What is Split Toning? Photography’s Best Kept Post-Processing Secret

As a photographer, knowing how to use color is an important way to convey emotion in your images. Warm colors can stimulate the viewer while cooler colors can have a calming effect. However, one of the most powerful, yet widely underused tools for adjusting color in post-processing is called split toning. What is split toning? How can it be used to make your images stand out?

This guide will explore split toning and explain how you can use this often overlooked editing tool to add a warm glow to your highlights; cool down your shadows; mimic the look of film photography; influence the moodiness of your images; or create a sepia toned black and white image; among other things. We’ll describe how to use split toning and when to avoid it.

Example of warm split toning
Photo by Mateo Giraud on Unsplash

What is split toning?

Split toning basically means toning, or adding color, to the highlights and shadows of an image separately. It differs from a white balance adjustment, in that when you change the white balance of an image, you’re making a global adjustment to make your photo warmer or cooler. Split toning allows for more fine-tuned adjustments. You can add tone or color to only the highlights without affecting the shadows and vice versa.

The technique can be used on both color and black and white photographs. On a color image, you’ll use it to enhance the color. On a black and white photo, you can use it to create sepia and cyanotype images.

Split toning adds tone to black and white photography
Photo by SevenStorm JUHASZIMRUS from Pexels

History of toning

Toning photographs has been in practice just about as long as people have been taking photos. Most old film photos appear to be tinted, either as a result of the darkroom process or because of the print yellowing over time. It used to be done by bleaching your prints and then applying a toner. Fortunately, the process is much easier these days!

Recently, with the invention of smartphone photo filters like Instagram, toning has made a rebound in popularity. While apps and one-click smartphone filters have made toning seem “gimmicky,” it is far from a gimmick. When used properly, it can be a powerful tool that will help you create a look you may not otherwise be able to achieve.

Ways to use split toning

When you’re split toning an image, you’re adding tone to the highlights and shadows for effect. You can choose to add any color you want, but some colors work better than others for specific purposes. Some examples include:

  • Orange: To add a warm glow to highlights;
  • Blue: To cool down your shadows or create a cyanotype in black and white photographs;
  • Teal: To give your image a cinematic feel;
  • Magenta: To soften colors, usually added to shadows;
  • Brown: To soften colors or to create a sepia black and white image;
  • Pink: To add a blush effect to your photograph.
Toning adds to the mood of an image.
Toning affects the mood of an image.

5 Split toning tips

When it comes to split toning, the possibilities are endless. This is when you get the opportunity as an artist to create your own personal editing style. You can use it to create a “look” that makes your images easily identifiable as yours. 

  1. Use complementary colors. When split toning, you can use one color for both the highlights and shadows or two different colors. When using two colors, use complementary colors — those that are opposite each other on the color wheel. A very popular combination for split toning, for example, is orange for the highlights and blue for the shadows. Other complementary color combinations are red and green or yellow and purple.
  2. Or, use analogous colors. These are colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. For example, orange and yellow or green and blue. A good rule of thumb is to choose colors that look good together on their own. Then, you’ll know they will work well together in your image, too.
  3. Keep it simple. Split toning can be complex and complicated taking into account all the color combinations and how all the hues and saturations overlap. With that in mind, just start with something simple. In other words, start small and work your way up.
  4. Less is more. Remember that split toning is meant to enhance your image, not overpower it. Don’t ruin a photo by over-processing it.
  5. Use it to add mood to your black and whites. Try adding just a touch of blue to make your photos feel dark and moody, or play around with red or orange to give it a vintage look. 

How to apply split toning in Lightroom

The popular post-processing software Adobe Lightroom (or Adobe Camera Raw) makes split toning extremely easy. You’ll use the Color Grading panel in the Develop module. Note, until very recently, Lightroom had a dedicated Split Toning panel that was replaced by the Color Grading panel in 2020. You can use it to apply split toning, but it also includes controls for making tonal adjustments to your midtones. 

Split toning should be the final step in your editing process. Finish all of your other edits first, like exposure, cropping, white balance, lens corrections, etc. Then, expand the Color Grading panel in Lightroom. From there, drag the handles in the center of the Highlights and Shadows color wheels to set your colors. Use the sliders under each wheel to set the luminance. Next, use the Balance and Blending sliders to dial in your look.

Lightroom's Color Grading panel

When to avoid split toning

Split toning is a powerful editing tool, but no tool is right for every situation. There are ocassions you won’t want to use it. For example,:

  • When you need to make a global color or white balance correction. You’ll be better off using White Balance. Trying to correct color with split toning could be extremely frustrating.
  • If you need to reduce saturation. Split toning adds color to an image, it cannot reduce the saturation of color that already exists. 
  • To change a specific hue. Split toning makes adjustments based on brightness, not on color. There are plenty of better-suited tools for making specific hue adjustments. 

Final thoughts

Now that you’re familiar with split toning, we hope you’ll give this far-too-often-ignored post-processing tool a try! There are so many ways to edit a photo, but split toning is one that can give your photographs a style that’s uniquely yours. It’s a simple, yet extremely effective way to perfect the color of your images, add emotion and create drama.

Brooke Arnold

Brooke Arnold is a writer and award-winning photographer specializing in cat portraits. She is an advocate for rescue animals and is best known for dressing up her cats as famous people like Bob Ross and Evel Knievel. Her biggest claim to fame, however, is being child #2 in an orange juice ad that hung in a mall in Miami at age 8.

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