Toning black & white photographs with organic materials

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

Writer and photography / Terri Sprinkle

Introduction to toning B&W photographs

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
Blind tasting: I painted a masking material over the aluminum foil on the bottles for a “split-toned” look. Removed from the tray of wine and rinsed after about 2 minutes.

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 photos 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 photos the “organic” way

Black and white silver gelatin print toned in wine
Cypress knees: Toned with no masking, about 5 minutes for a deeper shade.

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 this staining 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

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 toning of photographs

Bromoil print toned in coffee
See Rock City: This is a bromoil print that I toned in coffee, and then applied pastel chalks for added color.

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
Mountain lake: Lith print, tea toned for about 1 minute, then slightly hand colored

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
Docked, toned with blue food coloring for about 1 minute

Food coloring photographs

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 affords 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
Riding Cyclops, toned with blue food coloring for about 5 minutes, partially masked

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!

Recommended reading on toning black and white photos

For more extensive reading on toning, I recommend the following:

It is my hope this article has been informative, and offered some alternatives to chemical toning that may be of value to you.

Terri Sprinkle lives in Atlanta, GA, USA where she keeps a home darkroom and also works in bromoil, lith printing and hand coloring her silver gelatin prints.   She has taught workshops in beginner’s hand coloring and sells her work locally, and started photography forum in 2009.

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9 thoughts on “Toning black & white photographs with organic materials”

  1. Hi Tobin – thank you for the kind words regarding my hand coloring article. I’m pleased to know it still offers guidance, despite some of the papers, etc., being discontinued since it was published.

    You asked specifically about problems finding Marshall’s extender and a white, I’m sorry to see the difficulty finding these, along with other colors you mentioned, as Marshall’s photo oils remain such a gold standard in the art of hand coloring photos. However – you can find an extender online at Freestyle Photo, called Arista – manufactured by Gamblin, an excellent brand. Arista now has a full line of hand coloring supplies, including things like extender, the prep solution (what Marshall’s calls the Prepared Medium solution), a cleaner and, of course, photo oils. They come in jars of 15 ml, more than the Marshall’s tubes.

    Here’s the URL to Freestyle and the Arista Extender:

    Here’s the URL to the Arista Ivory White:

    Hope those links work. Keep in mind this white is referred to as “Ivory white,” as opposed to Marshall’s Titanium White – it may not be as opaque, which is what we’re after when using a white to affect tint.

    By all means, keep experimenting with the photo oil pencils – they are beautiful and perfect for those tiny details.

    Hope this helps!


  2. Terry, I read your comprehensive online article about hand coloring photos. I have been using Marshall’s pencils and having a lot of fun with that. Still have much to learn with the pencils. I have also moved on to trying the Marshalls photo oils. I have a set of around 15 tubes I acquired by buying two sets from Blicks. I quickly realized that there are many colors not available online —primary colors and others. There is no white and no ‘extender’ available. Am I overlooking a source? Could you comment on this? Thanks, Tobin Clark

  3. To Andrew Currie: Hi, and my apologies for the delay in reply. A frisket is used for masking off areas in a print that you wish to protect from receiving treatment: in this instance, toning. It is usually a thin paper when used for broad applications such as airbrushing. The term is used interchangeably with masking practices such as masking film or liquid masking agents like rubber cement. A frisket or masking film is convenient when large areas of a print are to be protected. I like using rubber cement or colored liquid masking agents that can be applied by brush – much better control in smaller, more detailed areas. Hope this helps.

  4. In response to Chris’s comments: All development methods are chemical methods. No matter what you are using, you are either causing a chemical reaction to the print or leaving a residue of that chemical behind. While I agree that I would rather use red wine than toxic compounds like selenium, it is still a chemical treatment.

  5. I have been a artist for 60 years. Doing this time I’ve Painted on
    Photos menny times. Have recieved a lot of monny for these paintings.
    Painting on inkjet prints are harder then painting on the old phot-
    graphic paper.
    I fine the inkjet paper hast to be coated first with a acrylic sealer.
    . Then paint lade on top of that. Acrylic or OIL paint will work.
    It’s a long pross .
    “I fill it’s worth it”.
    I also paint on canvas. Thank you.

  6. Thank you for this wonderfull article. Starting out in photography I had aversion against chemical methods. Why not different methods?
    Your article gives me many tips to go forward. I like the photographs too.

  7. Hello, Terri.

    I’ve enjoyed reading your article very much. And thank you for sharing your techniques with us. I’ve used the same techniques for many of my Cyanotype prints. I haven’t yet tried them on b&w paper. But, another b&w printing session is due in about a week, and I might try it then.

    Really, though, I just wanna let you know that I’ve appreciated your article very much. And please share with us if you do something cool again.

    Thank you,


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