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What is a Duotone?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A duotone is a type of image which is printed in two colors. Duotones have been in existence since the early days of photography: most consumers are familiar with sepia toned prints, for example, which use various shades of brown. A duotone is also called a monochrome print, because the image appears to be comprised of variants on a single color.

Many graphic designers choose to use a duotone to make an artistic statement. It has a classic and timeless look which can be quite appealing for specific marketing and brand campaigns. Duotones often appear in advertisements which want to suggest stability, longevity, and style. While sepia is a common choice, a duotone can be made with any color. A duotone can be subdued or radiant, depending on what color is used, making it suitable for a wide range of graphics applications.

A duotone is also more cost effective than a four color image. Full four color process printing can be prohibitively expensive, especially for small companies. A company may want to produce an elegant looking brochure or flyer, but be unable to afford process printing. Using duotones in the design can enhance the appearance without creating a crippling price. Sepia or silver duotones have a saturated, rich look which grayscale images do not have, while duotones printed with more bright colors can pack a visual punch.

Most graphics programs have an option which allows the user to make a duotone. Examining a magnified duotone shows that the accent color is not an accent at all. In a duotone, the second color completely saturates the image, and every pixel will be altered. These programs also allow the user to play with hue and saturation, creating a striking or simplistic image. While duotones are commonly made with black and another color, any combination of colors could be used depending on the desired effect.

The look of a duotone is favored over plain black and white photography in some cases because the duotone has a more saturated, compelling appearance. Duotones often seem more textured to the eye, and they also capture more photographic detail. For high end companies, duotones can send a subtle, yet effective message. They can also be used to create a heavily tinted retro look, popular in some types of advertising. The uses for duotones are myriad, and they are easy to explore and print for people at all levels of graphics experience.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By seag47 — On Jun 23, 2011

@StarJo - You could use one of two methods. You can either use the Duotone menu option, or you can make a blue blended layer.

To make a duotone from the menu, first grayscale the image. Then go to the Image menu and choose Mode and Duotone. Click on black and make it any shade of blue you wish. Then, click on the duotone curve, which is the box beside the color square. Move the line around until you get the desired effect.

To make a blue blended layer, first convert the image to grayscale. Then, convert it to CMYK again. This eliminates the colors, but it will allow you to add color. Make a new layer and make sure it is above the photo’s layer. Fill this new layer with blue. Then, go to the Layers palette under default effect and choose Overlay. You can pull the Opacity up or down to adjust the contrast.

By StarJo — On Jun 22, 2011

I have a color photo of my niece who passed away at a young age. I would like to make this photo into a blue duotone and give it to her mother as a gift. I have some experience with photo editing in Adobe Photoshop Elements, but I have never converted a photo to a duotone before, and I'm not even sure I can do it with that program. Can anyone tell me how?

By SZapper — On Jun 22, 2011

@strawCake - Sepia dutones are really lovely. I'm a little more partial to black and white duotone photos myself but I feel like sepia is a little more unique. I feel like I don't often see people decorate their homes with sepia photographs but I think it's a great idea.

By strawCake — On Jun 22, 2011

I've always loved the look of a sepia duotone. I think it looks very soft and nostalgic. I actually decorated my whole kitchen with sepia photographs of old kitchen appliances and it makes me happy every time I look at them! I think I may decorate a few other rooms in my house this way also.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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