The History of Sepia Photography

By Sabrina Ehlert ; Updated September 15, 2017
Sepia is known for its rich brown tints.

A sepia photograph is a black and white image that has a warm brown tint. Sepia tints can make a photograph look older, and they are popular in contemporary photography.

Introduction of Sepia in Photos

Sepia pigment was originally made from sepia cuttlefish

Sepia pigment was originally made from sepia cuttlefish, and used to treat photographs. Sepia-treated prints are more durable and designed to last longer. During the developing of the print, sepia pigment would be added and it would turn any remaining silver in the print into a sulfide.

Longevity of Sepia Prints

Many of the photographs and portraits done in the 1700s were treated with sepia during the development process. The brown tints to the photographs are byproducts of sepia treatment. Black and white prints not treated by sepia were not as durable and did not last as long as sepia-treated prints.

Using Sepia Tones

The warm brown tints associated with sepia photography give pictures a classic, old-fashioned feel. Sepia tones can be romantic and are often used in wedding photography. Adding a sepia tone to a black and white photograph softens the image, giving it a warm, dreamy feeling.

Treating Photos with Sepia

Photographers who shoot with film can have their black and white images treated with sepia. Not all photographers have their own darkroom and therefore have to find a professional photo developing shop. Sepia tone development can be expensive, and for many photographers, it is more cost effective to find alternative, computerized methods of adding sepia tones.

Digital Sepia Toning

Most computer imaging software offers ways of adding sepia tones to an image. However, all that is being added to the photograph are the brown hues associated with sepia tone; the final image will not have the longevity associated with sepia-treated prints.

Evolution of Sepia Photography

Adding sepia to prints was originally a process to help make the photographs more durable. The brown tint was a byproduct of the treatment and over the years has been associated with the sepia type of photography. Modern digital technology can create sepia-colored prints without the sepia treatment during processing. Sepia prints can still be created in darkrooms by processing black and white prints with sepia, but the digital method is much easier and less expensive than traditional sepia processing and preferred by many photographers.

About the Author

Sabrina Ehlert has been a writer and blogger for more than five years. She has been published in Longmont's Daily Times-Call on a number of occasions.