Using Warm Tones Sparingly

What is photojournalism if not a multifaceted testament to truth? Although the truth may not always be pretty, the intrepid photojournalist holds his camera up to it. He captures what is real and human and honest. His work stands as a testimony to those moments that define us and define the world around us. He photographs the truth when it is difficult to look at and impossible to look away from; when it’s breathtakingly beautiful; and when it makes one feel connected to the world in a very personal way. The truth may take on different shades, but it never changes.

The same holds true for wedding photojournalists—they are inspired by the setting, the subjects, and the outpouring of different emotions throughout the day. The product of their inspiration is clearly seen in their wedding images. With the right lighting, clever compositions, and appropriate usage of computer programs available, wedding photojournalists’ artistic vision is more readily achieved.

Though based on the proliferation of wedding images that have been given a warm tone (or a brownish tint), it seems a handful of wedding photojournalists have become trigger-happy with tinting their work. Over the past ten years, images with a warm tone have become ubiquitous. The tipping point has been reached. In this ‘digital revolution’ era, it seems as though everyone is adding a warm tint to their wedding photographs.

A number of questions should be asked before you click your mouse and instantly change a photograph’s color scheme to the monochromatic brown. First, let’s look at a popular toning technique and ask: Why Sepia?


Sepia tone is associated with a bygone time. It was used from the late 1800s to the early 1900s for the sake of preservation. A number of photographs taken then and preserved with the pigment from the Sepia cuttlefish are still around today. Over time, we began to connote brown-color-schemed pictures with that period of yore.

For many years, the only sepia toned pictures that were seen were from that era. Then, approximately thirty years ago, photography studios made to look like they’d been plucked out of the Old West popped up in tourist towns throughout America. The photographers therein used sepia tone mainly because it was associated with that period and place in time. These studios have been immortalized in Hollywood films, and they’re generally seen as a part of America’s pop culture history.

Notwithstanding those quirky, faux Western photos, pictures that are given the sepia tone are instilled with a sense of age. They communicate nostalgia and with it a simpler, sweeter time.


Adobe Photoshop—it is many a photojournalist’s best friend. Where would warm tones or filters for that matter be without it? They would be left to the overworked camera. Photoshop has evolved from a relatively small program that hit the market in 1990 to what it is now: a massive, multifaceted, wildly diverse one. It’s able to incorporate multiple external programs, allowing for documents more suited to the Web platform. And with its many dozens of filters, it can completely alter an image, creating anything from a dramatic effect to a subtle one. For some photographers, using the filters can become automatic, like adding salt to a dish to enhance its flavor. It’s easy to give warm tones to images with the use of filters, by adjusting the color balance, and by converting images to a sepia tone.

With the wide range of filters available on Photoshop, the line between what is and is not a warm-toned photograph has become blurry. There are a multitude of actions within the program that you can take, creating the allusion that your path towards nostalgia is your own. In general, you will have converted the image to a duo-tone, then to one of the many different beige tones and then to one of the dozens of browns. Though regardless of how you get there, when the result is an image coated in warm tones, it is a sepia-toned image.


Weddings wrapped in tradition, are an appropriate subject matter to color in tidings of yesteryear. When warm tones are added to a wedding photo, instantly it has that romantic, old-time feel. If the bride is the subject, the shades of brown may give her a distinction and demureness that she would not otherwise have. It can also give a photograph a sense of longevity. And that is an appropriate theme to give the union, which is sealed with “until death do us part.” Warm tones communicate wedding is not only about the here and now; it is forever. These are all good things for a photograph to convey.

One important consideration would be that the elements in the photograph, such as hair and clothing styles, architecture, or transportation vehicles lend themselves to the retro-look sepia offers. The use of warm tones can be more successful if your image has one of these elements present.

When brown tones are added to one wedding photo after another (within the same portfolio), the effect is overdone and their impact may be weakened. What had once stood out and was admired can be lost in a sea of brownish hues; and the technique that had seemed original and artistic loses its lore. The strength of the subject matter, the composition and the lighting becomes diminished when overwhelmed by the brown.

When deciding whether or not to give a photograph a warm tone, first ask yourself the following questions: What does it add to the picture? It should fit into the portfolio of the entire wedding. Going through the pictures one at a time, each one should pop out at you. Like every other image that you present to the B&G, the image colored with sepia tone should make you stop and admire it.


While color photographs capture the numerous vibrant colors throughout the festive day, black and white pictures represent what is timeless, classic, dramatic…and even romantic.

The basics, black-and-white and color photographs are diverse enough to cover the spectrum of settings, emotions and subjects within the wedding context. If you feel obliged to tone your photographs ask yourself why. Is it to instantly create an old-time feel? If so, consider that the same can be accomplished with black and white.


If you feel that tinting your photographs will add artistic value to your portfolio, proceed with wand in hand. But use discretion and try not to lose sight of the big picture, that is your work as a whole. When used in moderation, post-production techniques can produce wonderful results; though when overdone they can prove disastrous. A small percentage of tinted, even sepia toned pictures is appropriate; however, the majority of wedding photojournalists’ portfolios should be comprised of black-and-white and color images.

When putting together your portfolio, there should be a design to everything you do. No decision in photography should ever be made without asking, “What is the reason for this?” If there is no reason, or the reason is not a good one, there is no need to do it. If you include photographs in which their coloring has been altered, again you must ask yourself, “Why?” Does it add to the overall aesthetic of the portfolio?

Wedding photojournalism is about capturing the truth of a moment, as well as creating a beautiful aesthetic. It is a fine line to walk, and to do so, there must be balance. Leaning too far towards one color scheme can throw off even the most talented photographers, as well as their clients. When you find that balance, each individual photograph is seen, appreciated and absorbed.

—by Lauren Ragland for the Wedding Photojournalist Association