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What Is Sepia: Exploring Its Past And Present

When you think of old photos, you’ll likely imagine images of people in black-and-white or a warm brown hue. Contrary to popular belief, black-and-white portraits don’t turn brown as they age. The brown color on these photographs is the result of a process called sepia toning. But what color is sepia, exactly?

In this article, we’ll uncover the origins of sepia – and how you can apply this nostalgic color in your modern pictures. But if you’ve recently found an album filled with pictures taken in sepia tones and need them restored, Image Restoration Center should be your first choice.

The Color Sepia In Early Photography

The word sepia is derived from the Greek and Latin names of the common cuttlefish. Ancient Greek philosophers and artists were the first to utilize the ink-like secretion from cuttlefish in their works. In addition to referring to the marine animal, the word sepia also became the name of this brown color. 

One of the most notable pre-photography uses of this fluid can be seen in the sketches and notes of legendary artist Leonardo da Vinci, which always featured this reddish-brown pigment. Sepia color in painting and drawing was also used by German artist Jacob Seydelmann in the 18th century.

The origins of sepia color and toning procedures in photography are somewhat murky – no one is certain who exactly invented the process. People in the 19th century tried different toners ranging from gold chloride to copper to make photographs last longer, but none of them worked well. Some would result in strange colors, while some would ruin the images outright.

It was during this time that cuttlefish ink came out as the winner. Sepia toner provided sulfuric compounds that changed the metallic silver in a photograph into a sturdier version called silver sulfide. This change made early photographs 50% more resistant to pollutants. The rose-brown colors sepia-toned pictures took on also made them look more beautiful. 

British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron turned sepia color from a simple preservation method into an art form. She made use of soft focus and lighting, combining them with a sepia tone – this is how sepia is used even today

The sepia color palette also helps soften the horrors of war. Photographers during the American Civil War often applied sepia color if they wanted their photographs from the battlefield to be more palatable to their print audiences.

Sepia color toning was the preferred method for developing portraits until the 1920s. In the 1930s, new photographic techniques and developments in color photography made the sepia photograph obsolete.

Sepia Color In Modern Times

Despite its decline in the early 20th century, sepia colors are far from dead. Even today, sepia color is the go-to choice to inject a dreamlike or vintage expression into photographs. While using cuttlefish ink to tone and color pictures has fallen out of fashion, the color is now recreated with artificial dyes and digital filters. 

Nowadays, modern photographers have come up with a method to recreate sepia color and toning procedures with chemicals. They wash bleached pictures in artificial sepia fluids until it shows the same brown color as the old pictures. These days, we even have different types of sepia colors, ranging from soft pastel browns to the richest brown color.

The warm brown color of sepia is so tied to the past that people invoke it on purpose. In Wild West and Civil War reenactments, people come to dress up in Old West costumes and take portraits in sepia color. Many couples request sepia-toned pictures as part of their wedding album alongside color pictures for a vintage feel. Even old sepia print photographs from their heyday are brought back to life with the latest in image editing technology. 

Sepia color also isn’t just used in photography – the medium of film has also had a long history of using the color to evoke certain feelings. One of the most famous examples can be seen in The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy’s Kansas scenes are shot in sepia color to give it a down-home, old-school feel compared to the vibrant color grading used in the Land of Oz.

Applying Sepia Colors To Your Pictures

Nowadays, you don’t need to print photos and develop them to get a sepia color. You can easily apply sepia colors to your image digitally! Here are three ways how:

Image Editing Software

Different photo editing software has different ways to create the color. However, we’ll use Photoshop as the main reference since it’s the most popular editing software on the market. 

To apply a sepia tone to your images:

  1. Create a black-and-white adjustment layer on top of your photo.
  2. Make another adjustment layer on top of your first layer, then select the Warming Filter option.
  3. Select Preserve Luminosity and move the filter’s slider to 50%. You can also adjust the sepia tone’s warmth as desired with the slider. 
  4. Once you’re satisfied with the sepia color, flatten the image and save your photo.

Smartphone Apps

There are dozens of apps that allow you to apply a sepia tone to smartphone pictures. All you need to do is download it and use the menu provided. Most of these apps provide a simple way to apply the color – just tap, and voila!

Digital Cameras

Some digital cameras provide sepia color filters as a built-in feature. If your camera happens to support this feature, all you need to do is activate it! After that, you can inject a vintage feel into all your subsequent shots.

How To Restore Old Sepia-Tone Photos

While sepia color procedures give pictures extra protection against the elements, it doesn’t mean they’re immune to time. Sepia photographs that are decades – or even centuries – old will succumb to time and fade away eventually. This could pose a problem if you’re looking to display them again at home. 

Fortunately, Image Restoration Center is here to help! With our team of Photoshop wizards and history experts, we can restore your old family pictures to the way they were before.

In the old days, the color sepia in photographs came from a popular preservation method. Nowadays, sepia is a color often used to give a vintage feel to photos and movies. While it was born out of necessity, the color ended up staying for its aesthetic appeal that transcended generations. 

If you’re planning to restore old sepia photos of your family, Image Restoration Center is more than happy to help.

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