What About Sepia Tone?

Burrowing Owl Photo by Scott Bourne


If you look up the word Sepia, and do a little research, you may be surprised that the word is originally Greek for the common cuttlefish.

But that is indeed relevant to photography because sepia tone is NOT black and white images that were made 120 years ago and have faded, it started as a process. You are probably more familiar with gray scale (black and white) but there is also brown scale (sepia.)

When I first learned how to print photographs in a wet darkroom, I took a class in printing sepia toned prints. It’s a fascinating process. You make a normal black and white print and then you bleach the paper to remove the silver. Then you rinse and soak the paper in a sepia bath before washing and drying again. Depending on how long you soak the paper, you can control the shades of sepia. It is an art form that is mostly gone because today, all we have to do is click a few buttons with a mouse, or employ a preset and bam, you have a sepia tone.

Using sepia (brown) colored inks for art and illustration goes back to the 14th century. More recently, it was used in photography and still is in some portraiture and art studios. It has a deep, rich history that goes beyond the scope of a simple blog post, but it is very interesting.

When I shot film, I liked to use sepia on days where the light was harsh or there was a wide dynamic range in the scene because the sepia film would help tackle those problems.

Sepia gives images a warm, soft appearance and I don’t use it often these days, but once in a while, I like to apply it to images where the subject is already brown, as is the case with this burrowing owl.

Now, if you have Photoshop, it’s as simple as a Hue/Saturation adjustment if you want to make a sepia toned image.

Choose Layer→New Adjustment Layer→Hue/Saturation.

Select the Colorize check box in the Hue/Saturation panel and move the Hue and Saturation sliders to right around 30. Then move the Lightness slider to around 10. Adjust to taste and you have your very own sepia image.

Have fun.

Picture Methods has partnered with Hunt’s Photo & Video to bring you the best gear at a competitive price and backed by personal service. Call Alan Samiljan at 781-462-2383 or Noah Buchanan at 781.462.2356. If you cannot reach either one try Gary Farber at 781-462-2332. You will ALWAYS get the best prices if you call the store v. Using the web site. You can also email Noah at: nbuchanan@huntsphoto.com or Alan at alansamhunts@gmail.com or Gary at: gfarber@huntsphoto.com. Hunt’s has been around a long time and you can trust them. Make sure to mention that Scott Bourne sent you. That will get you the best deal.