Leica M Duochrome? Split Tone in Venice by David Nash

Leica M Duochrome? – Split Tone in Venice

David Nash, September 2012


Leica M9, 28 mm Elmarit

Recently I’ve been playing around with split-tone processing in Lightroom as an alternative to black & white, and also reading the publicity around the Leica M Monochrome. That inspired me to write this short article on my “Duochrome” take on Leica M photography – split-tone Venice images all taken with an M9. I’ve also included tips on optimising images for split tone conversion and customizing Lightroom split tone presets to give you full control over the look of the final image.

For those not familiar with split tone images, think of them simply as black and white images with highlights tinted one colour and shadows tinted another colour. Split tone technique dates back to the days of film – but now of course can be simulated quickly and easily in the Lightroom Develop module. (Or by using Photoshop etc.)

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I’ve been taking photos in Venice on and off for decades. I love the quality of the light, the reflections and the endlessly varied – and mostly crumbling – architecture. And a huge plus for photography – no cars!! The downside of course is that it’s really hard to take photos that are not hackneyed. Using black & white is one way of avoiding the obvious travel shots, but for Venice I do find that black & white images can often lose a bit of atmosphere – particularly with daylight shots. I’ve tried sepia presets in Lightroom but to my taste the results often look a bit too nostalgic. Enter split tone. To me, split tone images combine the attractions of black and white (emphasis on composition, tone, textures etc.) with a wider expressive range. This seems to better suit the atmosphere of Venice, particularly when using cold (bluish) tints for the shadows contrasting with warm (orangeish) tones for the highlights.

M9, 50mm Summicron

As ever, a computer screen will never have the look and tonal subtlety of a good print. I find these shots print particularly well on A3+ Harmann Matt Baryta paper – preferably using a printer that has extra grey tones like the Epson 3800.

M9, Zeiss 35mm Biogon 2.8


Lightroom Split Tone tips and techniques: Key steps (further detail below)

• Choose a suitable image: split tone doesn’t work well for everything

• Optimise the image (particularly its tone range) before conversion

• Choose one of the split tone presets as starting point (you’ll find them towards the bottom of the “Presets” list on the left pane of the Develop Module)

• Customise the preset using Lightroom’s Split Toning sliders (located below the Colour/B&W mixer panel on the right pane)

• Fine tune the result by revisiting the other tools – particularly tone (highlights, shadows, curves etc. and/or grad filter effects) and local contrast (clarity)

M9, Zeiss Biogon 35mm 2.8

Choosing a suitable image/optimisation

M9, 28mm Elmarit 2.8

Photos that work in black & white are good candidates split tone, with the one qualification that for split tone you need a full tonal range to start with – otherwise you will lose much of one of the 2 tint colours. Areas of smooth tonal transitions from lighter to darker look great – particularly if they change from one tint to the other (see detailed example below). For the shot above I increased highlights and darkened the sky (using the blue luminance slider) before converting. This increased the overall tonal range and made the right of centre sunlit building and its reflection stand out more.

Split Tone Conversion

Which 2 colours?

Your first decision is which colour to use for the highlight tint and which to use for the shadow tint. These can be any two colours, but the general view is that “opposite” colours work best – e.g. red and green, blue and orange, yellow and purple. Generally I prefer the cold bluish shadows setting off warm highlights that are the basis of the Lightroom Split Tone 1 preset. This is the preset I used as a starting point for all the images in this article

Cannaregio Canal, M9, Zeiss 35mm Biogon 2.8

Customizing presets: color and/or saturation

Split toning adjustments start with separately optimising colour and/or saturation for Highlights and Shadows. Colour optimisation uses the Hue sliders – personally I tend to leave them where they are for Split Tone 1 preset. Saturation controls how blue the shadows are and how warm the highlights are. Subtlety is the best approach. For some images you might wish to leave the blue shadows but set the highlights nearer white by reducing the highlight saturation.

