Split toning in Lightroom

Feel free to read on and I hope you get a lot out of this tutorial.  I also recorded a YouTube video of me adjusting a photo with the use of split toning.  You can find that just below, and let me know if you have any questions!

I have been using split toning a LOT lately, and have received a fair number of questions and comments about it.  I thought it might help to share this tutorial on how I implement it in my workflow and include some examples as well.  As always, feel free to leave comments or email me with any questions.  Hope it helps and hope you enjoy split toning as much as I do!

I started using split toning by accident.

I had heard of it, and generally knew what it was, but had only ever tried using it once, and with horrible results.  It was right after I started using Lightroom, and I was pretty much clicking everything so I could get more familiar with the lay of the land, so to speak.  Not being experienced with split toning (or Lightroom for that matter, at the time), I moved the sliders left and right a bit, got confused about what was happening to the image (and thus hated the result), and went about my business of doing things that I was more interested in.  I then promptly forgot about it.

Months rolled by.

Recently, I clicked on it by accident and this time I became intrigued.  In possession of quite a bit more Lightroom knowledge these days, and much more Lightroom confidence - as well as some time to actually try and better understand the subject of split toning - I decided to give it another shot.

After just a few minutes, I had a revelation: split toning is an incredibly simple, versatile and powerful tool.

So, what is split toning?

a handy pinterest-ready graphic for you pinners out there

a handy pinterest-ready graphic for you pinners out there

For those of you that are just like I was, I thought it might help to give you a quick definition of split toning.  It basically allows you to make colors adjustments to the highlights and shadows of an image, separately.  So you could take all the highlights and make them a certain color, and then take all the shadows and make them another color.  This is much different than the typical adjustments made using the White Balance and Tint sliders, because those are global in nature (covering the whole image), whereas this one is separated based on Highlights vs Shadows.  That may not sound like a big difference, but trust me, it really is fairly substantial.

Since you are just making color adjustments to highlights and shadows, you may be thinking that it sounds pretty basic, and you would be correct.  It’s a very basic idea.  It’s also very easy to use, yet extremely powerful.   You can quickly and easily add drama to a photo, completely changing the look of the shot.  You can enhance the light of a sunset or sunrise, or even completely change the color.  I love it, and now that I understand how to use it, I can see that I will be using it on a lot of images going forward.  It gives me the ability to apply new creative ideas to my photos with minimal effort and time consumed in the process.

Based on my mention of using split-toning in a few previous blog posts, I have actually heard from some people and there appears to be a bit of interest in this.  So I thought it would be helpful to write up a bit of a tutorial on using split toning in Lightroom.  Now, keep in mind that just like edits I make in other programs, my application of split toning in Lightroom varies for each image, so there’s not exactly a “standard workflow” to it, at least for me.  However, it’s pretty easy to figure out and use so it’s really just an issue of taking the time to experiment with each image and see what feels right. 

And that is the key thing with split toning: experiment!

Note that I use split toning as a "finishing touch" sort of option.  In other words, I still do edits in other programs first (such as Color Efex Pro used in examples below, or Perfect Effects, or Topaz Adjust), before I apply any split toning effect.  I feel an image will generally always need other edits to at least get me in the general area of where I want to go with the shot.  I don't think of or use split toning as a "stand alone" edit.  I really does end up being the last thing that I use on an image.

The split toning section of the Develop Module


The split toning section is basically two parts: highlights and shadows, with a balance slider between the two.  You use the Hue slider under Highlights to choose your color for the highlights, and then the Saturation slider under it to adjust the intensity of that color in the highlights.  Then you do the same with Shadows.  



While you can choose your Hue by moving the slider left and right, you can also just open up the color palette by clicking on the gray rectangle just to the right of the word Highlights (or Shadows).  This gives you basically any and every color to choose from.  Simple, right?  Also note that in the color palette screen, there is a slider at the bottom marked S, with a corresponding percentage scale.  This is a Saturation gauge.  After you choose a color with the dropper, you can slide this to the right to increase the saturation amount for the chosen color.  Super easy and straight forward!


The Balance slider sort of operates like a gauge - use it to adjust the intensity of the entire balanced split toning effect.  Well that’s not entirely accurate.  More specifically, the further to the right you go with Balance, the more the Highlights color will show, while moving the slider further to the left will show more of the Shadows color.  So as the name implies, use this slider to “balance” the intensity of the chosen effect between highlights and shadows.  Generally I leave this in the middle, but not always.

It's totally dependent on the image, like everything else in photography.  :-)

I do think it's important to experiment with the sliders quite a bit on each image.  Even after using it a lot lately, I still start out by just randomly moving things around.  Maybe I want the sky to be more blue, so I slide the Highlights slider into the blue range and experiment there.  Or maybe I want some intensity added to a sunset, so I do that. 

Usually this "messing around" with the sliders gives me a good feel for a direction I want to go in with the image, and I can tweak it from there.



Combining split-toning with software filters to completely change the look and mood of a photo

In my experimentation, I have found that when I combine split-toning with some common filters that I use in Nik Software Color Efex Pro, that I can completely change the look of a photo.  This is quite fun for me, as I have many photos that I have snapped somewhat at random on my travels, that are just sitting in my library ignored because I have deemed them “uninteresting”.  However, I find that you can increase the interestingness of a photo with split-toning.  Because it can result in dramatic color shifts, you can completely alter the mood in the photo.  Plus, it's just fun.

