Toning Methods   Toning tea and coffee

making cyanotype prints into warmer tones     using washing soda and tea (tannin)


Toning black & white photographs with organic materials

Terri Sprinkle gives plenty of tips how to tone and hand color black & white photographs, the classic way and the organic way.


My first experience with toning photographs came while taking classes to learn the art of hand coloring. I wanted to learn hand coloring as a way to enhance the black & white images that my husband was taking while he worked as a free-lance wedding photographer. The images were all his, of course, so it didn’t take long for me to yearn to apply these wonderful techniques to my own photographs. Ultimately, I found myself in a series of beginner’s photography, as well as darkroom and development, classes. A somewhat backwards approach, yes – but I believe this makes me walking proof that even the most circuitous route can still get you where you want to be!

Toning B&W prints is a wonderful way to add dimension to a photograph, enhancing or sometimes even changing the mood of an image.

Wine toned black & white print

Even in this digital age we are fortunate to have a wide variety of product choices. From classic toners, such as sepia and selenium, to the less toxic, creative use of coffee and food coloring, possibilities abound! This article will touch on many of them, show some samples from my own work, and ultimately hopes to pique your interest into incorporating some of these products into your darkroom work to enhance and expand your own creative vision.

Toning… the “classic” way

There are extensive volumes available that are dedicated to toning with commercially prepared solutions for easy use, some even including formulas for those home chemists among us who prefer to mix their own solutions, with great results. This article will not attempt to supercede or supplant these writings, but will include a suggested reading list at the end from authors I can highly recommend.

For many of us, using commercially prepared toners gives us the exact results we are after. The trick with most of these preparations is to appreciate that, in most cases, the manufacturer’s suggested mixing instructions tend to produce the “heaviest” of results, while in reality, better control and more creative outcomes can be had from deviating from the packaged instructions. If you want, for instance, a completely toned sepia print, from the lightest to darkest tonal range, the printed directions for using the “Part A” bleach (from many commercially prepared sepia toners) will serve you well. You will slip your print into the bleach at full strength, and gently agitate or rock the toning tray until your image completely disappears. After a wash, you will then slip your bleached-out print into the toner (“Part B”) and watch in delight as your print returns nearly instantaneously, and you rock the tray only for a matter of seconds or minutes until you get your desired, full sepia tones. Simple enough!

But what if you are more interested in retaining some actual black in your print, that Dmax you worked to achieve in your initial development? This is where the concept of “split toning” comes into play, and where you begin to want to control the bleaching process to retain those blacks. If you choose to dilute the bleach to a weaker solution than is suggested in the directions, the bleaching process will slow down considerably and give you much more control over it. In addition, certain papers may react much differently to the same bleach/toning solutions, giving you even further choices while planning to tone your print. Experimentation will be your guide, keeping careful notes as you go.

Toning… the “organic” way

Black and white silver gelatin print toned in wine

For those of us who want to “tone” a print without the use of chemicals, there are some options. The most important thing to keep in mind when toning with organic materials is that you are not increasing the archival properties of your print with their use. The chemical reactions to the silver halides imbedded in photographic paper emulsions are not in play here, as the “toning” is really an overall staining of the print. Think of any time you spilled coffee, tea, or wine on your clothing or, even worse, your mother’s best white tablecloth, and you can well visualize the same effects on your print! While thisstaining does last for several years and keeps your home free of potentially dangerous chemicals, it will not extend protection of your print from the eventual effects of decay. If you have an important print you wish to tone, organic materials may not be the best choice.

Note: Certain prepared toners, such as copper and iron (blue), are also not recommended if your aim is to improve the archival stability of your print. For that purpose, sticking with the classics such as sepia, selenium and gold formulas will be your best bet.

Let us now review some of the more common organic materials used for toning.

Red wine

Toning with a deep red wine is quite straightforward. There is no mixing, or even diluting required. Simply uncork a bottle of inexpensive red wine and pour into a tray. Depending on your print size, one 750 ml bottle will suffice in an 8×10″ tray. Pre-soaking your print in a tray of clean water helps soften and open the fibers of a fiber-based paper, which will shorten the time needed in the wine and lets the wine absorb evenly. Anywhere from two to ten minutes will do. Slip the dampened print into tray of wine. Start by checking every minute or two until you achieve the desired color. As this is an actual, overall dyeing of the print, your borders as well as the back of your print will also absorb color. If you wish to keep clean borders, applying a frisket prior to the soak works well. Inspect your highlights under good light, rinsing the wine off in cool running water. Allow the print to dry overnight.

