Sepia toning

Its goes without saying, I pretty much always tone my prints these days. A key advantage of this is stability and archival permanence, however as a pretty shallow guy a big part of why I tone my prints is aesthetic. It can really open a print up and make good print a bloody good print.

My prints are typically destined to end up selenium toned but often I will combine this with sepia to split tone a print where I can use selenium to affect the shadows and use sepia to change the highlight areas.

Port Glasgow, 2020. Sepia and Selenium toned print.
Ilford Warmtone FB, Sepia/Selenium toned. Just bleached back enough to tone the highlight areas.

You can do this by taking advantage of the fact that selenium toning works up through the shadows in contrast to sepia which works down through the highlights.

Sepia toning is two part process – bleaching the print followed by redeveloping in the toner. I currently use the Fotospeed ST20 kit which comes in 3 bottles; bleach, toner and toner additive.

The bleaching part I find most critical. If you only want to tone the highlights it can be easy to go too far at first, but you can make things a lot simpler like a lot of things in life if you slow down.

Sepia toned, Ilford FB Classic. There’s still a slight olive cast to the midtones due to no selenium, however I don’t mind that for this image.

Step 1: Bleach

The instructions for the kit tell you to mix the bleach at 1:9. I find this far too strong as it works really quickly and difficult to judge when you want to snatch the print from the tray. I use it much more diluted at around 1:40 which is far easier to work with. Mixing up 300ml seems enough to cover an 8×10 tray.

The print needs to be thoroughly washed before bleaching, there cannot be any fixer remaining in that paper! If it is a previously dried print then make sure its soaked in water beforehand to soften it up.

Add the print to tray with the bleach and agitate lightly to ensure its well covered. Keep an eye on the highlights as they start to disappear and snatch the print when its progressed as far you like. Give it a good wash under running water for a few minutes to remove the bleach, now you can redevelop the print in the sepia toner.

Ilford Warmtone FB, Sepia/Selenium split.

Step 2: Toner

For this I mix as per the instructions for “sepia” colour which is 15ml per 1000ml of toner solution. (I find anything less too yellow and more too brown, you’ll have to experiment to find what suits your taste.)

Depending on how far you’ve bleached back into the image, this can take up to a minute or two to fully redevelop. Agitate as you would do with normal print developer.

You need to give the print a good wash now. I’ll typically keep prints in a holding bath and then I usually do a 30 min wash at the end of the session.

Sepia toner and bleach baths in a messy darkroom sink…

Once you have toned a few prints this process will take longer until the toner is exhausted at which point you’ll need to mix up some fresh solution.

Ilford Classic FB, Sepia/Selenium split.


Before you starting bleaching the print decide first where you want the toning to stop! This is probably where the highlights start to bleed into midtones.

Don’t be afraid of taking the print out the bleach and giving it a quick rinse to inspect. Remember, you can always put back in the bleach if it’s not enough. Conversely if you’ve screwed it up you could redevelop in print developer again – although full disclosure I’ve yet to try this!

I like to remove the print just before it bleaches to the point I think is enough, then I remove the print from the tray and place it in the sink. It will still slowly bleach back a bit until you wash the bleach off the print. You can then turn the tap on to wash away the bleach and stop it progressing any further.

There’s need for hypo clear in any of the wash stages, this is a common question I hear. There is no fixer in either the bleach or toning solution so just a full wash in water is good.

Always tone sepia first – unless you love purple prints when bleaching the selenium toned print!

You might want to considering overexposing the print a bit more in the highlights if you find you’ve lost density after bleaching.

Have fun!

Ilford HP5, 4X5. Sepia and Selenium toned print.
Ilford HP5, 4X5. Ilford Classic FB Sepia and Selenium toned print.

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