Turn Color Photos into Duotones in Photoshop


Photographs are great for print projects and Web sites, but sometimes you want something a little different.
Changing a photo into a duotone makes it look more like an illustration, and a duotone’s simple color scheme can be easier to coordinate with an overall design.

Step 1

Click on Figure 1 below to open a larger version in another browser window. Save that image to your computer and name it “before.jpg”.

Figure 1. Click on this image to open a larger version you can save to your desktop.

This file is in the public domain because it’s from the United States Army’s image database.

Step 2

Open “before.jpg” in Photoshop and go to Image > Adjustments > Threshold (Figure 2).

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Figure 2.

Step 3

Click and drag on the Threshold’s bottom slider to adjust its levels (Figure 3). The farther you move the slider to the left, the whiter the image will be. The farther you move it to the right, the blacker the image will be. The key to a successful duotone is to have a good balance between the dark and light pixels. You want the important parts of the photo to show, and good detail and balance between the two tones.

Figure 3.

Set this image’s level to 151 and click OK.

Step 4

Now that you have a black-and-white duotone look, let’s add some color. Go to Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation (Figure 4). [insert step4.jpg]

Figure 4.

Step 5

The hue/saturation dialog has three settings to adjust: hue, saturation, and lightness. To preview the effect the settings will have, check the Preview box. Next, check the Colorize box (Figure 5).

Figure 5.

Step 6

Now, let’s create a duotone with white as the background. For this example, adjust the Hue to 100, the Saturation slider to 50, and the Lightness slider to +40. Click OK (Figure 6).

Figure 6.

When you’re trying this technique on other images, drag the sliders right and left and watch the results. Moving the Hue slider changes colors. Dragging the Lightness slider to the left lightens the color, and dragging the Saturation slider to the left increases saturation.
Save the image (File > Save As) and name it “green.jpg.” Close that file.

Step 7

Now let’s make another duotone, this time with a black background. Close “before.jpg” without saving, then re-open it.
Go to Image > Adjustments > Threshold and adjust the slider to 155 (Figure 7). Click OK.

Figure 7.

Step 8
Go to Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation again. Check the Preview and Colorize boxes by clicking on them. Set the values to Hue=40, Saturation=63, and Lightness=-47 (Figure 8). Click OK.

Figure 8.

Name this image “brown.jpg” and keep it open.

Step 9

Let’s say you want a duotone made out of two color hues, instead of one color plus black or white? Easy!
Open “green.jpg,” the file you created earlier in this tutorial. You should have two open files that look like Figure 9.

Figure 9.

Step 10
Click on “brown.jpg” to make it active and go to Select > Color Range. Hover your mouse over the brown area and click to sample it with the Color Range’s eyedropper tool (Figure 10). Click OK.

Figure 10.

Step 11
Go to Edit > Copy or press Cmd-C (PC: Ctrl-C) to copy the selected pixels. Open the “green.jpg” file and go to Edit > Paste or Cmd-V (PC: Ctrl-V) to paste the pixels.
You’ll notice that there are some white pixels you’ll want to make green or brown (Figure 11). The white pixels are there because the two images have slightly different ranges.

Figure 11.

Step 12

Click the eye icon next to the Background layer (the green pixels) in the Layers palette to turn off its transparency. Then turn the transparency for the Background layer back on by clicking its eye icon in the Layers palette. Select the Eyedropper tool from the toolbox.
Select the Background layer in the Layers palette by clicking on it. Click somewhere on the green to sample the green color. You can now turn off the transparency of the Background layer by clicking its eye icon in the Layers palette. Click the New Layer icon on the bottom of the Layers palette to insert a new layer, Layer 2, in between the Background layer and Layer 1 (Figure 12).

Figure 12.

Step 13

Press Option-Backspace (PC: Alt-Backspace) to fill the new layer with the green color in the foreground (Figure 13). Now you have a green-and-brown duotone. Save it as “duotone.jpg.”

Figure 13.

Step 14
You can adjust the hue, saturation, and lightness by going to Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation again. However, Photoshop won’t give you a black/color hue or white/color hue combination; instead, it will use the relationship between the two hues used.

Figure 14.


  • djbowen says:

    Interesting technique… I typically use gradient maps (Image > Adjustments > Gradient Map) for this kind of effect (starting @ step 3), but this seems like it could be a quicker way to do it in some cases.

  • LT says:

    I miss the option to select a print version of an article. Have I just been overlooking it or is it gone for good?

  • saper paper says:

    Thanks! That was really helpful!

  • Terri Stone says:

    Hi LT,

    We moved the Print button to the bottom of the page, center column.

