge the patience of a saint. Color shifts are often introduced into even the most calibrated workflows thanks to the use of multiple ink colors. Short of switching to black and gray inks alone, the introduction of your own deliberate color cast—in this case, a color created via toning—is a great way to sidestep some of the challenges of at-home black-and-white printing.

My favorite approach to toning grayscale images has always been to work with the Duotone mode in Adobe Photoshop. Recently, though, I’ve begun toning my black-and-white images by using Photoshop Adjustment Layers or even handling the process of toning directly in Photoshop Lightroom. Whatever approach you prefer, the techniques are simple and effective. Here’s how they work.

Cool Blue



Photoshop > Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Photo Filter. Start with any black-and-white image, making sure it’s still in RGB mode, or converting it if necessary. The default warming filter provided by Photoshop can be used to subtly warm an image or can be made more dramatic with a simple adjustment of the slider. You also can switch to a number of other toning options, such as cooling via a blue filter. If you’re interested in sepia—one of the most popular and versatile toning effects—you can nail it via the Sepia setting in the photo filter. Whatever tone you choose, simply control the strength with the slider and be sure to preserve luminosity for a more refined result.

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