Colorizing the Past: Adding Color to Black and White Photos

Learning to be a professional colorist for black and white photos can take years of practice. Creating complex and realistic color versions of black and white photographs takes a ton of time and a solid understanding of Photoshop.

Get started adding color to black and white photos with these techniques.

CMYK

The first step is to convert your image to CMYK color mode. I’ve found that this is the easiest color space to work in and gives you the best results for accurate color creation.

Adjustment Layers

A quick way to get started adjusting the colors is to use adjustment layers. I like the Hue/Saturation/Lightness (HSL) adjustment layer. Make sure to click the “colorize” button. This will allow you to use the sliders to adjust the entire image’s color. Focus on one part of the image as you do this — let’s say the blue sky. Once the sky is just the right shade of blue, mask out everything except the sky. You can continue creating new adjustment layers, tweaking the HSL sliders, and masking parts of the image until you have all the colors in the image that you want to add. You can also use the Curves adjustment layer to approach this a different way.

Blending modes

Choosing the colors you want to use is the first step. You can find and choose colors in the foreground/background swatches at the bottom of your toolbar. If you are adding sky color, obviously you would choose a blue. If you are add grass color you would choose a green.

Create a new layer on top of your black and white photograph. Change the blending mode of the layer to “Color.” Start to paint in the color you want. If the color is not quite right, you can change your swatch. If the color is right but just too strong you can go back and dial down the opacity of that layer.

The author as a child.

What the scene would have looked like in color!

Layer masks

Layer masks are your friend when you are colorizing photos. You will likely use a lot of them to get all of the different tones that are found in a color photograph. They will help you make smooth gradations of tone and to separate different areas of color. Part of the beauty of Photoshop is being able to use tons of layers and to mask over them differently to bring out different colors and shades in different parts of the image.

Lasso tool, quick selection, wand

As you are painting in color and masking out colors, you will want to use several different selection tools to select different areas of your image. The lasso, polygonal lasso and magnetic lasso are all helpful for selecting very specific parts by outlining them. Once the selection is made you can feather it by going to Select -> Refine Edge. The Magic Wand and Quick Selection tools help you to select items that have pretty defined edges already. There’s no point in taking the time to use the lasso or pen tools on something that has crisp edges. Just make a Quick Selection.

Subtle color

It’s easy to add color into a black and white image. It’s not easy to make it look believable. Study color images and how colors work together. Study skin tones to see what normal tones would look like in a image. Study how the nose and ears tend to be more red than the rest of the face. Study how a color photograph ages, and how the blacks turn a bit blue and the whites turn a bit yellow. This work will help you achieve the results you would like to get out of colorizing images.

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March 23, 2015
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Colorizing the Past: Adding Color to Black and White Photos