Photography, Cycling and the Internets

Using Split Toning to Create that Old Dreamy Look

Mike Hewitt asked me how, in my post A Model Spring I achieved the surreal, dreamy look.  I thought I’d take the time to share.

A Model Spring

End Result

Obviously we need some place to start.  I didn’t take this shot with the intention of this result.  This was actually a part of some test shots to setup the camera settings for another shot that I have not yet posted.  I liked how this test shot looked and  when seeing the photo, it screamed out to have this type of treatment.

I only used Lightroom 3 beta for the processing.  (The beta is free right now if you want to download it from Adobe and try it).

Lets start with the original:


To set the stage for the look I was after, I first had to crop the image to offset the focus to the right 2/3rds.

Next, it is time to start simulating old film and an inexpensive camera. For this step I did the following:

  • Cooled down the white balance
  • Overexposed the entire image
  • Lowered the brightness slightly
  • Lowered the contrast
  • Slightly desaturated the image.

As-Shot Settings

Adjusted Settings

The resulting image from those steps looked like this:

Color Balance, Saturation, Exposure Adjustment

The adjustments above just make things look like an overexposed image.  There is still work to be done.  Next, lets attack the tone curve.

Tone Curve Adjustments

The highlights here are a bit harsh since this is overexposed so I pulled them down a bit.  I pushed the lights forward more to strengthen the look.  I lightened the darks and strengthened the shadows.  This helps to further wash things out.

After Tone Curves

We’re still not there.  Now we’re at a washed out image that looks like it needs adjusting.  Split toning will make a big jump into the feel of the final image.  It’s also a fun step to mess around with.  Split toning helps to tint the highlights and shadows separately.  This is great for correcting shadow blues or for making things look aged.  Lets do that now.

Split Toning

I wanted to really warm the highlights and cool the shadows in this photo.  For this I picked one of the warm colors that Lightroom offers, which in this case is Hue 52.  After choosing the color, some adjustment of the saturation is necessary to get just the right feel.

The same is true of the shadows.  Again, I went for a very cool color to achieve the look and I adjusted the saturation until I was happy.

Playing with the split toning can drastically change the mood of the image.  It is always fun to play with, but it’s also very easy to get carried away.  Occasionally when I look at my final image here, I feel like its overdone.

Split Toning with Highlight Adjustment

Split Toning with Highlights and Shadows Adjustment

Add Cyan Chromatic Aberration

We’re starting to look old now. Lets degrade the quality a bit and make it look like we have a cheap lens. Lets add some cyan chromatic aberration.

Chromatic Aberration Added

Adding Post-Crop Vignette

Almost there.  A little vignetting effect to round out the camera look.  First set up the amount of vignetting.  Then make it look a bit more natural by switching from highlight priority to color priority.

Next, to finish the film look, I added film grain.  This helps to complete the overall look.

Vignetting Added - Highlight Priority

Vignetting Added - Color Priority

Film Grain Added

Now, for the last touch up.  The hair is a bit hot after all the treatment.  So I went in to touch it up just a bit and touch down the exposure.

Use brush tool to drop exposure

Use brush tool to reduce exposure

That’s it. Here is the final result again:

A Model Spring

End Result

I’m still experimenting with all this myself.  If you have any tips for me or others, please share.  I’d love to hear your stories on this.



10 responses

  1. Thanks for the step-by-step.
    I’ve heard a lot of good things about Lightroom, but have never tried it. Is the beta free, or just a free time-limited trial?

    May 1, 2010 at 6:37 am

    • Lightroom is great. The beta is free during the beta period. It is an easily justified purchase for me once beta is done. It makes management and development far easier than Photoshop. Of course, more intricate adjustments still need Photoshop.

      May 1, 2010 at 9:25 am

  2. Wow, thanks Sean. I’ll have to digest this a bit because I’ve never experimented with some of the tweaks you did. I’ve done tone mapping before but never split toning. Thanks for sharing your process.

    May 1, 2010 at 8:26 am

    • No problem. It was fun to share. I hope you post some of your experiments.

      May 1, 2010 at 9:28 am

  3. Thanks for sharing this tip. I use Adobe Lightroom 2. I really like it a lot because it really does make post processing a lot quicker. You spend more time on the field than at home but for me as a Mom, I like it because I have Mom duties that I need to tend to so, it does help give me balance;)

    May 1, 2010 at 11:15 am

    • I hear ya. I tend not to do too much that involves lots of processing time since I can’t spend all day on photos. (I would if I could. 🙂 )

      May 1, 2010 at 9:03 pm

  4. I would have NEVER guessed the original image is where you began. You really have artistic vision, Sean! I very much appreciate your step-by-step as, altho I’ve heard the term ‘split-toning’ before, I’ve never quite had it explained in such a manner that my brain can comprehend – thanks! I think your efforts were well worth it and you definitely achieved the ‘nostalgic, old-photo feel’ ! 🙂

    May 2, 2010 at 6:02 am

  5. Now I’m curious, was the original closer to the final in your mind? I’m glad the walkthrough was useful! It took far more time to put together than I thought, but I may do more occasionally.

    May 2, 2010 at 9:45 am

    • You lost me, Sean (was this question for me?)

      All I was saying is you had the vision to take the original shot to a whole new level. It is rare I see the potential in my own shots. If they aren’t immediately ‘something’ out of the camera, then they typicaly get trashed. Sometimes I do have the forethought to play with an image (or rather, the time and patience) and occasionally it pays off. Othertimes, eh, not so much! 🙂

      May 2, 2010 at 9:54 am

      • Ah, yes that was at you, I often forget to click “reply”.

        I tend to delete 90% of what I take, but if the composition is good, or if I think it was ‘supposed to be good’ I’ll allow it to linger around. This has proven useful when I can’t get out shooting. I have new challenges. Of course, not all of them work well.

        May 2, 2010 at 11:50 am

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