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Sepia Tone Technique

Updated April 17, 2017

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.

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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.

  1. Put on safety glasses or goggles and plastic gloves.

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

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

  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.

  8. 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.

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

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

  11. Tip

    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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Things You'll 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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