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Sepia Prints in Adobe Photoshop Elements

This question is asked at least once a month, so here's help using Adobe Photoshop Elements for easy yet controllable sepia photo prints. Quite often we get inquiries for various image editing techniques, or clarification on photo editing techniques readers have discovered at other web sites or in books they've purchased. Many inquiries come through the Photoshop 911 "Emergency room" and while we try to answer all of them via email, some of the solutions require images and a more thorough response than appropriate for email.

Photoshop Elements Sepia Results

What is Sepia Toning?

First let's understand the sepia process so you'll have some grounding in the artistic aspects of this photographic process. Contrary to popular belief, sepia toning is actually not a digitally induced photo modification; nor is it the "aging" of a photograph as some of today's web sites would lead you to believe. The coloration of "old" photos is quite a different thing all together. It's become a catch phrase for any photo with a brownish tint to look old fashioned.

In the early years of photography all photos were black and white, or monochromatic -- meaning composed of a single color range. It is most frequently applied to black and white photographs, but can also describe sepia and other toned images.. At some point someone realized that photographs would look better if somehow the stark black and white could be given a warmer tone. Light grays would more closely replicate skin tones, and the overall appearance would be more visually appealing. So photographers began replacing the silver in the black and white photographic print with silver sulphide, which is brown.

Sepia Print One of the reasons people have come to equate sepia prints with old prints is because the sepia prints are probably the only ones to survive the test of time. Silver sulphide is at least 50% more stable than silver. Most black and white photos have not survived, and color processing, chemicals and papers have a very short life. Traditional sulphide toning (sepia) prints will last the longest -- in excess of 150 years, and when properly fixed and protected, probably over 200 years. So sepia toning is an excellent archival technique.

The term Sepia was used because it describes a family of browns we show in the first four rows of Frame 13 in our color charts. So, unlike many of the tutorials you find online which call for yellows or oranges, a true sepia look will come from the darker versions of this color range. Here is an actual sepia print, carefully scanned for accuracy. In close scrutiny, although damage is evident, very little degradation in color has occurred.

For detailed instructions on producing traditional sepia tone photos in the darkroom, see: ePhoto Zine dot com.

Photoshop Elements Sepia toning

This particular request came in for Adobe Photoshop Elements version 2, but you can use the very same techniques in Photoshop Elements 3, Photoshop 7, and Photoshop CS. Almost all digital cameras these days come with software which allows the initial rendering of an image with a sepia effect. We don't recommend this. You've got much more control of the final image when you let the camera capture the image to the maximum of its ability.

The secret to authentic sepia toning lies in the Black and White (Grayscale) conversion of the photo. Sepia toner mostly affects the mid tones (greyish areas of a photograph). It has little affect on the more dense (black or shadow) areas of the image, and makes highlights (whites) move slightly lighter. So for a truly authentic look you'll want to make prints with slightly less contrast than normal. You'll also want the image balance to be slightly flat -- which means build a small amount of grey into the whitest tones.� So we'll spend some time in the Levels dialog getting the contrast just the way we want it.


Photoshop Elements DesaturateConvert your image to grayscale using one of two methods:

Choose: Image > Mode > Grayscale, and then adjust brightness/contrast and possibly levels. This is the most popular and the easiest method although doesn't necessarily produce the best results. To keep the overall tonal balance more accurate you want to just remove all color:

Choose: Enhance > Adjust Color > Adjust Hue/Saturation and in the resulting dialog click and drag the Saturation slider all the way to the left. This removes all color.

My favorite method is with a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer. It's the same as above, except you create an adjustment layer by using the Create Adjustment Layer pop-up menu at the top of the Layers Palette. You get the same dialog, but with an adjustment layer you can control it as a separate layer rather than changing the original image.

Fine Tune Contrast with Levels

Adjusting Levels Now we'll modify the levels of our black and white until we see the image we're looking for. This will use yet another adjustment layer -- again because of it's flexibility and non-destructive nature.

Once again create an adjustment layer by using the Create Adjustment Layer pop-up menu at the top of the Layers Palette -- this time select Levels, and the dialog at right will appear.

From this histogram we see our resulting image has a lot of midtones but very few highs and lows. By compressing the color levels we help partially flatten the image somewhat. In this case we slide the left slider (Shadows) toward the right until it hits measurable pixels, and slice the right slider (Highlights) to the left until it enters the ramp. Now, slide the middle slider until you achieve a visually pleasing black and white photo -- and then slide a few more points toward the left. The image will decrease density and visually lighten the image slightly. Remember, we'll be adding color later, which will put that density back into the image.

Add the Sepia Toning

I know this is beginning to sound redundant, but you just can't beat those adjustment layers for the best working condition. So, one last time we're going to create a new adjustment layer by using the Create Adjustment Layer pop-up menu at the top of the Layers Palette -- this time select Solid Color. (Color Fill Layer)

Fill Layer In the resulting dialog, select the color you hope to use as your sepia. (May I suggest R = 91, G = 56, B = 17 for a good sepia.) Click OK to dismiss that dialog and you'll see a solid color layer.

Now adjust that layer's blending mode to SOFT LIGHT or COLOR by pulling down the layer menu. I give these two choices so you can experiment with the effect it will have on your photo. If the color is too intense, just lower the layer's opaciity using the Layer Palette Opacity slider, or key in 50% to 30% or less.

At this point you should have a lovely sepiatone photo just like granny's. Now you can enjoy the benefits of making all your changes in Adjustment Layers by independently adjusting each layer until you've arrived at your favorite end result.


Make it a habit when tweaking or experimenting to create new layers for each stage. That way, you can turn them on and off for quick comparative and combination analysis.

If it's critical work to be printed I recommend printing a test strip of each of the variations. This will help you find the adjustments that will print best. If you don't like wasting photo paper, or worse yet, specialty papers or greeting cards then use my handy dandy step/wedge technique (Available free in the Publishers' Warehouse. Send an email and I'll show you where.) to get all your testing done on a single sheet!

If the image is destined for the web, then simply adjust your layers for a visually pleasing effect. Remember, you can turn off layers by clicking the Eye button of the layer, and add additional COLOR layers to test different tones of color.

And that's about all there is to it. Click here for the Before & After rollover view.

For Photoshop and Photoshop CS users

Photoshop users can do exactly the same technique. For lithographic printing you'll probably want to handle it as a Duotone.

For Photoshop CS users you can use the Sepia Tone setting from Photoshop's collection of photo filters. However, since now you know how, you may prefer the above method better.

In CS you frist convert to Grayscale the same way we did above... choose Image > Adjustments > Desaturate.

Now, choose Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Photo Filter and from the resulting Layer dialogue box enter: Color: None; Mode: Normal; Opacity: 100%. When you click OK, this dialog gives way to the Photo Filter dialogue box where you can experiment, or try the following settings: Filter: Sepia Density: 40%; turn ON Preserve Luminosity.

Click OK to see the results.

And that about wraps up another case study from the emergency calls at Photoshop 911 dot com
Good day!

Fred Showker


See our previous article on Duotones, and

Be sure to see our article "Duotones" fromDr. D'Lynn Waldron which includes a good reference section on Pantone color products for producing really accurate duotones and 4/c print color.

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