Split Toning in Lightroom

October 11, 2016


In my last post I documented a recent street photography expedition around Oxford. In this post I want to share a technique I discovered recently. First of all, I must say that it was only this year I discovered Lightroom and though I am only at the beginning of unlocking its seemingly endless, magical editing capabilities, it has already transformed what I thought possible with my photography.

On this particular set documented here on Oh So Oxford: Part II, I experimented in my post-production a Lightroom technique called split-toning, which I had just discovered thanks to this excellent, easy-to-understand YouTube video by photographer extraordinaire Mark Wallace.

Split toning essentially allows a division between the lights and darks of an image.

The split toning tool is nothing new in photography, and was used by greats like Ansel Adams. On Lightroom, the professional photographers of today’s editing software of choice, it can be used to recreate film effects like cross processing or adding a duotone-like effect to their image. Split toning essentially allows a division between the lights and darks of an image. The user then adds a colour to each of these areas independently of each other, or may choose to add colour only to the highlights or the shadows. You choose the level of intensity and the desired colour. Split toning does not affect brightness or amount of shadows or whites, but simply the colour although there is a ‘balance’ slider which determines how much of the image is considered a highlight vs. a shadow.

There are times when split toning can be used to correct manually the white balance of an image, frequently to warm up an image or to mimic that golden evening light. More excitingly though, it can be used for artistic effect. One of the most interesting uses of split toning is using colour theory principles such as complementary colours to achieve pleasing (or purposely disruptive) images. Colour theory is concerned with how colours interact, their mixtures and their implementation.

palette-circle-round-color-wheel-colour-pickerComplementary colours as we all remember from GCSE art, sit opposite each other on the colour wheel. An easy way of thinking of it is – there are three primary colours red, blue and yellow. Imagine these on a wheel. Between red and blue there is purple, between blue and yellow there is green, and so on. Now visualise the opposite side of the circle. Opposite purple (=red + blue) is yellow. Opposite green (=yellow + blue) is red. Opposite blue is orange (=yellow + red).

As an aside, the orange-and-blue colour palette is ubiquitous in Hollywood movies and on movie posters, and the subject is well-documented on the internet, with every movie theorist and film student worth his salt offering up an opinion on the phenomenon which like a lot of things, seems prevalent the more you search for it.

Experimenting with split toning may well lead to creating a successful and marketable look and feel to one’s images which can then of course be saved as a preset.

Using split toning with complementary colours in mind, might mean using green for the highlights (or shadows) when the image’s prevalent colour is red. Or perhaps it might liven up an otherwise dull picture with purple shadows and yellow highlights. Experimenting with split toning may well lead to creating a successful and marketable look and feel to one’s images which can then of course be saved as a preset and wheeled out whenever necessary to make quick and easy changes.

As I’m just experimenting here, I tried different colours for each of my split toning attempts. For each image, an idea popped into my head as to what tones I envisage. I’ve no idea how this happened, so all I can say is that sometimes it’s intuitive and each photographer will find his own way of working.


This image above of a neon arrow is a really dramatic use of the technique, but it works because it’s so graphic and bold. The finished result isn’t trying to look lifelike per se, more to create a striking image in which the brightness of the neon is matched by the full-bodied colours of the sky’s reflection. When I was composing the image, I had an idea of the split-toned colours I’d like to add even though the original had no purple or blue tones.



For this image above, I used split toning for a subtle effect. The level of pinks in the shadow is set to a very low saturation of just 12, and the green to only 20 but it creates a dramatic effect in which the finished effect looks so much more pink and pleasing. I used other effects in this photo too to get to the final result including the gorgeous Kodak Portra 160 (no grain) VSCO preset which I love, and a tone curve adjustment. The split toning was a good adjustment that brought in a subtle pink light and the greens took some of the blue off the buildings in the background, making them look purer.



For this one, I only split toned the highlight areas because I only wanted to make a very subtle change and add some pink light which you can see in the pavement in the foreground and the sky. Pink light doesn’t really exist in the UK, but if you use the effect subtly nobody will know that it is particularly pink! It adds warmth but without making the white balance appear off, which might happen I feel if there was a lot of yellow being added.



They are complementary colours so it creates a bold and pleasing effect.

For this above image of a collage of flyers and posters, I really went nuts. I added a lot of pinkish red to the highlights and a good amount of green to the shadows.  They are complementary colours so it creates a bold and pleasing effect. It’s obviously not very faithful to real life but that’s what I wanted in this image: a sanitised, stylised, filtered edit of the messy urban environment. (There’s something satisfying about doing this through the medium of photography. In my previous life as an artist, I would have ripped the posters off the wall and pasted them on a studio wall or canvas.)



In this final example above, I used split toning in a similarly bold way. Combined with other changes such as applying a tone curve and using dehazing and clarity, the split toning works well to achieve a cool, urban feel. The shadows have a 42% blue adjustment and the highlights a similar level of yellow-green. This gives a uniform effect as opposed to the muddier greyish original. The adjustments help the colourful lanterns stand out more as their prominent colours are orange and red (the complementary colours of blue and green respectively).

The full set of Oxford images is available here: http://zoes.gallery/2016/10/10/oh-so-oxford-part-ii/

The nifty thing about split toning is there is no formula for using the technique and it really depends on one’s own style and preferences. If you want a natural look to your images, don’t go overboard with split toning and use in a subtle way with the saturation fairly low. But then again, who says an image must look natural? As with all post-processing, its value depends on the look you’re trying to achieve.