How To Process A Custom Sepia Effect In Photoshop

Updated: Jan 25

Street photography and post-processing tutorial by Craig Boehman.


UPDATE: January 24, 2021. I have since refined the below process to produce even better results, in my opinion. If you've come across this post from my social media or by exploration, consider reading this post instead: My Sepia Effect Refined

The past couple of weeks of renewed shooting in Mumbai has convinced me to take a different turn in my street photography post-processing. Earlier, I had come out of the sepia closet and admitted that I preferred the overall look of sepia to straight-up black-and-white images. Read more: It's High Time I Confess My Love For Sepia


After further experimenting, I'm still convinced of my love for sepia. In fact, I developed a method to create a custom sepia effect in Photoshop. The great thing about the method is that it's non-destructive and can therefore be re-worked at any time. I'll share how to do it below.


But first, here are some of my shots from the past few days.



Why Did I Create My Own Custom Method for Sepia?


I came up with this method because I wanted to create a streamlined way to produce sepia images that were tailor-fit to each image. I try to avoid global, one-size-fits-all filters and effects whenever I can. That ruled out ever relying on any filter called "sepia" to process any of my images. After all, if I went through the work of shooting a street image and decided to process it because it was worthy, why would I let somebody else determine how my sepia images should appear?


Post-processing to me is a privilege. I despise the idea of shortcuts and half-assed "presets" that name photographers like to peddle to their fanboys. I believe serious photographers should develop their own presets and their own methods for post-production when they reach that stage in their photography journey. But that's just me. I couldn't care less what the rest of the photographers actually do, I'm just throwing my own two cents into the ring, as I'm quite accustomed to doing!



Why am I Sharing?


At this point you may be asking, why would you want to share your formula? And to wit, wouldn't you want to carefully guard your own trade secrets to prevent other photographers from making pictures that look like yours?


These aren't my concerns if I'm to be perfectly honest. I believe that most information garnered by the photographer should be free, especially if the information comes in the form of ideas, concepts, or methods.


For example, for my street photography workshops, I make the details of my itineraries known in advance. You don't even have to book me to show you around - I walk you through where to go and how to go about it. You can come to Mumbai and do it all yourself. Case in point: My Mumbai Street Photography Workshop


My reasons for this are: 1) I can save time if I'm asked about post-processing. I can simply share the link with someone.


2) I had an experience when I was looking for photo tours in Mumbai where on two separate occasions when the tour guides refused to give any details whatsoever about their itineraries. I thought this was a really shitty thing to do. Why should this kind of information be guarded? Knowledge shouldn't be hoarded by Photo Golems who guard their "Precious" like the pathetic little weasels that they inadvertently portray themselves as whenever they play their Insecurity Cards. I loathe this kind of behavior and I never want to be associated with it by denying someone basic knowledge.



How to Create a Custom Sepia Effect in Photoshop


I'll break it down for you. It's quite easy. It's all about a few adjustment layers and a color lookup table (lut).


Step 1: After your image is fully edited in Photoshop, create a Black & White adjustment layer and tune the sliders to your liking. Your main sliders will likely be the Reds and Yellows. Make sure the skin tones are bright enough.

Step 2: Create a Color Lookup adjustment. Then select Edgy Amber. You'll probably want to reduce the opacity down to around 60% or so, which is what I usually do.

Step 3. Create another Black & White adjustment layer. Adjust the Red and Yellow sliders once again because the Edgy Amber effect will have darkened them. Then adjust the opacity to dial in the right amount of sepia. I'm usually anywhere from 45% to 65%. It largely depends on the lighting conditions and how much of the effect you want to re-introduce.

Step 4: Create a Curves adjustment layer. But instead of adjusting the curve itself, Alt-Click the Auto option. This will bring up another menu box. There are usually only two options out of the four I pay attention to, and that's either the Enhance Brightness and Contrast or the Enhance Monochromatic Contrast options. Try them all though and see which one works the best. But you will find that Find Dark & Light Colors may remove your sepia effect entirely.


That's basically it for most of my sepia images. But there are a few images where I must continue on in the editing and maybe create a Color Balance adjustment or even a Camera Raw filter to adjust lighting effects. The image will always dictate what you must do next.



Another thing you may want to do is create a Group and lump all your sepia adjustments together as I've done with this image. It makes it easier if you must carry on to edit further.


If you have any questions about my sepia method, feel free to contact me.



Learn More About My Photoshop techniques at MakeUseOf.com


I'm currently contributing articles to Make Use Of covering Photoshop editing and other post-processing tips. Also, if you're looking for one-on-one training, I'm offering Photoshop Mentoring too.

Follow along:

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