Coffee and tea

Bromoil print toned in coffee

Both coffee and tea are also fairly straightforward materials with which to tone. Each can impart a lovely light tan to near-sepia color. Simply brew regular strength coffee and allow to cool, then pour into a tray. For tea, the use of 4-6 tea bags a liter will suffice. Black tea is recommended as imparting the richest color. Again, pre-soaking a print in clean water allows for easier and more even absorption. You may feel the urge to rock the tray, as with commercially prepared toners a fresh swirl of the chemistry encourages even toning, but it is not really necessary. Inspect your print every couple of minutes until you achieve the desired tone. A shorter time in tea or coffee will give you a light, tan color, while extending the time will intensify the color to a deeper brown.

Lith print toned in tea
Take care to mask off any highlight areas you do not want to tone. Again, your borders will also absorb the color. When inspecting, don’t hesitate to rinse the print in gently running water. When done, you may pat the borders dry and allow the print to dry overnight.

Gelatin silver print toned with food coloring

Food coloring

Food coloring is another easy choice in organic toning. The recent move towards gel preparations, as opposed to the thinner solutions that were dispensed drop by drop, offers the artist better control over mixing shades – much like spreading paints on a palette. These food coloring gels allow you to mix primary colors from the individual tubes of color that come in each box. Some brands offer blending directions. Using a toothpick, you can mix up secondary, even tertiary shades in seconds, depending on your patience and mixing skills. You can use any type found at your local supermarket. The three primary colors are provided, plus a secondary, generally a green. These gels are more intense in pigment, so not much is needed. Drop your blended mixture into a tray of room temperature water with about 1 tablespoon of white vinegar added per liter. It will dissolve quickly. If you wish to adjust the shade, blend color outside of the tray before adding to make sure you are keeping ratios correct.

If you wish to use a single color straight from the tube, simply squeeze out a small amount directly into the tray.Use more for intense color and shorter times in the tray – less for extended tray time that afford better control over the process, much like general chemical toning. Again, the use of a painted-on mask or frisket is good for repelling color. Once the desired tone is achieved, rinse off the print, pat gently and allow to dry.

Silver gelatin print toned with food coloring

Hand coloring after toning

This is one of the processes I enjoy as a continued way to add color to a toned B&W print. You may either apply color to an area that was masked to prevent toning, or apply additional pigment over a toned area. If you plan on applying additional color after toning, choose your silver gelatin paper accordingly. A matte or semi-matte surface takes photo oils, oil or wax pencils, chalks, etc., very well, while glossy surfaces do not. It is possible to apply pigment to a glossy surface by use of a “workable fix” type of spray, but it is an added step that can be avoided by choosing emulsion surfaces that are better suited for this purpose. When using pastel chalk, there is no need to prep the toned print – simply color as desired and blend with cotton swabs. When using photo oils, applying a prepared medium to your toned print is recommended, such as the PMS that comes with Marshall’s photo oils – and it will not affect your toned print. If, however, you are only adding a small amount of color using photo oil pencils, you can skip this step.

Toning with organic materials is fun and easy.

The strong advantage is keeping harsh chemicals out of the household. You can experiment with a wide variety of these materials, and cleanup is still a breeze!

source: Cyanotype toning: the basic April 1, 2011 by mpaulphotography


“No one but a vandal would print a landscape in red, or in cyanotype.” (Peter Henry Emerson: Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art, London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1889) Citation courtesy of Luminous Lint/Mike Ware.

I happen to agree with Mr. Emerson so I tone pretty much all of my cyanotypes.  I have several posts about different toners and how they (generally) look, but this post will go over the basic process of toning and try to troubleshoot a few common problems.

Toning a cyanotype involves two basic steps: a bleach phase, and a toning phase.  Every toner I know of contains some type of tannin in it: tannin chemically binds to the iron in the emulsion and changes the color.  If I understand this process correctly, it produces a form of gallic acid – used in dyes and inks, especially medieval ones.  I’ve read that gallic acid is normally corrosive, but I’ve never found this to be the case with toned cyanotypes.

If you’re concerned about the archival quality of your toned cyanotypes, Dr. Mike Ware (inventor of the “New” cyanotype process) has said that his family photo albums contain what he’s pretty certain are toned cyanotypes – because they look very similar to other alternative processes it’s easy to confuse with Van Dyke prints or Kallitype prints.  I’ve personally never had issues with mine – I’ll get back to you in some 20 years or so and see if that’s still the case.

