Monochrome 2: Toning with TKActions V6

The first article in this monochrome series dealt with using the TKActions V6 panel to convert color images to black-and-white. This second article looks at another important aspect of monochrome images: toning. Proper toning can enhance the mood of the image. Warm-tones, like sepia, impart a vintage look, while cooler tones communicate a more modern feel. There are a variety of different ways Photoshop can be used for toning. The Solid Color and Hue/Saturation adjustment layers when combined with luminosity masks are two of my favorite methods. The video at the bottom demonstrates both techniques.

Toning Theory

Historically, toning in the darkroom was a secondary development process. After the initial development to reveal the latent image on the exposed paper, the print was immersed in another solution that would chemically react with the silver in the print to produce the toning color. The areas of the image that had more silver (the dark areas) would react more strongly with the toner. Areas with less silver (the light areas) reacted less. This is an important distinction. The entire print did NOT receive equal amounts of toning. Dark areas received more and light areas received less. Visually, this meant that light areas of the image would still retain much of their original whiteness and didn’t change color dramatically in the toner. Very dark grays and pure black toned the most, but a dark shade of any color is hard to distinguish from black, so the color change wasn’t necessarily all that visible in very dark gray and black tones of the image either. However, as the grays in the image got a little lighter and on into the midtones, the toning color became much more obvious in the print. Grays in this range showed a definite color change, but still in proportion to the amount of silver in the print. A Zone 4 gray, for example, would show more intense color than a Zone 6 gray, and this was important to maintaining the tonal separation that created the image in the first place.

untoned image

toned image

This concept of applying toning to the silver-rich areas of a monochrome image (the dark areas) is where luminosity masks really come in handy. The Darks-series masks do exactly this. They select dark tones in the image in proportion to how dark the tone is. The darker the tone, the more it is selected. Using Darks-series masks as part of the digital toning process simulates what happens chemically in the darkroom. However, I’ve also found Midtones-sereies masks quite useful for digital toning. Since the midtones are often where toning is most obvious in chemically-toned prints, using them in digital toning also makes sense, and the results often look good. Which mask works best depends on the image. It’s helpful to try several different luminosity masks to find the best one. One more corollary to all this is that the best monochrome images for toning generally have some good gray midtones. Images with strong contrast where most tones approach black and white won’t show the toning color as well as images that have a lot of gray midtone values.

Toning vs. Tinting

As described above, toning was a chemical process that was strongest in the silver-rich parts of monochrome images. The effect is generally most obvious in the dark and midtone grays. The whites are largely unaffected due to their lack of precipitated silver. Tinting, on the other hand, can be thought of as a staining process that affects the entire image, not specific tones. With tinting, it’s the print substrate (the paper or emulsion) that is experiencing the color change. The midtone grays will still exhibit the color change, but so will the image’s whites. Both toning and tinting are ways to add color to the monochrome image, and in the digital darkroom, it’s possible to specifically target light tones as well as the darks and midtones. So in the digital realm, the distinction between toning and tinting is a bit less clear as it was in the traditional darkroom. One distinguishing characteristic is whether the color is applied uniformly across the image (tinting) or whether it’s restricted to specific tones (toning). The Photo Filter adjustment layer, for example, tends to be more of a tinting technique since it’s applied evenly across most tones in the image. For toning, Solid Color and Hue/Saturation adjustments tend to work best. The left image below shows toning accomplished with a Hue/Sat adjustment layer and a luminosity mask. The image on the right is a tinted image made with a Photo Filter adjustment layer.

tone vs. tint

Additionally, toning should be proportional within the selected tones where it is applied. The more selected tones should exhibit the most color change which then tapers off in tones that are less selected. Again, this is where luminosity masks really shine as they are able to isolate the color to specific tones in the image and in proportion to how much each tone is selected.

“Color” Blend Mode

Using the “Color” blending mode for the adjustment layer that adds the toning color is an additional technique that makes digital toning work well. It’s actually essential when using a Solid Color adjustment layer for toning, where it makes for a very nice toning effect when combined with a luminosity mask. It also provides a bit of a contrast boost when a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer is used for toning, so it’s definitely worth trying.

Summary: Toning is a way to add color and mood to black and white images. Solid Color and Hue/Saturation adjustment layers in combination with luminosity masks are a great way to digitally tone photographs that mimic the traditional darkroom process.

The video below demonstrates two good methods for using luminosity masks and adjustment layers to make digital toning easy and natural-looking with plenty of options for customizing the effect. If you want to practice along with the video, jpeg versions of images can be downloaded here.

NOTE: With the release of CC 2019 in October 2018, there is a blending mode bug on Windows computers. It can cause the wrong toning colors to appear and can also cause PS to crash. The workaround to fix this is to go to Preferences > Performance and make sure there is a check mark in the checkbox for “Legacy Compositing.” This post has more information about this bug and its current status.