Split Toning Colour Pictures in Photoshop: Theory and Practice

Split toning involves tinting the shadows of an image in one colour and the highlights in another colour. Although mostly applied to black and white images, this method can quite successfully be used on colour images. Before you decide to use this technique though, knowing a little colour theory is helpful.
Colour Wheel
The Colour Wheel
The artist's colour wheel (or circle) is  a visual representation of colour theory. It is a great tool to use when you’re combining colours. Commonly, as with our example above, the colour wheel is split into 12 colours based on Isaac Newton’s Red, Yellow and Blue (RYB) model. Newton split sunlight (white) into red, orange, yellow, green, cyan and blue; then joined the two ends together to show how the colours progressed into one another.
Certain colours are more pleasing together than others. The ones that we recognise as being particularly pleasing are known as Colour Harmonies, and they are where two or more colours have a fixed relation on our colour wheel.
One of the first things we learn about colour in school is that there are three primary colours: red, yellow and blue (as in our explanation above).
Primary colours
The primary colours, red, yellow and blue
Our secondary colours would then be green, orange and purple as they’re the result of mixing two of our primary colours together.
Secondary colours
Secondary colours are made by mixing primary colours
Tertiary colours are made by mixing primary and secondary colours together; you get the idea!
Colours opposite each other on the colour wheel are known as complementary colours. Blues and orange/yellows work particularly well with split toning.
Complimentary colours
Complementary colours are colours that sit opposite (or near enough) each other and work well together
Analogous Colours
Analogous colours are generally found in nature
Analogous colours are often found in nature. They are next to each other on the wheel and complement one another well.
Other schemes that work well together are triadic, where you draw a triangle on the colour wheel and the tips are placed on the colours you’d select to go together; Tetradic and Quadratic. Again, imagine the shape over the wheel and where the edges meet, those are the colours you’d choose, moving the shape around the wheel to get different schemes.
The colour wheel can be split into warm and cool colours.
Warm colours are said to ‘advance’ or ‘come closer’; think of warm colours in a room, they tend to make it feel more snug and cosy, don’t they? Cool colours, then, are said to do the opposite and appear to ‘recede’. They make us think of the sea and sky; big open spaces. There is a biological basis for these sensations of near and far when we see colour, basically depending on where wavelengths of light focus in the eye, but that's a little outside the scope of this tutorial. And then there are then cool and warm hues of each colour, but if we start to go into that my head may frazzle! Exploring colour really has no end of interesting things to learn about.
With the fascinating complexity of colour now established we’ll stick with the basics: how can pairing colour change the feeling of a photograph? Getting the balance right between warm and cool is important when choosing your colours for split toning. Think about what mood your photo conveys. Do you want to create the feeling of wide open space, or something more intimate? Balance your two colours accordingly, giving slight precedence to the one which reflects the mood you’re going for. Understanding what colours do and how to use them can really help you add to your photographs and create great results.
You can read two great methods of split toning using Photoshop in Peter Sawyer's 2011 tutorial 2 Split Toning Techniques in Adobe Photoshop.
If you’re shooting in RAW, however, things are even easier. Open your camera RAW image in Photoshop, and follow along below:
If you want to split-tone a greyscale image (or grayscale going forwards as Photoshop uses the American spelling), click your HSL/Grayscale tab and click Convert to Grayscale where you can make further adjustments to the mix as you wish. If you’re split-toning a colour image ignore this step and proceed to the next one.
convert to grayscale
Convert your image to grayscale
Click on the Split Toning icon.
split toning tab
Use your split-toning tab to choose your hues
You’ll see a hue and saturation bar for both your highlights and shadows, as well as a balance bar. Pick colours for each based on what we know about colour theory; try two complimentary colours. I want to try blue for shadows and yellow for highlights here so my sliders will now look like this:
The balance bar will favour highlights if you slide it to the right (so yellow in this case) or shadows to the left (blue in this case). Try different hues together and play with the saturation strength; I tend to favour the ‘less is more’ approach with this. A subtle touch can go a long way to creating mood in your image.
Split toning is very versatile, I’ve seen it used to good effect with everything from landscapes to portraits to architecture. In particular, it can create a fabulous moody atmosphere to a picture, warm it up or cool it down.
Split Toning Sharon Legg
This makes great use of the warm part of the spectrum [photo: Sharon Legg]
This photo makes great use of the warm part of the spectrum. Even though there are definite blues and purples in there, the predominantly yellow/cream colours tip the balance. We’re also brought into the picture by the vignette darkening the edges, which creates a feeling of closeness, and focuses the viewers eye on the centre of the frame.
Split Toning Sharon Legg
By contrast to the last example, this picture uses hues from the cool part of the spectrum [photo: Sharon Legg]
The cool blues and greens here and work really well. The white and yellow of the flowers helps keep some of the balance against the cool tones.
When split toning a black and white or greyscale photo, the colours you choose are equally important in conveying your intended mood.
Split toning for greyscale
A SOOC shot compared with a split-toned version
When compared side by side with the straight out of camera image, you can see that the split-toned image creates a moodier, more atmospheric feel I wanted. I used blue to cool off the shadows and yellow to warm up the sky. In contrast, adding a reddish hue to shadows will really warm up a picture and is very effective in autumnal shots.
Finally, if you are working on a series of related images - say a wedding, a portrait sitting, or a photo story, for example - adding a very subtle but consistent split toning to the selection can help bring a feeling of continuity and cohesiveness to your series. In your larger body of work, split toning can be a valuable to for creating a personal style.
I hope you’ve found this tutorial useful, and that it’s given you a better idea of what split toning is. A little bit of applied colour theory and some basic technique can be a powerful tool for emphasing the an emotional affect in your images.


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