Keep in mind that toners are funny things – you can mix and match things, you can vary the sequence of bleach and toner and get different results.  I have a lot of good results with simply leaving the prints in the toner for long periods of time without bleaching at all.  Take things one at a time – don’t try to tone or bleach multiple prints together.  Experiment and have fun with it!  Just remember that the key to a successful toned print is to wash well between steps.

1. Toning Preparations:

Before you start your toning, always:

  • Age your prints at least 24 hours for the emulsion to harden.
  • Pre-wet your prints in filtered water to allow the solutions to penetrate the paper fibers evenly.
  • It’s a good idea to have multiple prints – toning is fickle, you never know what you’re going to get.
  • Plan to leave the print face down for long periods of toning, or plan enough time to “babysit” the print – agitate it while face up in the toner.

2. The Bleach Phase:

Bleaching is a tricky thing.  The purpose of bleaching is to help break down the iron a little so that the tannin in the toner can “grab on” easily.  If your water is heavily chlorinated, you may not even need to bleach your prints.

How much you bleach really depends on how you coat, how much emulsion is on the paper, and what toner you’re using.  If you bleach too far, you lose shadow density.  If you bleach too little, your shadows will stay a stubborn blue shade while your highlights cooperate.

Bleach types: the most common form of bleach solution is Sodium Carbonate.  That’s Washing Soda, usually found in your grocery store’s cleaner aisle, or at a photography chemical supply store.   Don’t confuse this with Sodium Bicarbonate – baking soda – it won’t react the same way.

Other types of bleach that I’ve used are Ammonia and regular chlorine bleach.  Ammonia stinks, horribly, and usually produces a browner image.  Chlorinated bleach destroys paper fibers and is better left to your laundry.

My typical bleach solution is about 1-2 teaspoons of Sodium Carbonate combined with 1 Liter of water.  If your print turns a bright purple the second you place it in the solution, it’s too strong.   Play with the solution until you’re comfortable with the rate of bleaching.  As you practice bleaching, you’ll notice that it’s a good idea to yank the print out a few seconds before you think it’s ready – the print will continue to bleach a bit while starting to rinse.

Always rinse the print well in running water between the bleach phase and the toning phase.

3. The Toning Phase:

All cyanotype toners are pretty much variations on a black/brown/purple theme.  Certain toners are more efficient and stain less, while other toners produce a wider range of possible colors.  Keep in mind that all toners will stain your paper base a little despite your best efforts.  (please note that the following links lead to blog post about the toners, or examples of the toner shade.)

Tea toner:  Most tea toners that I use are brewed for about 10 minutes in  25o mL of hot water, then added to a 1.5 Liter of room temperature filtered water.  I use about 8-10 small tea bags, not a very accurate measurement!  Every type of tea has a different quality or color to it – make sure that you use teas with tannin in them like black tea or green tea – white tea, red tea, and most herbal teas don’t have enough tannin to do anything to your print.

Green tea produces an eggplant/black shadow, and is so mild that it doesn’t stain the paper base too badly.  If you’re toning a high key image, green tea will sometimes produce a really cool pink highlight.  It has a tendency to split tone for me because of my double coat of emulsion.

Black tea will stain your paper the most, but it produces a lovely warm black/brown shade that’s nearly impossible to get anywhere else.  I generally use a Lipton tea product for iced tea, but any black tea will work.  If you want an easy split toner with warm highlights and blue shadows, black tea is the fastest way to get it.

Earl Grey tea: avoid this one – it has a lot of oils in it that can damage your print.

Tea toners work really well with a minimum of bleaching, but they do require a longer immersion for the iron to shift.  I normally tone prints in tea for about 2 hours, but depending on the print, it’s taken up to 8 hours.  Some people suggest that tea toners should be hot for a faster toner – in my experience that shaves about 30 minutes off the toning time, and stains the paper much worse.   It’s a good idea to let the print sit in clean filtered water for about 10 minutes before the final rinse to help remove some of the excess tannin.  All tea toners should be used freshly brewed – they lose potency after a day and should not be reused.

Tannic Acid Toner:  This stuff is a royal pain to work with.  It can produce the closest thing to a true black, but it’s far more likely to screw up, or produce a weird purply brown shade.  It has the widest range of color tones that I’ve seen in a toner, but you have absolutely no control over what you get.  Be extremely careful how much bleaching you do, because this toner is totally unforgiving if you go the slightest bit too far.

Done well, this toner produces the least paper staining – however, I’ve run into some chemical issues that I don’t quite understand that leave my paper the shade of cardboard.  (I’ve narrowed it down to interactions with the tap water, or the age of the toner.)

