Toning Black and White Prints With Organic Materials


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. Certain foods have a natural amount of strong staining elements which can also be transferred onto photographic prints to create tonal effects.


For the purpose of this study the following question(s) were addressed:

  1. What different effects can be achieved by toning a photograph in different organic materials?
  2. Do some substances work better than others?
  3. Is it possible to achieve two different tones on one image?



Using strong pigments such as tea, beetroot juice and food colouring a noticeable toning effect should be achievable on black and white printed photographs, as they are naturally hard to remove after prolonged staining.



New Dimensions In Photo Processes Book (Library Resources)

Toning is the method of changing the appearance of a photograph, manually with the use of selected chemicals and dye’s. The process is carried out on silver based (usually B&W) photographic prints.  There are three main types of toning, which are;

  1. Toning the entire print- this includes colouring the white boarders as well as the image and requires pre-soaking the print at room temperature for ten minutes. The print is then placed in the toner solution and constantly agitated. Then washing for ten minutes, being careful not to smudge the print, as the print is sensitive in texture due to the toner softening the emulsion.
  2. Split Toning- adds different amounts of colour shadows and highlights to the print. The process requires soaking the print at room temperature for ten minutes, then place in the toner bath, being pulled out as the colour starts to shift. Print is washed in a bath for twenty minutes.
  3. Selective Toning- tones certain areas of the print and image by coating the areas to remain un-toned with rubber cement, or masking liquid. The process consists of soaking the print for ten minutes, agitated in toner, washed for twenty minutes and then dried. After the prints are fully dried use celluloid tape on a corner of paper, or carefully rub the surface to peel off the pre-applied mask.

Other toning methods include; cross toning, combining toners and bleaching.

Here are the main chemicals used for the different types of toning methods;

  1. Chemical Toners change the silver in the print from black to various colours. Toners include; selenium, poly-toner, sepia, copper/brown/ yellow/gold toners, as well as blue toner, halo chrome and gold toner.
  2. Colour Coupler Toners attach to the silver particles in the image but leaving the paper boarder white, with the dye creating the colour.
  3. Dye Toners add uniform colour to the image and the white paper boarder, creating a light tint to the saturated colours. Toners include; print toners, tea, coffee and beetroot etc due to their strong natural staining colours.  [2]


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.

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 fibres of a fibre-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 colour. As this is an actual, overall dyeing of the print, your borders as well as the back of your print will also absorb colour. 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.

Tea and Coffee:

Both coffee and tea are also fairly straightforward materials with which to tone. Each can impart a lovely light tan to near-sepia colour. Simply brew regular strength coffee and allow to cool, then pour into a tray. For tea, the use of 4-6 tea bags a litre will suffice. Black tea is recommended as imparting the richest colour. 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 colour, while extending the time will intensify the colour to a deeper brown. Take care to mask off any highlight areas you do not want to tone. Again, your borders will also absorb the colour. 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.

Food Colouring:

Food colouring 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 colouring gels allow you to mix primary colours from the individual tubes of colour 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 colours 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 litre. It will dissolve quickly. If you wish to adjust the shade, blend colour outside of the tray before adding to make sure you are keeping ratios correct.

If you wish to use a single colour straight from the tube, simply squeeze out a small amount directly into the tray. Use more for intense colour 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 colour. Once the desired tone is achieved, rinse off the print, pat gently and allow to dry.


Hand Colouring After Toning:

You may either apply colour to an area that was masked to prevent toning, or apply additional pigment over a toned area. If you plan on applying additional colour 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 colour 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 colour using photo oil pencils, you can skip this step.


Split Toning:

Split toning techniques are used to obtain different colours for the highlight and shadow areas of prints – by using two toners one after the other. By carefully controlling the toning process, or by only partially bleaching the print, sepia toner can be used very subtly.

Also with ILFORD MULTIGRADE IV RC Deluxe paper, it is possible to warm up the blacks, or perhaps tint shadows and highlights a different colour.

