Sepia Toning – A Milestone in Early Photography

The first documented attempt to capture a camera image came about right at the turn of the 19th century but it was not until the 1820’s that success was actually achieved. The result of these early photographic endeavors were crude and the process was timely, taking several days to process. They were a triumph in early photography none the less and by 1839 advances were such that the photographic process was reduced to only minutes. This was the birth of modern photography.

For the next decade or so, monochrome (black and white) photography flourished as photography studies began to appear across American and Europe, but it was not until the mid-1850’s that a major advance in the quality of these early monochromes came to be. While not necessarily new, a gentleman named Hamilton Smith improved enough on photo toning that he was able to patent his process. Many consider this to be the epoch of photographic toning.

The Evolution of Sepia Photography

Early photographs, or positive prints as they were called at the time, were developed primarily with the use of silver nitrate. The result was an image produced in varying shades of black which was more commonly referred to as monochrome photographs. Today we call them black and whites or greyscales.

Wedding photography in sepia. Photo by Boston Public Library on Unsplash.

The ability to capture and quickly produce these early monochrome images was unquestionably a major milestone in early photography but anyone who has viewed these early black and whites themselves would attest to a coldness of the subject and subject matter which this early process created. The absence of color in these early photographs resulted in a stark and unpleasing image, eerie and seemingly void of emotion. These early black and whites were also chemically unstable which caused them to fade quickly and even disappear if left to their own devices.

With the fundamental process of capturing a photographic image overcome, the next challenge for the early picture pioneer was to make photographs more durable. And so the quest to conquer this challenges ensued.

Hamilton Smith’s patented process of photo toning put those early picture pioneers back to work experimenting with a variety of different toners. There were a number of successes but it was not until the use of pigment from the ink sac of the common cuttlefish that a great discovery was made. Through chemical conversion, the silver nitrate that was used and was causing the instability in early photographs, was replaced by a sulfide of which the pigment from the cuttlefish is comprised. Not only did this change significantly increase the durability of the photograph but the resulting dark brown tone from the pigment made the photograph far more pleasing to the eye, a result which came quite by accident. Gone now was the cold, dark and eerie feeling formerly captured by the photographer, the same subject matter now seeming more vibrant and alive.

This new method, referred to as sepia-toning, became a staple for photograph developing from the 1860’s until the 1920’s. However, by 1930 sepia-toning had all but been replaced by the next generation of photo development technology.

The Origin of its Name

From the family of cephalopods in the order of Sepiida, the common cuttlefish, scientifically knows as Sepia Officinalis, is in the genus of Sepia which is the same family of mollusks as octopus and squid.

The word Sepia itself is of Greek origin and dates back to the Greco-Roman civilization where they extracted the rich brown pigment from ink sac of the common cuttlefish and used it as writing ink. The practice carried on through to the 19th century.

From its Greek origins, the word for cuttlefish was later Latinized to sēpia as it remains today and as well as meaning cuttlefish, it has also been adopted as the term that describes the brown pigment produced by the cuttlefish.

Early Sepia Toning

Sepia-toning arrived in American just in time for the Civil War which was captured in vivid detail by such photographers as Mathew Brady and others. This was the first major conflict of any type to actually be captured on camera. Had these early photographers still been resigned to the old black and white monochromes, the portraits of the men and women taken during the Civil War period would likely tell a very different and much more haunting story.

Another great example of early sepia-toning are the photographs taken by Julia Margaret Cameron. After receiving a camera as a birthday gift from her daughter, this British born woman in her late 40s quickly grew a passion for photography. Unlike others who were recognized as professional photographer of the time, for Julia photography was just a hobby. However, the ardor she possessed for her new found craft and her natural ability to pick and capture the best of her subject matter resulted in some of the most recognized sepia-toned photographs of the time. Examples of her photography are often display in museums and galleries such as those which are on permanent display at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California.

Sepia toning in photography is still popular. Photo by Ailbhe Flynn on Unsplash.

Sepia in Modern Photography

Despite the ways of old in photograph development being largely replaced by the advent of the digital camera in the 1990’s, sepia-toning still remains popular with both amateur and professional photographers alike, whose wish it is to continue to capture that vintage look and feel of early sepia photography. Some ardent photographers who remain true to the craft still capture and develop photos just as has been done for over 100 years, manipulating the developing process to achieve the desired results of the image they captured.

For those who prefer the 21st century approach, similar results can be achieved through the many advances in digital photography. Modern day digital cameras are equipped with software features that mimic sepia-toning as well as today’s photographers have the ability to alter the tone of the digital images they capture using computer software right from the comfort of their home or studio.