Make Split Toning Your Editing Secret Weapon

Only split toning isolates control over two specific areas of your photos – highlights and shadows

By David Griffiths and Simon Burn – subscribe to ExploreDiscoverShoot YouTube channel

When you’re editing in the most popular programs, Lightroom or Photoshop, there are at least seven ways to affect the colours in your photos. These include:

  1. Adjusting the White Balance, Temperature and Tint –can be global or within filters
  2. Adding or reducing Vibrance globally
  3. Adding or reducing Saturation globally
  4. Using the Tone Curve which can affect RGB globally, or red, green and blue globally
  5. Using the Hue, Saturation and Luminance (HSL) sliders which are global per colour
  6. Adjusting the Calibration is global and changes how your camera has interpreted colours
  7. Split Toning affects just the colours in the highlights and shadows in your image

Of these choices, it’s split toning that is one of the least used. Today we’re going to look at how and why you might want to use split toning in your editing process.

David Griffiths explains split toning and how you can apply it to your photo edits

For Effective Split Toning, You Need Information in Your Highlights and Shadows

It may sound obvious, but in order to affect the colours and saturation of your highlights and shadows, you need information in those ranges. In numerous YouTube videos, I’ve noticed that some photographers start their editing process by eliminating or reducing their highlights and lifting their shadows.

If you do this, you’ll lose most of the effectiveness of split toning, since it’s that very information it needs to work with.

Split toning originated with black and white images

For demo purposes, watch the video to see how split toning affects highlights and shadows

Useful Applications for Split Toning an Image

You can try split toning on any image, but there are certain instances where it’s most likely to be effective.

For example, if you have sunlight streaming through woodland, you can emphasise the impact of the sunlight by adding yellow to the highlights. You’ll likely see highlights that weren’t as obvious before and the warmer parts of the image will become even brighter. Used properly, this can create a natural pathway through the woodland image to help emphasis depth.

Split toning brightens the sunlight in this woodlands photo

Clouds in dramatic sunsets can also benefit from careful use of split toning. You’ll likely have oranges and yellows in the highlights and various shades of blue and purple in the cloud shadows. That’s a perfect candidate for experimentation.

In night cityscapes, you tend to have a lot of highlights and shadows to work with. Split toning can be useful to affect the colour of street and car lights and the shadows you get in night shots.

A night shot before split toning

Now with blue in the highlights, and fine-tuned orange in the shadows

Split toning can make a significant improvement in instances where images were captured in relatively flat light, or with little in the way of saturated colours to start with.

Split Toning Can Add Drama to Shadows

For some editing styles, deep shadows can help focus the eye to the brighter parts of the image.

However, you likely don’t want the shadows to be completely black either. Adding a bit of magenta or blue livens up the shadows without drawing too much attention. This can work particularly well in blue hour shots.

Also, in mountain photography, where you want to emphasise clear crisp air at dawn or dusk, a very subtle blue hue helps shadows.

On the other hand, perhaps you want to push it and have a blue hour shot that features a very blue, purple or magenta cast. Split toning will work there.

There is No Right or Wrong Split Toning – You Have to Experiment

We all have our preferences for our editing workflow. Some photographers will work with split toning early in their process to determine how they want to see highlights and shadows.

Others see split toning as the icing on the cake. When they have an edit about 80% complete, they’ll start on the split toning process.

Whatever your preference, you will likely find that once you start with split toning, you’ll go back and forth adjusting the highlight and shadow settings and the amount of split toning you’ve applied.

Split toning can also have an impact on your other settings.

For example, adjusting the tones of the shadows may cause you to re-look at your black point and any vignette you’ve applied. Similarly, your highlights will affect your white setting.

Watch your clipping points and fine tune accordingly.

Benefits of split toning in Photoshop – you can localize the effects

Watch the video to see David split tone just a section of the water below the cliffs to add punch

Demonstration of Two Split Toning Options

This is the Vitava River in the Czech Republic. The top shot is the unedited raw file. The second shot shows split toning using the very popular teal and orange split combination. Because teal and orange are at opposite sides of the colour wheel, the cool water is now in direct contrast to the warmed-up buildings.

The third version uses red-orange tones in the shadow areas, and yellow-orange in the highlights. They sit together as analogous colours on the colour wheel which creates a more harmonious monochromatic result. This feels like it was shot in very warm low light at the end of the day.

