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Sepia prints are monochrome  prints that are in brown and white. Historically they were produced for two reasons, the process of toning was more stable and images lasted longer than other methods available at the time, and it brings out more midtones and detail than could be seen in the black and white prints at the time.

This was originally done from the 1880's by adding  a pigment called 'sepia' made from the Sepia Officinalis Cuttlefish found in the English Channel. Then processes were developed that replaced the metallic silver in the emulsion with a silver compound such as  silver sulphide. A range of processes were available over time including Selenium toning, Sepia toning, metal replacement toning and dye toning.

Far later, up to the digital era, sepia prints were made by selecting photographic paper that produced this effect, rather than by toning, and this method is available now to those still using a film, negative and wet darkroom process.

Digital Sepia Images

Today sepia prints can be produced in camera or by editing, and are used to produce a warmer monochrome image that shows the full range of  image tones well. They can be very attractive prints. A range of other colours and tones of each are now available.

These also open up artistic possibilities, and are also sometimes used as a light print in the background as an alternative to a watermark.

In some editing software, the facility provided to produce sepia images is a simplified application of the Duotone  process also available, while with some cheaper software it's a conversion to black and white and then a colour shift. You will find you get different results by different combinations of the processes available in editing software.

I personally prefer the results produced by Nikon Capture NX2, converting to black and white, which allows me to use digital filters to produce a monochrome image and then convert this to a sepia image. A series of images I produced representing 'pathways through time' did this and had this applied to part of the image while the other part was left in colour, as shown in the image below.

A variation of this used a digital graduated filter to apply this technique allowing the photo of a steam train to go from colour at one side to sepia at the other.


Out of the Past - The image shows the first time a steam train passed over a viaduct for many years after restoration of the line, and has been edited so that it appears that the train is coming out of an old image into the current age.

Many better digital cameras have the ability to produce monochrome images, often with a range of colours and tones within each. You can often combine this with digital monochrome effect filters or you could use filters on the lens, allowing you in either case to see the results when taken, rather than engineer the results later in editing. With Nikon images if you capture these images as Raw images you can later select to make changes including reverting to the normal colour image.

From the digital camera

Some cameras have an ability to take tinted monochromes. These 3 examples were taken with a Nikon D300, other colours and tones of each are available.

This is a series of photos using different camera settings not the same image.

Above left - Black and White digital filter used

Above right - Sepia digital filter used

Left  - blue tint (mimicking a Cyanotype )


See Also:

Creating Vintage Images - Old Look Photos 




Soft images 



By: Keith Park Section: Photography Section Key:
Page Ref: Sepia Topic: Photographic Techniques  Last Updated: 03/2012

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