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From Color to Sepia … a Step by Step Tutorial

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Text and photographs by Billy Dodson -


A year or so ago I ran across the below quote from a landscape photographer on one of the better known photo sharing/critique websites.


"I don’t use Photoshop, I guess it’s just the purist in me."


I distinctly recall thinking (1) Hmmm, that’s interesting... I need Photoshop’s tools to make a raw file look like what the eye physically sees vice what the camera captures, and I don’t think the use of Photoshop to accomplish that represents "impurity" in any way; and (2) Without Photoshop’s array of capabilities, this "purist" photographer is going to be left in the dust in what has become a very competitive field of endeavor. Editing software is critical for digital photography success in my estimation, just as darkroom skill was of paramount importance in the heyday of film. For yours truly, a photographer who is in no way tech savvy, this is a difficult concession to make and a hard reality to face.


I have friends who know the ins and outs of every processing software available, much as they understand even the minutest feature and capability of their incredibly sophisticated cameras. I’m envious of them. I will freely acknowledge that I’ll never be a technical whiz … I’m just not tuned that way. It is unfortunate, because I think my photo products would be exponentially improved if I were so oriented. Creative use of editing software goes beyond simple enhancement... it can elevate a quality image to the level of art. With all that in mind, my philosophy while I’m shooting wildlife in the field is simply to capture the best possible raw material possible and use the tools on my computer at home to try to achieve optimum results. And in so doing, I strive to continue to learn as much about the editing software as my limited intellectual capacity will allow.


The purpose of this article is to guide the reader through my personal process for converting a basic color image to sepia... and to do it in non-technical terms. I’ll be discussing some of the software tools and techniques I most often use to reach the desired result. I’ll use a single image in this sequence... and I ask that the reader bear in mind the fact that there are multiple ways to accomplish any task in Photoshop, and my way may not necessarily be the best way. It does, however, work for me.


The shot selected for this exercise is a mother Thomson’s Gazelle with her young one. This image will never win any awards, but it’s not a bad photo and will serve our purposes well for this article. I’ll process it as if I were preparing it to become a 20x24 inch canvas print. Here’s the basic shot.



This image was captured with a 600mm telephoto lens. Since I was unable to zoom to achieve the ideal framing and composition, some cropping is needed. So my first step is to open this file in Adobe Photoshop and use the crop tool set at 20x24 inches. For aesthetic reasons, I don’t want my gazelles in the center of the frame. Since they are oriented to the viewer’s left, I’ll place them in the right half of the frame. Here’s the effect:



As a general rule, I prefer my subjects to stand out from the background. So I often use the burn tool to darken the perimeter of the frame... and I believe that technique was effective on this image. I also made one other miniscule adjustment with an increase in the overall contrast of the image. This photo was sharp when captured, but I couldn’t resist using the sharpen tool just a little. There are several ways to do this, but I default to the Unsharp Mask option in Photoshop because it allows me to carefully fine tune the level of sharpness. The altered photo is shown below:



So far, I’ve used Adobe Photoshop exclusively on this photograph. This software can be a little pricey -- as of today the Adobe website offers it for $699. However, everything I’ve discussed so far can also be accomplished in Photoshop Elements, which sells for about $99. Elements is a subset of the larger Photoshop suite.


My thought since first looking at the gazelle picture has been that it would probably work best as a sepia toned image. So let's walk through the steps to make that happen. For me, the preferred software for converting a color photo to monochrome is Nik Silver Efex. This is a Photoshop "plug-in," which means that, after installation, the software connects with and is accessed via Photoshop. Nik Silver Efex (NSE) offers many options for transitioning an image to black and white far too many, in fact, to enumerate here. The NSE layout, however, is very straightforward. Along the left side of the screen are pre-set options that convert the image to BW in different ways to achieve various effects. These include conversions that simulate infrared, overexposed, underexposed, pull processed and push processed just to name a few. For this image, I used the tools on the right side of the screen. Among the options here is a set of colored filters that simulates the actual filters used on a film camera when shooting black and white. Blue, green, yellow, orange, red and No Filter buttons are provided. For this shot I selected the red filter even though the dominant color in my impala is red. I did this knowing that the selection would enable me to use the brightness slider to reach the desired level of luminescence. Because the red filter significantly lightened the red impala, I was able to use the slider to darken the subject... and because the red filter further darkened the green vegetation behind the subject, my impalas now stand out from the background even more.



Obviously, this image has yet to be converted to sepia. A dropdown menu titled "Stylizing" is the preferred tool for this purpose. It offers a number of toning options, including several shades of sepia. For this image I selected a tobacco shade and added a little strength to the color with the saturation slider. I also used NSE’s vignetting tool to darken the outermost edges of the image to give the photo an antique feel. Results are shown below:



NSE offers a number of other processing options, including a selection of BW film simulations that capture the effects of Kodak, Fuji and Agfa films. But for the purposes of this exercise I opted to keep it simple, so I didn’t use any of them. NSE usually sells for $299, but it does go on sale periodically... usually for $199 or so.


This photo is very nearly finished. Just one more step is required to achieve the envisioned result. And that step involves the use of onOne’s Focal Point software ($99). Focal Point simulates the use of the "lens baby" to exaggerate the blurred area around the subject. It is not an appropriate software for every image, and as a matter of fact, I can’t think of an occasion when I’d ever want to use it with a color picture. The Focal Point plug in is also accessed via Photoshop. The software enables the photographer to select the point of perfect clarity in the image and stretch the "clear zone" to suit his or her taste. Outside that zone, the blur is increased and exaggerated far beyond anything a lens with a wide open aperture can deliver. Here’s what it looks like:



Obviously, this type of digital darkroom work is not for the casual photographer. But for those who want to enhance or improve images for sale or possible publication, it’s important to learn as much about the editing software as possible. It requires commitment, willingness to take the time to learn, and, unfortunately, a financial investment in the right software. For the info of those who may want to look into the options, most of the major software manufacturers offer free 30 day software trials. I’ve used these extensively to determine the utility of the various products.


Here’s one last side by side view of the original image along with the final version.




Thanks for reading and take good care,


Billy D

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