    However, the results you’ll see when you click the Print button are different from the previous Print button results. We’ve heard from a lot of readers that they’d prefer a version with only the article text and images. Is that true for you, too?

    Terri Stone
    Editor in Chief, CreativePro.com

  • Janet Buntz says:

    I liked having just the text and images print. It’s kind of waste of my color ink to print all the advertising. (I suspect your advertisers would disagree!) Thanks.

  • lovetheson says:

    When I clicked the print button at the end of the article what I got was the full pages – complete with banners, menus and advertising. Is there no longer a ‘print version’ available or has that just not been implemented yet with the new design of your website? I make PDFs of interesting articles for future reference. It saves on ink. Even so, it is still nice to be able to preserve an article only version – without all the banners. Also, the ‘log’ button to sign in at the end of the article has the word Log overprinted twice. Just an observation.

  • lovetheson says:

    I forgot to add this to my previous comment – the site looks good. Nice changes.

  • purpl says:

    This isnt really a duotone. A duotone uses two inks. If you start with an RGB file the result will still be RGB, fine for the web but not a press. If you start with a CMYK file you will end up with a ‘duotone’ that still needs 4 inks. It’s not too hard to convert to grayscale, select image/mode/duotone and pick two ink colors.

  • jwlimages says:

    Yes, Terri, please restore the old style “Print Page” feature, which reformatted the page with a more print-friendly font & cleaned off most of those ads.
    Especially in the new design, the amount & animated intrusiveness of the ads is obnoxious – bad enough to see them on the web page, but the idea of printing them, too – well, that’s just too much!

  • jwlimages says:

    Of course ‘purpl’ is right. This is not a duotone, but an RGB file, and it looks to be simulating a silkscreen effect more than a printed duotone.
    It’s as if another Photoshop Tip has been written by a computer guy, who’s great at, e.g., how to do “liquid metal type” effects for web pages, but has zero experience with offset printing.
    …end rant>

  • gizgaz says:

    8 years member and I find better organization but also find the actual articles are getting lost with all the ads. It’s too much going on with all the animation, color and shapes. I want just the articles!

  • Terri Stone says:

    Hi all,

    We’ve heard your requests for printer-friendly versions that don’t include ads and are working on that now.

    Look for it soon!

    Terri Stone
    Editor in Chief, CreativePro.com

  • Renate_101 says:

    However, I do miss the “old” Print command. I have saved most of your articles and refer back to them, but now I don’t want to save all this advertising as well. Please bring back the print article feature again.

  • dannyraphael says:

    This interesting technique inspired me to write an PS action to simplify the process.

    If you like this 2-color effect — and it has its place — IMO the result of this action is pretty nifty. The unflattened layer stack enables one many opportunities to tweak settings and experiment.

    For example one can:
    * Fine tune the effect rendered by a Threshold adjustment layer
    * Choose different colors (as many times as you like) for the black or white areas
    * Switch (invert) the black/white areas
    * Color combinations: Black + color, White + color, 2-colors or Black and White
    * Invert (as opposed to switch) the selected colors
    * Shift the hue of both colors

    Send an e-mail to PhotoshopActions at yahoo dot com if you would like to try it.

  • bripht says:

    I wish you would not republish articles without stating that your are doing so. This (How to change color photos into duotones) has already been published not that long ago. It’s a waste of time for your readers and makes one wonder if you have anything new to say.

  • Terri Stone says:

    Thanks for the feedback, bripht.

    Just to be clear, we don’t republish articles — that is, we don’t change the publish dates and pass off articles as something new. But in the daily newsletters that go out on Tuesdays, I do feature articles that ran about 6 months prior, and sometimes I also include that 6-month-old article in the next weekly newsletter.

    We find that people who missed the article the first time around are happy to find it on the second go.


    Terri Stone
    Editor in Chief, CreativePro.com

  • ChadNeuman says:

    “jwlimages”: Actually, I do have some experience in printing, for example, when I worked in the production department at a newspaper back when CMYK was used there (as opposed to more digital processes now), as well as other various newspapers and when I was managing editor at two international graphic design magazines, although I was in editorial then and didn’t have much experience with the printing. BUT yes this is not a duotone as far as printing, but duotone as in “two tones.” I didn’t mean to confuse you.

  • Anonymous says:

    what happened with these instructions? how to do colorize the background – not the same process as colorizing the foreground with the threshold adjustment. i went over and over it and even tried a couple inverse selections to get the background colored. now i’m way curious!

  • Anonymous says:

    what’s wrong with Image>Mode>Duotone…?

  • Ayub Khan says:

    Who ever U R Your Idea has given a big solution to my problem

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