Tannic Acid is produced from wood chips, and is extremely hard to mix into a solution.  It’s a gummy mess.  Because of this it’s difficult to estimate how much I use, but generally about a Tablespoon mixed into a Liter of water is a good place to start (and then remove the gummy bits.)  A good tannic acid solution should be almost clear, and will take a minute of sitting in filtered water to fully tone out.  Toning times for tannic acid are usually quite short.

If mixed with distilled water, tannic acid toner will last for a few weeks/months.  A little mold is normal, just filter the solution every time you use it.  Once the solution starts turning a dark brown or granulating (tiny little granules appear – not sure what they are) it’s time to start fresh.  Tannic acid is also quite expensive, and only available at a photography chemical supply store like Photographer’s Formulary.

Coffea Toner: I love coffee toner.  It’s a cold toner, as opposed to the warmer tea shades, and it leaves the paper pretty close to the original color.  It will still stain, just not as badly as tea.  Coffee doesn’t produce a true black, but more of a blue/black like a blackbird’s feathers.  The highlights will stay pretty clean so make sure your contrast is good and your highlights aren’t blown out.

I generally use the cheapest instant coffee I can find – about 4-5 heaping tablespoons of instant coffee dissolved into 250 mL of hot water, then added to 1.5 Liters filtered room temperature water.  I’ve read that other people have great success re-brewing used coffee grounds – since I don’t drink coffee I can’t exactly test this.

Coffee toner doesn’t seem to take quite as long as tea toner, but expect at least an hour of toning, perhaps more.  Again, it’s a good idea to let the print rest in a water bath before the final rinse.

Wine Tannin: This is my new favorite toner, and I don’t have that much experience with it yet.  So far, it produces a nice dark shadow and a brown/tan highlight on a fairly regular basis.  It can be rather fickle if you keep the solution for a long period of time, so I suggest storing this toner no more than a month.

Wine tannin is basically the same thing as tannic acid, but produced from a different source.  It’s designed to use in microbrewing so it mixes into solution a lot easier.  It leaves the paper almost paper white, producing almost no staining.  It’s slightly cheaper than tannic acid, but since it requires more to produce the same effect – half an ounce of wine tannin mixed into 1 L of water – the price is probably pretty close.  I use the powdered version, but some stores have a liquid solution available.

Wine tannin has a tendency to put any coating discrepancies on display.  Unless I use the Christopher James variation listed in the link (toss the print into the tannin instead of bleaching first) I lose some of my highlight detail.  Like the tannic acid, it works pretty quickly.  Wine tannin also has a weird chemical reaction that can turn my paper to a cardboard brown, requiring a water bath before the final rinse.


1. My print looks faded!  What happened?  You probably bleached the print too far.  Try test strips in varying times to get a better idea of what works – the ideal is to tone your shadows dark without losing highlight details.  Usually this means bleaching until the shadows are a dark purple and the highlights are slightly yellow.

2. I left the print in the toner forever, but it’s still blue!  What now?  Rinse the print for at least 5 minutes and go back to the bleach bath.  After bleaching again – just a little, rinse it again for 5 minutes and put it back in the toner.  Your initial bleach probably didn’t break the iron down enough.

3. The print toned nicely, but now that it’s dry I hate it!  Why does it look so flat?  I don’t know why, but that’s normal for a toned cyanotype.  Try brushing a diluted solution of acrylic gloss medium onto the print to bring back the shadow depth and give the surface a little shine.  It will look like it did when the print was wet.

4. Why can’t I produce the same results each time?  What am I doing wrong?  Nothing.  That’s a quirk of toning.  If you have a batch of prints that need to look similar, try toning them all at the same time with the same solution.  Otherwise you run the risk of variations that you may or may not like.  If you’re still having issues, stick with the basic tea toner – it’s a little less fickle.

5. My print looks mottled – it didn’t tone evenly.  What’s going on?  If you’re leaving the print in the toner for a long period of time, make sure you place it face down.  Paper floats oddly, and you may end up with “dry” spots that don’t tone evenly.  If you’re toning face up, make sure you agitate the print constantly.

6. My print has a bright blue round spot on it!  Yup, the curse of the air bubble strikes again.  Make sure the print is lying face down – ease the print into the toner slowly and work all the air bubbles out past the far edge.  If you already have the blue spot on it, try a quick rinse, bleach bath, and return the print to the toner for a bit to remove the blue.

7. My shadows are blah.  What happened to my perfect exposure?  Your original shadows need to be a nice, deep, cobalt blue to tone dark.  If your shade of cyanotype isn’t dark enough, it’s not going to tone well.  Read this tutorial and do some experimenting with your paper and your developer first before you try toning again.

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