A key difference between the 2 shots above is the highlight saturation slider settings. The left hand example uses the saturation preset – for the right I’ve considerably reduced the highlight saturation and also darkened the sky so it picks up more of the colder shadow tone

Balance Slider

In many ways the key control is the balance slider. In simple terms this sets the crossover point in the tone range from darkest to lightest for the transition from the shadow tone to the highlight tone. Experiment a lot with this slider – some images will look better with bluish midtones – others better with warmer midtones. I particularly love the smooth transitions from warm to cold over broad areas that the balance slider allows you to control. In the image at the top of the article you’ll see this transition from dark cold to warm mid in the skies. With a different balance setting this effect would have been lost:

There is little transition from cold to warm in the sky in the left example – the balance slider is set towards blue keeping the midtones bluish. On the right (the final version) the balance has been set towards the warm highlight tone, so the sky tint ranges from blue at its darkest to warm mids

Finishing touches

I often find that even with these adjustments I still haven’t got quite the look I want for a particular image. So it’s back to the general Lightroom tools – particularly tone adjustments (highlights, shadows, grad filters) and local contrast again (clarity – sometimes combined with a grad filter as in the example below).

Burano Washing Line, M9, 50mm Summicron. After conversion to split tone, I added a grad filter from the top to darken sky and building top half. But this subdued the highlights in the washing so I used the brush on the washing highlights to locally increase the exposure. I then used a grad filter over the foreground paving and significantly increased clarity. Lastly, I added a slight “post-crop” vignette.

Next steps: Fuji X100 Duochrome?


Golden Horse, Alpe di Siusi, Dolomites. Fuji X100.

Thanks for reading!



  1. Not my cup of tea. Pictures look like yet another Instagram filter came out. Although it might be useful to save an otherwise insignificant shot.

  2. Venedig ist so eine geile Stadt … besonders die Viertel jenseits dem Touristenstrom und Inseln wie Burano … das Licht … die Stimmung … sind unvergleichlich … warum soll ich in Mono oder mit wenig Farbe fotographieren und weder den Charme dieser Region noch die morbide Lebendigkeit einfangen … absolut überflüssiger Beitrag …

  3. Maybe add another color, so you get a tritone and we’re almost back where we came from

  4. There are some really nice images here that simply scream out to me to be in full tonal range b/w, but for which I find that duochrome post-processing really doesn’t do anything. The process does nothing, IMO, to enhance, only to detract from what could have been. It’s a personal choice, but not for me.

  5. Venice seems like the perfect canvas for this effect. I love the way the blue tones work with the water.

  6. David, excellent pictures, great composition! The split tone technique might not be everybody’s taste, but I really enjoyed your photo’s and reading your article. Well done!! Thanks.


  7. Hey!

    This was a great post 🙂

    The technique you describe here is something that really inspired me. I will try it out on some of my pictures. The abstraction created can really add another way of communicating a certain feeling and communication to the viewer of the picture. Have you also tried this on portraits or other types of pictures? Would be interesting…

  8. Great atricle, very informative. Really nice images too, well processed a style you’ve obviously spent a long time perfecting!

  9. In general, (too much) post processing is not my cup of tea, but this is different. Very different.

    Thank you for sharing your pictures and your know-how.

  10. Very nice piece, and an interesting technique. One question: “As ever, a computer screen will never have the look and tonal subtlety of a good print.” Isn’t the screen capable of a wider tonal range? And as displays improve (see mac retina) mightn’t the screen have the edge?

  11. Steve: Another productive and timely topic and wonderful images. As a recent digital convert, purchased an x100 a month a go & have only been using iPhoto for simple PP (saturation/contrast/sharpness/definition and highlight). Reason for the mentioning, coincidentally I have found that minimizing the saturation (to the left), increasing the contrast and slight cooler temperature for a lot of my images presents a more interesting image- that you are referring to split tone, Steve. I find that it presents a more mysterious/contemporary looking image for the correct subject. Thus looking forward to your piece on the x100 and a continuation of the split tone topic. Can anyone touch on what you are using for PP software for the x100 and your impression of the debate of RAW versus OOC JPEG for the x100? Thanks-sterno

  12. Nice work! This is something that works very nicely provided it is used on the right type of image. The buildings of Venice are gorgeous in duotone. The Golden Horse……not so much. It just doesn’t work for me personally on animals or people. Again very nice!

  13. Excellent article, duotones definitely work well with these images, thanks for sharing…….

  14. Excellent images! Hmm, I am going to experiment with this a little bit as well. I have not done something like this and it looks real cool.

    I specially love the fourth image!

    • Interesting reading and nice images. Can’t say I particularly like the duochrome effect but that’s just personal.

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