How to Use Split Toning to Make Your Photos Stand Out

The post How to Use Split Toning to Make Your Photos Stand Out appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Pete DeMarco.

Use split toning to enhance your photos

Have you ever taken a picture and been disappointed because it didn’t capture the moment? Maybe the image technically looked exactly like what you saw, but when viewing the image afterward, it was lacking…something.

It’s one of the greatest challenges photographers face: expressing a feeling or vision in a two-dimensional medium. Fortunately, as photographers, we don’t have to rely on our cameras alone; we can also express ourselves through post-processing adjustments. And one of the most overlooked tools in the photographer’s processing kit is color.

I’m not talking about the color of the things in your photograph, like a red car or yellow dress. I’m talking about the overall color cast – the color tone of the image as a whole. Color affects the way people feel, so if your images aren’t producing the feeling that you’re after, a color adjustment (also known as a color grade) might just do the trick.

Now, most editing programs offer a variety of tools for tweaking the color of your images, but in this article, I want to share one of my absolute favorite color-grading methods: split toning. It’s how I managed to create an image like this one:

Osaka Sunset
This cityscape image looked nice, but it needed a little something extra. I added a warm split-tone, and everything fell into place!

Before I overwhelm you with the immense power of split toning, however, I’d like to spend a few seconds covering white balance, which is a more basic method of color grading an image.

Toning your images with white balance

When you want to adjust the overall color tone of your image, white-balancing tools are a good starting point.

Adjusting the white balance allows you to create warm or cool effects on a broad level. For instance, if it’s a cloudy day, you might want to move the temperature slider towards the warmer side, making your image appear more yellow-orange or sunny. Move it in the opposite direction, and your image will get cooler or more blue.

Fisherman in Xingping China
White balance is a decent tool for tweaking the overall color tone of your images, but it’s not very sophisticated. A cool split tone really helped this image pop!

Although changing the white balance of an image is helpful, both for correcting color casts and creating mood, it is still a global adjustment. It affects the entire image. In other words, it’s simplistic.

In my experience, editing the tone of your image with just the white balance is often like a mechanic trying to fix an engine with a sledgehammer. It’s not the right tool for the job.

To make more fine-tuned adjustments so you can have greater control over the overall mood of your images, split toning is the better choice!

Penang Sunrise at Fisherman Jetty
Here, I’ve combined magenta and warm tones for a harmonious split-tone effect.

How to split tone an image

Toning first started as a way to change the color of black-and-white photographs. For instance, in the past, chemicals were added to the development process to give prints a sepia tone. Later on, other chemical toners were used to give images two different tones (e.g., red and blue); this was an early example of split toning in action!

It may sound complicated, but in today’s digital darkroom, all split toning really means is that you add color to the shadows, highlights, or both. Used straightforwardly, you can split tone an image by adding a color cast to the highlights, and then you add a separate color cast to the shadows.

One of the most common split-toning approaches is to make the highlights yellow and the shadows blue, or vice versa. However, you can also adjust a single color to create a particular mood (by adding blues into the shadows and nothing into the highlights, for instance).

For a long time, Adobe Lightroom Classic and Adobe Camera Raw offered a dedicated split-toning panel that looked like this:

Split Tone Window in Adobe Lightroom
This is what the split-toning panel used to look like in Adobe Lightroom Classic.

However, a few years ago, Adobe replaced the split-toning panel with a color grading panel. Here’s what the new panel looks like:

How to Use Split Toning to Make Your Photos Stand Out
The Lightroom Classic panel with split-toning capabilities.

While the name has changed, you can still use the panel for split toning. In fact, in addition to a Shadows wheel and a Highlights wheel, you now have a Midtones wheel, which lets you selectively tone the midtones of your images!

Most editing programs offer this type of color-grading panel, including Capture One and ACDSee Photo Studio. If you’re not sure whether your program of choice includes split-toning tools, look for color wheels like the ones displayed above. (And if you’re in a pinch, a Curves tool can also do the trick; it’s just a bit more difficult to operate.)

How I like to split tone my photos: magenta zen

My favorite color cast to add to my images is magenta. Like a yin and yang varnish, this color (a purplish-red) represents harmony, balance, love, and personal growth. It has a calming effect that stimulates creativity and happiness.

When split toning for magenta, I usually make my adjustments to either the shadows or highlights. I rarely make changes to both, as it tends to be overkill.

More often than not, I adjust the shadows, as it’s usually the underexposed, darker parts of the image I am trying to bring out. If the image is very bright, then I apply the magenta split tone to the highlights.

Dubai Cityscape

There is no rule as to how far you should move the sliders. However, I like to keep things pretty restrained. It all depends on the image and the intensity of the colors, shadows, and highlights.

Another bonus to adding some magenta is that it tends to take off the rough color edges. Browns, greens, and yellows are smoothed out, giving your photos a softer tone.

Pudong Shanghai Cityscape
Here’s another one of my magenta split tones. Thanks to the magenta in the shadows, the image feels more harmonious!

As I said, I like to use magenta in my photos, but you might prefer something different, and that’s completely okay. Whether a certain color works in an image also depends on the existing colors and tones in the photo, so don’t get discouraged if a particular split-tone effect works nicely on one image but looks unnatural on the next.

If you’re not sure how to pick the right colors for your split-tone effect, I recommend just dragging your cursor around the different color wheels and see what you think. The more you experiment with different effects, the sooner you’ll get a good sense of how different colors can impact your images.

One more tip is to do your best to keep the effect relatively natural. When you first start out with split toning, it’s easy to go color-grade crazy and apply intense toning to each and every image. But while this might look good at first, you’ll soon come to realize that the resulting images have unnatural colors (and obvious editing effects).

If you’re not sure if you’ve overdone an image, it can help to take a quick peek at the original image prior to your edits. Another handy approach is to walk away from your computer for a few minutes, then come back with fresh eyes!

A few more examples of split-toned images

If you’re interested in split toning but are still struggling to understand what it can do for your images, here are a few more of my photos, all edited with a split-tone effect:

Sunset at Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi
A warm split tone works great with that low sun!
Umbrellas in Busan Rain
For a night scene like this one, a cooler split tone – with blues or purples in the shadows – often looks nice.
Sunrise at Taj Majal
Look carefully at this image. Do you see how simple and harmonious the color palette feels? That’s thanks to split toning!

Have fun split toning your photos – and don’t forget to experiment!

As I said above, while I like to use magenta to color grade my images, split toning is about so much more!

Yes, magenta often works well, and you can use it in your photos to see what you can produce, but I’d encourage you to move beyond this simple adjustment. For instance, try adjusting the warmth or coolness using the split toning panel instead of the white balance panel.

You can also use a classic orange-teal split tone to give your photos a cinematic feel, or you can add blues or oranges into the shadows to create an old film look. Have fun, get creative, and find what works for you!

Now over to you:

Do you plan to use split toning as part of your editing workflow? How will you approach it? Share your thoughts – and your split-toned photos! – in the comments below.

The post How to Use Split Toning to Make Your Photos Stand Out appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Pete DeMarco.

The post How to Use Split Toning to Make Your Photos Stand Out appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Pete DeMarco. Have you ever taken a picture and been disappointed because it didn’t capture the moment? Maybe the image technically looked exactly like what you saw, but when viewing the image…

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