Split toning can make a dramatic difference and help you achieve the look you want

Use Split Toning to Define a Look

While some photographers turn to split toning for subtle touches, others have used it more aggressively to create a look. The popular teal and orange combination shows up often on Instagram. Pronounced blue or magenta shadows – the Batman Gotham City look – is another obvious style.

As with any technique, you will find that sometimes split toning can make a huge difference to an image which you may have otherwise overlooked.

Quick Tip for Picking Your Highlight and Shadow Colours

When you start working with the split toning sliders in Lightroom, you’ll notice that just a tiny adjustment on the hue slider makes a massive difference. That can be difficult to work with.

Click the rectangle to the right of “Highlights” or “Shadows” and you’ll get large colour picker panel. Now you can use the eyedropper to choose your highlight and shadow colours much more precisely.

The Lightroom split toning interface: sliders and the colour picker

Super-Secret Tip for Picking Your Colours

Once you’ve opened the colour picker panel, say for your highlights, click to get the eyedropper and drag it directly onto your image to find a colour that already exists to use as your highlight colour.

You’ll see colours changing wildly as you drag the eyedropper around your image. Let go when you find the colour you like. You can change the highlight and saturation values on the colour picker box, or go back to the panel to adjust there.

Simon Burn

Simon has been a photographer and creative director in the UK and Canada for over 25 years.

He worked with Andy for multinational corporations and brands before veering off to work on travel, tourism, food and lifestyle projects. Simon has travelled all over North America and Europe, working with consumer brands, tourism associations, and resorts. His work has been published in books, graced the covers of magazines, featured on TV; and he’s also worked with other photographers in the role of creative/art director and photo editor for publications and brands, in addition to being a photography competition judge.

In 2018, he started his own YouTube channel to share his love of travel and landscape photography and filmmaking.

ExploreDiscoverShoot is borne of Simon, Andy and David’s combined creative, business and technical skills, a strong entrepreneurial flair, and passion for photography and content creation.

The opportunities to work with other creators, share ideas, and promote creativity and knowledge, is a driving force with infinite possibilities.

Simon Burn

Simon has been a photographer and creative director in the UK and Canada for over 25 years.

He worked with Andy for multinational corporations and brands before veering off to work on travel, tourism, food and lifestyle projects. Simon has travelled all over North America and Europe, working with consumer brands, tourism associations, and resorts. His work has been published in books, graced the covers of magazines, featured on TV; and he’s also worked with other photographers in the role of creative/art director and photo editor for publications and brands, in addition to being a photography competition judge.

In 2018, he started his own YouTube channel to share his love of travel and landscape photography and filmmaking.

ExploreDiscoverShoot is borne of Simon, Andy and David’s combined creative, business and technical skills, a strong entrepreneurial flair, and passion for photography and content creation.

The opportunities to work with other creators, share ideas, and promote creativity and knowledge, is a driving force with infinite possibilities.

David Griffiths

David has been a creative landscape photographer for over 40 years. He lives and works on the island of Anglesey in Wales, with the high ridges of Snowdonia on his doorstep.

David is an experienced hill-walker and wild-camper, which combined with an encyclopaedic knowledge of his locality, often puts him in the most spectacular locations when the light is just perfect to capture the scene.

He has been fortunate enough to travel the globe and now focuses on the virtually unknown landscape photography locations of north Wales. His photography reflects the ever-changing light, weather, tides and seasons of this spectacular region.

David is an advocate of lightweight equipment to facilitate his hiking, camping and photography passion. As a mountain and coastal guide to this region, he's among the best. He’s never happier than when he's guiding and coaching photographers to make the most of his region!

David also takes you along on many of his location shoots through his weekly landscape photography vlogs on YouTube at D Griff Gallery.

David Griffiths


David has been a creative landscape photographer for over 40 years. He lives and works on the island of Anglesey in Wales, with the high ridges of Snowdonia on his doorstep.

David is an experienced hill-walker and wild-camper, which combined with an encyclopaedic knowledge of his locality, often puts him in the most spectacular locations when the light is just perfect to capture the scene.

He has been fortunate enough to travel the globe and now focuses on the virtually unknown landscape photography locations of north Wales. His photography reflects the ever-changing light, weather, tides and seasons of this spectacular region.

David is an advocate of lightweight equipment to facilitate his hiking, camping and photography passion. As a mountain and coastal guide to this region, he's among the best. He’s never happier than when he's guiding and coaching photographers to make the most of his region!

David also takes you along on many of his location shoots through his weekly landscape photography vlogs on YouTube at D Griff Gallery.

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