Here’s a prime example (click on any photo to view larger).  This photo below was taken on one of my trips to Amsterdam and was captured basically in the middle of the day, under not-so-good light (this is straight out of camera).  I take a lot of snaps like this when I travel.  That is, I fire off seemingly random shots of places, basically just because I like the look of the spot, and rarely have a plan in terms of actually using the photo.  I was just walking around the city in the daytime, and fired a few here and there.  It was fairly sunny outside, which as you know isn’t ideal for photography.  Too bright and nothing really to capture the viewer's interest.  Not sure why I took it, actually.  ;-)

(Photo info: single RAW file, f/13, 1/200 of a second, at 28mm, ISO 200 - shot with my Nikon D700 and the Nikon 28-300 zoom lens)

But with my new-found discovery and love of split-toning, I am learning that I can revisit these photos with a more artistic eye, with the intent that I can turn it into something that is possibly “useful” to me, artistically speaking. 

As you can see in the screenshots below, I applied filters generously in this case while in Color Efex Pro.  I normally use 3 or maybe 4 filters on an image, but in this case I went with 7 altogether!  Clearly, this liberal use of filters had a big impact on the photo.  In addition to shifting some of the color tones, I also darkened the sky a bit, applied a vignette and even used the Indian Summer filter (one of my favorites) to change the colors of the leaves on the trees.  So basically this photo went from a bright daytime shot to a moodier, darker shot that could possibly be mistaken for the Fall season.  But, I didn't feel like I was done with it yet.

a full screen view from color efex pro (click to enlarge)

here's a split screen to show before and after (click to enlarge)

this is the split toning panel for this image

this is the split toning panel for this image

This was where split toning came into play in this image.  Although I found the image more appealing after the filters were applied, it still felt a little boring and flat.  So that’s when I opted to try split toning.  I often find that I use split toning as my “last resort” option when nothing else I have done is feeling or looking very good to me.


After adding some color changes to the shadows and highlights via split toning (and a few tweaks in the Basic panel of the Develop Module, such as Temp, Tint and Clarity), I end up with this final result:

For me, when I compare it to the original, it has a much more ethereal feel, almost other worldly in a sense.  It's certainly moodier and much more appealing to me, at least artistically.  It also feels like an image straight out of Winter, or at least deep in the Fall season.  And it no longer looks like something taken in the middle of the day under harsh light.  It is almost the complete opposite of what I started with, which was exactly my intent here.  The original lacked anything of interest, really, so I wanted to see if I could create something that I found more interesting - and I did! 

Combining split-toning with software filters to enhance already beautiful light

Now here’s an example of using split toning with software filters to make less dramatic changes to an image.  Maybe you like what you have already, and just want a little bump in the tones, or a more gentle shift in the color or light.  Split toning can help, especially when coupled with edits done in other programs, such as Color Efex Pro.

I captured the below photo in Dublin while out wandering with my camera one morning (again, this is straight out of camera).  This is the Ha'Penny Bridge, stretching over the River Liffey.  It ended up being a pretty nice sunrise that morning, and while the photos from the walk were nice, they didn’t really show the actual beauty of the sunrise.  Actually, RAW files never do.  They need some contrast and other adjustments to more closely resemble what was actually present when you took the photo.  So this one looked pretty flat to me, and I wanted to bring it back closer to what I had seen that morning, because the light really was gorgeous.

(Photo info: single RAW file, f/1.8, 1/1000 of a second, at 15mm, ISO 200 - shot with my Olympus OMD EM-1 and the Panasonic/Leica 15mm prime lens)

Anyways, in this case I also ran them through Color Efex Pro and was able to bring out quite a bit more color and intensity in the photos, and historically I would have stopped there and called it quits, and been satisfied with the images.  But being in the midst of this new-found love with split-toning, I figured I may as well try them out and see what I can come up with.

a full screen view from color efex pro (click to enlarge)

here's a split screen to show before and after (click to enlarge)


So my next step was to click on the split-toning panel and give it a little more of a push.  While the photos didn’t really need it, I wanted to see what I could come up with, while staying in the realm of reality.  Sure, it’s easy to just move all the saturation sliders to the right and get a toxic level of color (and I have done that before!), but here I wanted a more subtle application of split-toning that would just enhance what was already present, but with increased vibrancy and impact.  I also did other minor tweaks to Clarity and Vibrance.  Here’s the final result:

Compared to the original, it is much more vibrant and intense, while staying true to the original scene.  I remember the colors being much more vivid than the RAW file shows, and thanks to split toning, I was able to bring that back.

More sample Before and After images

Below are more examples of images that I have adjusted using split toning.  On the left is the Before photo, and on the right is the After photo.  Some have undergone more dramatic changes than others, but that's what happens when I get all excited about working on a photo!  ;-)  

(Click any photo to enlarge, and yes these are all from Amsterdam as well.)

All were worked on in Color Efex Pro, just like the photos above in the tutorial, with final touch up done in Lightroom, with split toning used to help shift some of the final color tones.  In each case, I went for a darker and moodier sort of feeling, kind of like a "winter look".  I'm not sure "winter" is an actual look, but hopefully you know what I mean.  Obviously the amount of change you make to a photo can vary and you certainly don't have to do anything as intense as the changes I made in today's examples.  This was done more as an example of what is possible than a preferred method.  

Though I personally like these outcomes, I realize they may be "overdone" for some peoples tastes.  But I am not a photojournalist, so I am cool with the idea of completely changing the mood and creating art out of my photographs.  Anyways, I digress.

Well that’s it for the tutorial, folks.  This was just a quick look at split toning in Lightroom with a couple of examples of how I use it, and how I combine it with edits in other programs to enhance a scene.  Hopefully this answers any questions you may have, and hopefully it helps you get more familiar with split toning, too.  As I said above, it is very simple yet powerful - just take some time to experiment, and have fun out there!  Create something interesting!

Feel free to contact me with questions, or leave them in the comments below.  Thanks!  Feel free to share if you liked this, too!