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What is Sepia?

The background that defines Sepia...

What is Sepia? In photographic terms, the word Sepia refers to the dark-brown color of a specially prepared photographic print.

Let me firstly dismiss one common misconception, and mention one thing Sepia is not. Many people think that when aging photos fade, and turn a red-brown color, this makes the image Sepia toned. This is incorrect.

Modern photographic prints do not suffer from such a severe discoloration effect over time, but if you take a photograph from 20-30 years ago, you will likely find that the color has faded. This can be due to the dyes used in the ink, or the way the photograph was processed.

Sepia images have their characteristic brown nature right from development, because of a chemical reaction that occurs during processing. They are actually more color-fast than normal color prints, and should not fade much over time.

To illustrate the difference between a faded photograph, and a Sepia one, I have pictured a comparison here. The original photograph is one from my family album.

Original Photo
Original Photo
The photo on the left is the original, shown how it looked just after being taken.

The photo directly below the original shows how the print looks these days. It has faded to a light red-brown color.

The photo on the right shows the image as it would appear if it had been Sepia toned during development.

Click on any of the images to see an enlarged version.

Old Photo
Old Photo

Sepia Photo
Sepia Photo

The Sepia effect is just as desirable nowadays as it always was, and more accessible techniques have been developed to give photographs this distinctive appearance. Originally the process involved adding a pigment made from the inky secretion of a Cuttlefish to the photograph during development, but other methods have since been devised using artificial toners.

For the scientifically inclined, the word ‘Sepia’ comes from the genus of Cephalopod, which is a group of creatures including the cuttlefish. This is also why it has a capital letter.

If an image is truly Sepia toned, (by a strict Sepia definition), it must technically be completely monochrome. This means that it only contain shades of brown, much like a black and white photograph only contains shades of gray.

The advent of personal computers and digital home photography has created a way for almost anyone to achieve Sepia image toning. Digital photos can be edited with programs like Photoshop and Photoshop Elements to give them a Sepia effect.

To find out more about digital Sepia toning, read my other articles on Photoshop Sepia.

In some ways this has redefined Sepia, by changing the ‘feel’ of images toned in this way. Whilst digital editing can create a similar effect, there are definite differences between a generated Sepia image and a developed photograph. Properties such as the contrast and balance of the image are rarely the same.

To illustrate this difference, compare the two images below. The left image is a real sepia print. The right image is that same picture, turned to a grayscale image, and then Sepia toned using Photoshop Elements.

Click on the images to see enlarged versions.

Real Sepia
Real Sepia

Generated Sepia
Generated Sepia

The difference is clear. This is just another instance in which computers give a much more ‘perfectly balanced’ result than traditional methods, but the output is almost ‘too perfect’, and appears unrealistic.

To define Sepia in short: A picture is Sepia toned if it is a monochrome image with a dark brown tint.

It is clear however that there is much more to this technique than originally meets the eye. To find out more, read my other articles on Sepia.

To learn how to reverse the fading effect found in aging photographs, read my articles on Restoring Photos.

Kind Regards

Robert Redwood Robert Redwood - Bio
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