My Sepia Effect Refined

Photoshop techniques by Craig Boehman.

Who Is This Sepia Effect For?

Full disclosure, I created this effect for me to use to begin a body of work that will be using sepia as the main editing effect. But I am oftentimes asked by photographers how I do things, so I thought I'd share exactly what I'm doing because it's so much easier sending a link rather than answering a DM with a reply from scratch.

In a nutshell, my sepia workflow is for those who don't want to rely on 1-click sepia effects. More often than now, simple filters, LUTs, and smartphone looks don't offer much or any control of the sepia effect short of lowering the opacity or effect slider. I wanted to create something from my personal experimentations that would work for nearly every image. I determined the best way to accomplish this was to devise a workflow using adjustment layers that were fully customizable.

What's Changed With My Refined Sepia Effect?

Previously, I had posted about my new sepia method back in December 2020 when I was in the process of developing a standard workflow for producing a sepia effect that wasn't a filter or somebody's else's version of sepia. I wanted my own method that was customizable and that anyone could make use of. My post from December: How To Process A Custom Sepia Effect In Photoshop

So what has changed? A couple of new tweaks that make a huge difference. I'm still using four adjustment layers but I standardized a 60% opacity for the Color Look Up layer for the Edgy Amber effect. More importantly, I've changed the blend mode to Soft Light as a standard adjustment. All other layers are left at the normal 100% and left at their default blend modes. The second change is that I've replaced the second Black and White layer with a Color Balance adjustment. For Color Balance, I place more emphasis on increasing the Reds in the shadows slider and a bit in the Midtones, while going a little easier on the Yellows overall. Also, I've noticed after more experimentation that sometimes cooling the highlights by raising the Cyans and Blues will tone down any overly-coppery effects in the brighter regions of the exposure. Something to consider, since it may not be intuitive to add cooler tones to a sepia image. I'll share the same tutorial as before with the added tweaks mentioned above.

Step 1: After your image is fully edited in Photoshop, create a Black & White adjustment layer and tune the sliders to your liking. Your main sliders will be the Reds and Yellows. Start with the reds as more will be required. Then push Yellow slightly until the image is properly exposed. Make sure the skin tones are bright enough but try to avoid blowing out the highlights.

Step 2: Create a Color Lookup adjustment. Then select Edgy Amber. Set the layer Opacity to 60%. Change the blend mode to Soft Light.

Step 3: Create a Color Balance adjustment. The Reds will be boosted in both the Midtones and Shadows, while only a slight touch usually needed in the Highlights. Like previously mentioned, the Cyans or Blues may need to be boosted in the Highlights if the whites are too bright or coppery. Essentially, you'll notice the sepia effect really shine when you boost the Red channel in Shadows.

Step 4: Create a Curves adjustment layer. But instead of adjusting the curve itself, Alt-Click the Auto option. This will bring up another menu box. There are usually only two options out of the four I pay attention to, and that's either the Enhance Brightness and Contrast or the Enhance Monochromatic Contrast options. Try them all though and see which one works the best. But you will find that Find Dark & Light Colors may remove your sepia effect entirely.

Note that the Curves adjustment at the top of the layer stack is largely corrective in function here. It's meant to adjust the overall exposure to bring it back in line with a more standardized curve. However, you may find yourself reducing the Opacity of this layer too if the effect has the opposite effect of adding too much exposure to areas you don't want it. Additionally, you may use the Brush tool and paint away areas that are too bright or too dark in the layer mask.

Finally, you will have noticed by now that I have all the sepia layers in a Group folder. As you may rightly suspect, I have created a Photoshop action that makes use of the Shift + F12 shortcut to create the sepia group so that the only thing I have to do for each image is to click on the individual layers and tweak the sliders. Otherwise, the work of constructing everything from scratch is taken care of to avoid missing crucial steps in the process in addition to saving time.

I can't rule out the possibility of making future adjustments to my sepia workflow. But for now, it seems to create a consistent look that I'm happy with whenever I want to use this in my street photography.

This begs the question, when is it appropriate or apply the sepia effect (or any monotone effect) to your images? I'm sure I'll have more to say on this in later posts, but for now, my short answer to this question is this: If the color scheme doesn't make any sense, is too chaotic, or creates aesthetic discord of any kind, I'll either apply color corrections to make it work or I'll use my sepia method to bring everything into a pleasing harmony.

For the foreseeable future, the traditional monotone effect of black and white is being sidelined as an editing option in my workflow in order to create a body of street photography work (and perhaps in other genres like portraiture) that supports a consistent aesthetic or "look". I can't anticipate if I will be successful and predict that this will be the start of my 'sepia phase' beginning in 2021. There are usually too many factors, some unknown to myself, that will play a role in determining whether or not I continue using sepia. But I am quite happy to forge ahead with gusting sepia in my sails and see where it takes me.

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