Colorizing Black And White Photos



If you’re an ancient Gen-X-er like me you probably remember when billionaire media mogul Ted Turner began colorizing classic black-and-white films from Hollywood’s golden era. Even if you agree with critics who claimed this colorization amounted to “cultural vandalism,” there’s no doubt the technique is interesting and has its merits—especially for photographers. It’s a lot like the hand-tinting of black-and-white portraits that was popular in the early 20th century, but it’s done digitally. If Mr. Turner can do it with movies, why shouldn’t photographers use similar tools to colorize their favorite black-and-white , too? They can, and thankfully the technique is fairly straightforward. Whether you want to re-colorize digital captures to create a unique visual style, or if you’d like to add color to black-and-white film from the family archive, now you can become your own Ted Turner—minus the billions—by following these simple steps to digitally colorize black & white .

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- Start with a simple black-and-white digital image, whether scanned from an old print or a desaturated digital capture, and choose one without a lot of multicolored fine detail. (Once you’re an expert, apply your skills to ever more detailed images to up the wow factor of the technique.) I chose a portrait of a friend photographed on black-and-white large format film.

- Working with Photoshop, first ensure the image file is desaturated but in the RGB color space. Create a new empty layer on top of the black-and-white original and, with the lasso tool, select a large area that will primarily be one color—say, a face in a portrait which will be the skin tone, or a tree in a landscape photo that will mostly be green. Once you’ve made a fairly accurate selection, save it in case you’d like to return to it later and then feather it a few pixels just to soften the edges.

- Now it’s time to fill the selection with the appropriate color. For skin tones, I usually make selections with the eyedropper tool from other color photos of people whose skin tones are appropriate. If the skin tone in another image seems similar to the look you want, select the color with the eyedropper and use the fill tool to place it in the selection area of your black-and-white image.

- When the color fills in the new layer it will be opaque, but we want it to apply the color and allow image detail to show through. You might think adjusting the layer options to “color” would be the best approach, but actually choosing “overlay” mode tends to produce the ideal result. Select overlay on the painted layer in the layers palette and watch as the image details emerge from the layer below. Part of your is now colorized.


- Repeat the process for each additional color, adding a new blank layer each time. Perhaps hair in a portrait is up next, or the sky in a landscape photo. Paint and fill each color onto selections made on subsequent new layers (so you can later go back and independently adjust each color) and make the picture mostlycolorized. Then go in for the final crucial steps: colorizing the fine details and colorizing everything else.

- The details are relatively easy, since they involve the same selection and filling process as the previous steps—just on a smaller, more precise scale. This could include the whites in a subject’s eyes, or the color in their irises, perhaps a solitary bright flower in a larger landscape. It’s the “everything else” in question that can be a little trickier, since it’s the tone you’d like to establish in the background of a scene.

- In some instances the background tone can be anything you’d like, even if it’s not accurate to the original—a warm brown for a portrait background, perhaps, or maybe a broad swath of green for the land in a landscape. I usually like to put this layer below the other colorized layers since it’s forming what is essentially the background. Create a new blank layer between the original image and the first layer of color. Without making a selection, fill the entire layer with the appropriate background color and set it to overlay as well. The entire image is now colorized, but this new whole-layer color is affecting the other detail colors you’ve painted throughout. So to remove the background where you’ve already painted details, right-click on each subsequently colorized layer’s palette icon to create active selections corresponding to each of the other colors in the scene.

- For instance, right-clicking on the palette layer containing the portrait’s skin tones will select those skin tones in the face. With the separate color selected, add the selection to a layer mask on the layer containing the background color in order to mask out (i.e. remove) the background color where it intersects with the skin tone. This keeps the two translucent colors from competing and assures the colors in the image won’t change one another. Repeat this process for every other color above the background. This is especially important for facial features, where a rosy skin tone would adversely affect the whites of the eyes or the natural tint of hair.

- Once each area of the image has been selectively colorized, you can flatten the file to merge all the colors into one layer with the picture detail. Alternatively, merge the colorized layers into one and, if you’re concerned about hard edges and uneven transitions between colors, apply a subtle blur to soften the colors where they blend. Go too far and you’ll risk colorizing outside of the lines resulting in a funky . But maybe that’s the look you’re after. Since you’re choosing the colors, you can make them as outrageous or as natural as you wish.

- If you’d like to modify any of the colors, the beauty of this approach is that each color is contained on a separate layer so you can easily go back and make changes easily. If you’re happy with the colors you’ve selected, your photo is now colorized—and it probably looks a lot like a hand painted picture of a century ago.

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