Non-Destructive Split-Toning

By Uwe & Bettina Steinmueller Back to


In April 2007, Photoshop C3 introduced the new, powerful Black-and-White tool. It can be used as an adjustment layer and features toning (or “tinting”). At the time, I was surprised that Photoshop did not implement the more powerful and useful split-toning of Lightroom. Toning is, after all, a popular treatment for photographs; many photographers tone shadows differently than highlights, and sometimes give the midtones yet another tone.

You could say that Photoshop features the ultimate toning tools: duotones and quadtones. This is true, but this method has its price. Once you use duo-/quadtones, Photoshop switches to a different color model, leaving the RGB workflow. I want to stay in the same color model (RGB), and I also like the toning process to be non-destructive.While an alternative would be to use the split-toning provided by third-party printer drivers, I want to do the toning and print the toned image from inside Photoshop.

Because I like the Lightroom split- toning model, I looked for a way to get the same effect in Photoshop. I do a lot of post-processing (call it fine- tuning) in Photoshop, and wanted to have the option of staying within it.I finally settled on a method that is based on the Photoshop Photo filter. These Photo filters can be used as adjustment layers and are therefore non-destructive.

The original version of the image (slightly cropped).


Figure 1. Photoshop’s Black-and-White tool.

Single-color toning

To understand the basis of this method, let’s start by toning with a single color. Begin by simply adding an adjustment layer using the Photo filter. Using the Photo filter is easy; my settings are shown in Figure 2 and explained below:

• Color (not one of the presets): I select a very light tone.

• Density: I set the density to 100% and then tune the layer strength via the Layer Opacity slider.

• Preserve Luminosity: This is enabled to keep the original tonality.

I made the effect a bit stronger here than I do on real prints so that it is easier to see in a magazine reproduction.Very subtle toning can be seen on prints from today’s printers.

Dual-color split-toning

Now I create two of these layers with different colors for the highlights and shadows. I used the Photo filter for the highlights and the settings in Figure 3 for the shadows, employing two layers to do so. You also can see that I have the opacity down to 20%. As it stands now this is not really split-toning because both layers affect the whole tonal range (and would actually add two different single tones on top of each other). Here is what we need to do:

• Restrict the shadow layer to a shadow tonal range.

• Restrict the highlight layer to a highlight tonal range.

• Define a reasonable overlapping blending range.

Figure 2. Settings for the Adjustment layer using the Photo filter.

The solution is provided by Photoshop’s Blending Options feature within the Layers dialog. I set them differently for each layer, as in Figure 4, to split the tones. The sliders in the red-marked area control the blending. (It may initially appear as if there are only two sliders, but Option-clicking on these sliders allows each to be broken into parts.)

Figure 3. The filter, color, and layers used for the split-toned image.

Let’s examine the highlight blending. The left-most black triangle starts at 105 and the next black triangle is at 157, while both white triangles are at 255. This means that if the tone in the layer is below 105, the Photo filter has no effect. Between 157 and 255, the effect is 100% of whatever the Photo filter settings are. From 105 to 157, this effect gets gradually stronger (this is the blending range).

Similarly, the shadows display the Photo filter’s effect at 100% strength between 0 and 115, and not at all between 176 and 255. The blending range is 115 to 176.

Further split-toning

Using the same methods, you can create split-toning with more than two colors. I’m not sure it makes sense beyond a three-color scheme, however, as the results become too complex.

I have taken the method I’ve outlined one step further and created a free Photoshop CS3/CS4 script that creates these layers based on input data. This way you can define your standard toning just with a few parameters, can store multiple image recipes, and easily share them with other photographers.

Figure 4. The settings for blending in the highlight and shadow layers.

About the Author

Uwe & Bettina Steinmueller
All images are copyright Uwe & Bettina Steinmueller. German photographer Uwe Steinmueller and his wife and partner Bettina came to live and work in the United States over a decade ago. They concentrate on taking photos for fine art prints, mainly nature and urban landscapes. Uwe has authored numerous books and articles about digital workflow. He is also the owner and editor of Digital Outback Photo