A Basic Photoshop Toning Recipe

Before and After: You need a basic toning recipe for your images. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

Before and After: You need a basic toning recipe for your images. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

Let’s face it: unless you’re still shooting nothing but film and making all of your prints in an old-school traditional darkroom, Photoshop is an integral part of your photography workflow.  All of us either use Photoshop or use something that tries to act like  Photoshop. Photoshop has defined image toning in the digital age like no other piece of software. Photoshop is the proverbial 800-pound gorilla, a fantastic, complicated, wonderful tool that has transformed all of our lives as photographers.

But do you have a basic toning recipe?

You need an approach for all of your photos that will standardize your workflow and maximize the tonal quality of your images. What follows is my basic toning approach for all images. This recipe will give you a properly-toned image for either print or web that makes the most of the exposure you made. It’s the starting point for all of my photographs.

A Quick Aside about Raw Capture

I can hear some of you saying: “But what about shooting raw images?” I shoot a lot of Camera Raw images now and bring those images into the Adobe Camera Raw workspace first.  Once I have adjusted them in Raw and brought them into Photoshop, I may make additional adjustments. But this article is really addressing non-Raw digital images, i.e. jpegs captured in your digital camera.

The Recipe

Open the image in Photoshop.

Untoned image opened up in Photoshop.

Untoned image opened up in Photoshop.

Go to Image>Adjustments>Levels(Cntrl>L on PC, Apple>L on Mac).This brings up the histogram for your photograph, a graphical representation of your photograph that resembles a mountain. The shadows are represented on the left side of the histogram, the highlight information of your photograph on the extreme right. The midtones, usually the bulk of your picture, are in the middle. Each of these areas-shadows, midtones and highlight-have their own triangle slider right below the histogram.

Setting the shadow and highlight points in Levels.

Setting the shadow and highlight points in Levels.

Set the shadow and highlight triangles right up the the “edge” or “beginning” of  the histogram “mountain.”  If the midtones look too dark, you can move the midtone slider slightly to the left to open up the midtone detail. Click Okay. (See my article on correcting color casts in Photoshop for more detailed information on using Levels).

Adjust the midtone slider if needed.

Adjust the midtone slider if needed.

Now open up Curves. (Image>Adjustments>Curves, or Cntrl>M on a PC, Apple>M on a Mac). I use the Curves interface to add a bit of snap and contrast to a lot of images without degrading anything else. If your photo could use a bit more snap, take the bottom left point of the graph, which represents your shadow information, and move it slightly to the right. Just one notch over is usually sufficient. Now grab the graph line in the middle and move it back up to the midpoint, or even a bit above the graph’s center. (You’ll have to watch the results to decide how much is needed.) Hit Okay.

Adjusting Curves in Photoshop to add a bit of snap to the photo.

Adjusting Curves in Photoshop to add a bit of snap to the photo.

Does your image need a bit of sharpening? That’s what I do next. Sharpening is  very tricky since Photoshop gives you lots of ways to do this. The BEST way to do Photoshop sharpening is in the Lab Lightness Channel.

A bit of explanation is in order. Most of us work most of the time on our photographs in the RGB color space—that’s Red, Green and Blue. Think about it as just one of the ways you can take an image and slice and dice it

The Lab color space is simply another way to split up the different parts of your image. Lab stands for Lightness Channel, A Channel and B Channel. It’s significant that images that are being converted from RGB  to CMYK, the standard Color Space for all printing presses, pass through the Lab space on their way to CMYK. What we care about here is getting at that Lightness channel of the Lab color space, since the Lightness channel represents the grayscale tone of an image without any of the color pixels included. This is important because we want to sharpen the image without sharpening the color pixels, which would create artifacting we don’t want.

Selecting the Lab Color colorspace in Photoshop.

Selecting the Lab Color colorspace in Photoshop.

Go to Image>Mode>Lab Color. If your palettes aren’t displaying Channels, go to Window>Channels to display the Lab color space. Click on the Lightness Channel to select it separately. Then click the “Eye” icon at the top of the Channels palette to turn the color back on. This way you can sharpen the grayscale pixels of the image and watch the effect on the overall look of your photograph.

Selecting the Lab Lightness channel, then clicking the Lab "Eyeball" to turn the color back on.

Selecting the Lab Lightness channel, then clicking the Lab "Eyeball" to turn the color back on.

I use the Unsharp Mask sharpening option for this recipe: Filter>Sharpen>Unsharp Mask. Set it on 75%. Click Okay.

If  your photograph needs dodging or burning, the Lab Lightness channel is also the best place to do this work, since in this channel you won’t be burning or dodging color pixels, only the tone of the photograph. So if you need to burn or dodge do it now.

Crop your image. My default crop is 10 inches wide at 300 dpi for things I think I might want  to print, and 670 pixels at 72 dpi for images that are destined for the web. You can decide on your own defaults. Frequently I’ll save an image twice, once for web and once for print.

Cropping your photograph. I use 300 dpi and 72 dpi as my defaults for printing and online respectively.

Cropping your photograph. I use 300 dpi and 72 dpi as my defaults for printing and online respectively.

That’s it! You’re finished! You now have an image that’s properly toned and saved for future printing or web display. You’ll find that this toning recipe will serve you well as you shoot, process and save your photographs.

Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Posted in: Photoshop

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

8 Comments on "A Basic Photoshop Toning Recipe"

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  1. Jonathan says:

    Hi

    Not really what I would call toning and image. back in the old days of the wet darkroom toning was sepia etc. I was on the hunt for some nice toning action scripts

  2. I guess what “toning” means to me has changed over the years–interesting, hadn’t thought of that! That’s a great idea for another post, Jonathan, thanks.

  3. justin says:

    Great Post! Easy to read and very informative. My recipe is very similar, although, I never though about the LAB color. Frankly, I had no idea what LAB meant. Thanks!

  4. I think Photoshop is a lot like jazz…lots of ways to get to the same destination. I’m always looking for things that improve my consistency and by extension, my photography.

  5. Gym Buffalo says:

    Helpful tutorial for non experts. Amazing what Photoshop can do. It’s a very cool tool in photography.

  6. mel says:

    This is exactly what i am looking for! Good thing my friend told me about this post. Now my work will be improved in the the days to come.

  7. I think you’ll find this helps your consistency, Mel. Good luck!

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