Sepia Tone Technique

Written by kathryn hatashita-lee
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Sepia Tone Technique
Sepia photographs have a brownish tone to them. (sepia shadows on sidewalk image by Stephen Orsillo from

Sepia is a brown pigment extracted from the cuttlefish's ink sac. In traditional photography, sepia toning changes a silver-based black and white print to a brown-scale appearance for a warm-toned result. Sepia toning can give a nostalgic effect to landscape photographs.

Sepia toners replace the metallic silver with an inert compound, silver sulphide. This inert compound helps protect the image for archival quality. Toning involves either a one-step direct sulphide toner or two-step indirect sulphide toner. For cold-tone papers, a brown tone results. For warm-tone papers, a yellow-brown tone results.

Skill level:

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Things you need

  • Safety glasses or goggles
  • Rubber gloves
  • Silver-based black and white print
  • 3 plastic trays
  • 3 to 4 tongs, non-metal
  • Sepia toner kit with bleach
  • Water
  • Timer

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  1. 1

    Put on safety glasses or goggles and plastic gloves.

  2. 2

    Pour bleach into the first tray, water into second tray and sepia toner into the third tray. Place a set of tongs beside each tray.

  3. 3

    Hold the black and white print with tongs. Dip the print into the first tray for 5 to 8 minutes. Agitate the print for 60 seconds. Keep in the tray until the black in the shadows have disappeared or turned yellow.

  4. 4

    Close the tongs along the edge or corner of the print. Lift the print out of first tray and let the excess bleach drip back into tray.

  5. 5

    Place the bleached print into the second tray to rinse. Rinse for 2 minutes.

  6. 6

    Lift the rinsed print out of the second tray and let excess water drip back into tray.

  7. 7

    Place print in third tray for sepia toning. Agitate the print for 60 seconds. Keep in the tray until no further tone change occurs.

  1. 1

    Set the timer to rinse the print for approximately 4 minutes for resin-coated prints or 30 minutes for fibre-based prints, or manufacturer's recommended time.

  2. 2

    Use a squeegee to skim off the water from the print surface.

  3. 3

    Carefully hang the print to dry in a dust-free, dry area. Avoid touching the print surface with your fingertips.

Tips and warnings

  • Sepia toners vary by manufacturer. Follow the manufacturer's instructions for the specific toner.
  • Try toning different areas for a more intense effect.
  • Certain photographic papers have an emulsion that does not work well with direct sepia toners.
  • Experiment with different types of paper and images with different levels of contrast.
  • Be sure each tray is free of other contaminating chemicals used earlier.
  • As with other darkroom procedures, photographers must carefully handle these hazardous chemicals and work in a well-ventilated space.

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