Below are the key points and methods associated with split toning :

  • When toning, it is the highlights of the print that are usually the first to change colour – and then the shadow areas. So, a reduced time in the first toner starts the toning process and affects the highlights of the print.
  • The second toner completes the toning process – and affects the shadows of the print.
  • By adjusting the time in the first toner, more or less of the tonal range of the print is affected by this first toner.

As a guide :

  1. Try reducing the toning time in the first toner to about 25% of the recommended time.
  2. Wash the print well before using the second toner.
  3. Tone the print in the second toner – until the desired effect is seen.


Toner examples and effects:

First Toner / Second Toner / Effect

Sepia / Blue / Sepia highlights, blue shadows, green mid-tones

Sepia / Selenium / Brown Purples

Selenium / Gold, Purple-blue mid tones

Blue / Selenium/ Blue shadows and buff highlights

Some toners for example Kodak T-21 toner (Nelson gold) – tone the highlights and shadows at the same time. These are not so effective for split toning techniques. However, with such toners the whole print is toned at a uniform rate, so the toning can be stopped when the desired hue is reached.

Partial bleaching before sepia toning is the easiest technique – dilute the bleach with water to reduce its activity. Bleaching continues even after washing of the print has begun – so it needs to be removed from the solution while the image is still slightly too dark.

If this print is then sepia toned, the warm hues will be more visible in the highlights than in the shadows. Toning the print again in blue toner can produce an unusual duo-tone blue/brown print. Prolonged washing can be used to control the density of the blue tints.

Day 1: Tea Toning

I brewed eight tea bags in boiling water and brewed until it reached the maximum diffusion point and left to cool. I then soaked my chosen print in room temperature water to loosen the particles to help with absorption of the organic materials.  After ten minutes I placed the pre-soaked print into the tea and left it to bath for approximately two hours. As time passed the print began to gain colour, it looks more of a sepia colour the longer it is left to soak.

However, the print needed more contrast adding during development so maybe a more pleasing aesthetic could have been achieved in the end result if the print had been developed correctly. Although I am still pleased with the outcome for my first attempt and the lighter shade of image seems to suit the overall aesthtic.




Day 2: Beetroot Juice Toning

Beetroot juice toning proved more difficult than I thought due to the stain not wanting to stick to the paper. The paper seemed to coat well throughout the soak duration, however when I washed the print most of the solution evaporated. I very carefully dried the prints with a hairdryer on cool to maintain some of the colour. I followed the same method as above, accept the beetroot juice was not heated and left to cool. There was also some pigments, possible of beetroot, in the solution which also had an effect on the overall outcome in tiny little speckled fragments. However I am still pleased with the results from my first experiment with beetroot juice toning as the image is still a very light shade of pink, also compared to the tea tone print or a white piece of paper the pink tone is more visible.





Tea Toning Cyanotypes:

I toned my cyanotypes following the same method as above, I found this as effective due to the textured water colour paper holding more of the solution. I used my weakest cyanotype as a test before submerging any other prints. I like the effect on fig. 7 as it has a feel of a water colour painting and a Van Dyke Brown Print.




To conclude, I found that toning photographs is an hands on, natural, DIY process for toning photographs as a good alternative to using computer software. It is a good way to age photographs by adding an antique effect. Pigment toning can be utilised in a similar manner to altering the hue in Photoshop but when using film media allowing for added creativity when not working in digital format. It’s a relatively simple technique to apply with lots of other materials to be explored and experimented with.



[1] ALTERNATIVE PHOTOGRAPHY, (2000). Toning Black and White Photographs With Organic Materials. [Online] Available from:                                                                                                              [Accessed: 22 March 2016]

[2] BLACKLAW, L. (2007). New Dimension In Photo Processes. Part I, chapter 3: Toning. Oxford: Focal Press. Pages 48-60.                                                                                                ISBN No 10: 0-240-80789-8                                                                                                         ISBN No 13: 978-0-240-80789-8

[3] ILFORD PHOTO, (2016) Split Toning. [Online] Available from:                                             [Accessed: 22 March 2016]

[4] THE ART OF PHOTOGRAPHY, (2015). Toning Prints With Tea and Coffee. [Online] Available from:                                                                                                                                               [Accessed: 22 March 2016]



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