Photography Knowledge 101: What the Hell is SEPIA?

Photo by Toni Camara - A perfect example of sepia with the iconic Eiffel tower shot

Ever clicked the sepia button on Aperture, Lightroom, or your favorite photo app and wondered, “What the hell is sepia?” I bet you have. It’s fascinating how many novice and seasoned photographers alike don’t know exactly what Sepia is. So I figured I’d give you all a little bit of cocktail party ammunition to impress your friends.

In short, sepia is more than that burnt color tone filter readily available in most photo editing programs.

Put simply, sepia is a form of photographic print toning – a tone added to a black and white photograph in the darkroom to “warm” up the tones (though since it is still a monochromatic image it is still considered black and white). Sepia began in earnest in the 1880s, partially to make photographs look better, but also because the chemicals involved in Sepia aided in slowing down the aging of a photograph. A preservative of sorts.

What the hell is this toner stuff? Sepia toners are chemicals that work to convert the traditional metallic silver in the print to a sulfide-based compound, which can be applied in varying degrees of intensity depending on how “warm” the desired effect of sepia is. There are a few different compounds that can create this effect. In addition to the color shift, these sulfide compounds act as better ‘shields’ of sorts than the traditional metallic silver, and prevents environmental pollutants from damaging the print, in many cases giving the print a 50% longer life.

So, summarily, sepia has both form and function. Sure it’s a button in your fav photo editor. But at its core, it is 130 year-old creative toning process with roots as both an artistic ‘color’ statement and an enhancer of the archival qualities of a printed photo to help a printed image deteriorate more slowly.

More info for photo geeks that want to go deeper, here on wikipedia.

67 Responses to Photography Knowledge 101: What the Hell is SEPIA?

  1. DPL March 3, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

    I had always assumed it originated with the ageing process in old pictures – they were originally printed black and white, and as the paper and chemicals ages they took on that brown tint in the same way that old paper browns slightly or that white plastics age to a cream.

    I stand corrected :)

  2. Dimitris March 3, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

    Oh master…you did it again!

  3. Chris Frosin March 3, 2012 at 12:06 pm #

    Film is making a come back … hopefully lots more people will know what this means soon.

    Lets all make a dark room. :)

  4. Rob Grey March 3, 2012 at 12:09 pm #

    And it stinks to high hell when you bleach the print before toning it. Whew.

  5. Michael March 3, 2012 at 1:13 pm #

    Very distracting halo effect around the Eiffel Tower (especially near the top of the picture). What causes something like that? Over sharpening? HDR?

    • rob March 6, 2012 at 12:08 pm #

      I noticed that as well. Looks like a contrast mask brushed in for a dramatic sky effect while trying to maintain detail in the tower.

    • steveh July 16, 2012 at 3:08 pm #

      I found that over use of the clarity adjustment causes this problem.

  6. Bruce March 3, 2012 at 1:14 pm #

    Funny, in my high school photography class, we actually did sepia in the lab. That would be when we processed the b & w film, used the enlarger, chemicals etc. Man am I old!

  7. KG March 3, 2012 at 1:22 pm #

    It works very well in some cases, it really depends. I think it works well for certain portraits. I don’t think it worls for the image above.

  8. Ro Garita Costa Rica March 3, 2012 at 2:12 pm #

    Yo aun utilizo Film y este proceso se logra dentro del proceso de positivado, se utilizan químicos para virar la imagen, se puede utilizar selenio para lograr diferentes acabados monocromáticos! Y si; FILM IS COMING BACK!!!

  9. FrancoisM March 3, 2012 at 2:51 pm #

    Back in the days, I sometimes gave an Ilford XP2 film (B&W film) to be devlepped using C41 chemicals (Color processing). The pictures came out with a nice sepia effect :)

    • LB Hammond March 10, 2012 at 12:00 am #

      its all about the Ilford fiber base papers.

  10. chomiliert March 3, 2012 at 4:29 pm #

    an answer to a question that i was not even asking myself, this is just extremely useful information.
    thank you

  11. JT March 3, 2012 at 5:59 pm #

    I can’t say I’d ever wondered, but now I know I am glad.
    Now I just need a cocktail party…

  12. Andy March 4, 2012 at 11:12 pm #

    Lucky old cuttlefish that these days you can push a button and use a digital one instead of a real one!

  13. Daf March 5, 2012 at 5:24 am #

    Such a coincidence you mention this now – only learnt about the origin of the word / cuttlefish connection last week after it was mentioned on a nature program.

  14. Darren Hector March 5, 2012 at 11:55 pm #

    Nice post Chase, but you forgot the fascinating fact that originally, before it was produced chemically, the ink used to make sepia prints was taken from cuttlefish. Sepia is the scientific name for cuttlefish – hence it was the name given to the process.

    A while back I posted a cheeky visual representation on my blog

    • rbtrrnss July 16, 2012 at 5:18 pm #

      i also wanted to point this out, thanks for doing so

  15. Oliver March 7, 2012 at 6:55 pm #

    I’m struggling to see the merit in this post. You take some great photos, Chase, but this post I am really struggling with. The photograph really is terrible. I don’t know why it’s here, what point it’s trying to serve. I know it’s not your photograph, but perhaps you could have chosen something that gave sepia some merit, perhaps even a genuine sepia film photograph?

    I just feel like you’re becoming more of a ‘blogger’ and much less of a photographer, posting for the sake of posting. It’s disappointing!

    I’d love to read more about the practical side of being a photographer: what goes on during your shoots (I know you do post these things), how to set up for certain projects etc. That gets me excited, that inspires me (and many others). I don’t know that this does…

  16. Steve W March 13, 2012 at 5:21 am #

    I understand the merit of using sepia perhaps during earlier days of photography to preserve the originals a bit longer. But, I am often at a loss to explain why sepia type color tones are still used in photography. Too often have I seen it used carelessly in photographs where it seems to serve no purpose. Is it used simply to evoke a feeling of nostalgia? In order to imitate an older style? Perhaps in something like advertisements, sepia may have its uses, but today I find it campy and overused in serious photography.

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    Very well explained!, Through certain chemical is sepia with analog photography, congratulations on the support, greetings.

  19. Dustin Critcher July 16, 2012 at 6:46 pm #

    WOO! I’m so glad I knew this one already. Which is crazy cause I’m just a photographer of five years, being 20 myself.

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