How to Use Split Toning In Lightroom (in 4 Easy Steps)

split toning in lightroom

As a concept split toning has come into vogue in the modern era. Thanks to an overabundance of toning filters and whatnot on popular image sharing apps like Instagram. Today, we are going to discuss how to apply it using Lightroom so that we photographers can give our photos a distinct look and feel. Let’s jump right into it.

What is Split Toning?

The process of Split Toning is a creative technique that involves a slightly different approach to doing things than normal toning. It involves the use of two different colors in an image, as against one in normal toning, one for the highlights and the other for the shadows.

In other words, it involves injecting colors into your highlights and shadows to make them appear distinct from each other, or, depending on the look and feel that you want, a uniform tone across the whole image. The idea is to impart a split tone to an image.

Let’s quickly open Lightroom and take a look at how this adjustment is normally done.

split toning in portraits.

Split-tone in Lightroom (Workflow with the Old Version)

Older versions of Lightroom had this simple Split Toning option that was very simple to use. Not that the new upgraded Color Grading tool is difficult to understand. That is what I like about Lightroom. No matter what you try to do the learning curve is always short.

Here are the basic steps to split tone your images in Lightroom:

  • Step 1 – Open the image in Development Module

    This is self-explanatory. Just open the image in the Development module to begin the process of editing.

  • Step 2 – Complete the basic edits first

    The first set of edits needs to be done before you begin the process of split toning. These include lens profile correction, any exposure adjustment, removal of chromatic aberration, and so on.

  • Step 3 – Transform the image into Black and White

    Technically, you can still convert a color image and use split toning on that, but the technique tends to exaggerate the existing colors. Plus, you have very little control over the outcome.

    I would recommend that you convert your image into B&W beforehand. There are two ways to get a black and white image. You can either shoot in black and white, which would be the easiest thing to do, except that I don’t recommend it. The other option is to convert a color photo into black and white.

    This is surprisingly also an easy thing to do, and no I don’t want you to hit the Black & White treatment option. It is one way, but not my preferred way. Yes, I am a bit obsessed with doing things my way. My preferred way is to scroll down to the HSL/Color Tool and then drag the Saturation slider for each color to the left.

    hue saturation luminance slider
    Pull down the saturation sliders in HSL/Color panel to convert your image to B&W.

  • Step 4 – Use the split toning tool in Lightroom

    The old tool offered only a few options to play around with. Highlight Hue, Shadow Hue, Highlight & Shadow Saturation, and Balance. Choose a color that you prefer. This you can do by either clicking on the gray box on the top right. Clicking on that opens up a pop-up box and you can select whatever color you prefer to work with.

    Alternatively, you can choose a color by dragging the Hue slider. Once you have selected a color you can then go ahead and change the saturation for the colors you chose and fine-tuning the result.

Shortcomings of the Old Option

As you can see, these tools will only let you select a Hue for the shadow and highlights. The saturation slider only lets you give a stronger (or lighter) intensity to the tone you set for the highlights and the shadows.

It is the Hue control that will add the tone to your image based on how bright the pixels are in a particular area.

An important absence is the lack of an option to tweak the Midtones. This is something that I always missed. Midtones, for someone like me who is a portrait shooter, impacts the skin color and this is something that I have always missed when split toning my images.

Working with the Color Grading Option in Lightroom

color grading tool in lightroom.
The new color grading tool

As I dropped the hint above, if you are using the latest version of Lightroom Classic you will notice that the Split Toning tool has now been replaced by the Color Grading tool.

Color Grading is way more powerful and offers a lot of tweaking options than Split Toning could ever do. The approach remains the same, but you have more power to tweak your images.

Most importantly, color grading gives me control over the mid-tones, something that the original tool did not.

Workflow with the New Color Grading Tool

The process of split toning using Color Grading is very similar to using the old Split toning panel. Except, in this case, you have some additional tweaking options. I shall now discuss those options below.

Follow steps one through three mentioned above under ‘Workflow with the old tool’.

After the basic edits are done scroll down to the Split Toning / Color Grading tool. This option replaces the old split toning tool in Lightroom. It is located right under HSL / Color tool under the Development Module.

There are some important additions to the new option. You can now add a separate color to the Midtones, just as you could to the shadows and highlights. Alternatively, you can now impart a global change too. That means you can add one color that has an overall effect on the whole of the image.

split toning portrait image.
Process of split toning using the new color grading tool in Lightroom

Usually, global effects are best suited for a portrait photo, however, there are exceptions. With landscape, you can use both global and local effects.

A Short Intro to the Color Wheel

Here I would briefly introduce you to the concept of the Color Wheel and Complementary Color. The Color Wheel, according to Wikipedia, is an abstract illustrative organization of color hues around a circle. The colors directly opposite each other on that circle are known as complementary colors.

When you use complementary colors, it helps create the maximum contrast effect. Sometimes, that is a necessity. At other times you may choose a similar color. It all depends on the final look and feel that you are after.

complementary colors maximizes effect.
Choosing complementary colors for the maximum effect

Coming back to the image, I have chosen complementary colors to use for the highlights and the shadows to maximize the effect. You can adjust the Luminance levels according to your preference.

Split Toning and its Effect on Pure White and Pure Black

The result of split toning is most visible in the highlights and shadows. The pure white and the pure black areas of the images are not affected. So, if there is such an area in your photo, they will remain mostly unchanged.

Split Tone and the Hue Slider

Split toning can work with the Hue slider as well as the saturation slider under the Development module in Lightroom. But the result is not always as expected. You have to be careful when using both these tools at the same time.

This is especially relevant when you have made adjustments to the natural tone of color and then applied saturation or played around with the option.

Best Usage Case

Split toning works the best when you have a black and white image. If you don’t have a B&W image, you can pull down the Saturation sliders under the HSL/Color panel and convert your image into one. The next stage is to work with the Color Grading controls.

Closing Thoughts

Split toning is an interesting technique that allows you to apply and control the color tone of a photo. The best use case is when you are making portrait or landscape images and you want to achieve a particular look and feel to the images.

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