Colorizing black and white images

Ever wish you’d taken a color picture instead of black and white?

Maybe you have a vintage photo you’d like to convert, or possibly, you’d just like a different color effect on an existing color image. Colorizing is fun and pretty easy to do.

I would suggest starting with a simpler image than the above example! A portrait against a fairly plain background works well. You can start with either a color image or black and white. If color, change it to black and white by your favorite method (desaturate, grayscale, or black and white layers) but leave it or convert it to RGB color mode. If black and white, you also need to convert it to RGB color.

Next, create a new layer from the layer menu and in the layer dialog box, mode, choose color instead of normal. Now, when you paint a color in this layer, on your image, it will tint the existing pixels rather than painting over them!

The first is the black and white, next image is final colorized version, and last shows just the color layer. As you can see, the colorizing can be fairly crude, yet it really works!

If you have a good memory and a really good eye, you can pick colors on your own that are appropriate. Most of us are less than stellar at it though, so here’s a good way to get it right. Open a similar image or one that has elements that are of similar color, for instance a face for skin tones. Use the color sampler to pick your tint, then, using the paintbrush tool, you can paint over the area of your b & w image that needs that color. I tend to set the paintbrush to 0 hardness and between 20 and 50 opacity. It’s easy to apply too much! If you over-do it, either use the undo menu or the eraser tool to cancel out the offending color and try again.

This is all you need to get started. Following are some tips and advanced techniques.

I usually do several color layers, possibly one each for skin tones, clothing, background and sky. Another tip, when coloring a large area, to get it uniform, don’t let up on the mouse or pen tool until the whole area is finished. It is really tricky, to not have an overlap area, where 40% becomes more like 80% when doing it in sections. Being a bit sloppy is not much of a problem, as you can erase around the edges. Another reason to keep separate areas in different layers is that you may wish to change the opacity of individual layers to control the color of the final image, or even use the saturation adjustment on a layer.

I find that most images are easier to colorize if I first add a hue/saturation adjustment layer, with the small Colorize check box in the dialog checked. I then set hue to 33 and saturation to about 12-16 for a slight sepia tone. If you keep this as a layer, make sure it stays right on top of the background layer. If there is true white or sky in the scene, use the layer mask to stop this from affecting those areas.

Dark colors, outdoors, will have a hint of sky reflected from them, as will highlights. In the train image, sky blue was used over the black locomotive with the brush at around 25% opacity. Oddly, it looks much more “black” after this is done! Remember, color is the light reflected from an object, so if it is a shiny or dark object, much of it’s color is dependant on the light hitting it.

Here is a more complex image, where I’ve used a sepia tone, mostly masked out on the smoke area. Layers above are for the ground, train, a curves adjustment with mask on the overall image, and a replacement sky (original sky was a scratched up mess).

Very light areas can be a problem, as no color is laid down where these areas appear, as there are no values to tint. This gets a bit more complicated, but is worth the effort. I generally make a copy layer of the background, then use curves or shadows/highlights to darken the light areas. I add a layer mask and fill it with black, then paint white with a soft brush, in those areas that were too light. My colorizing layer(s) will have more effect on these dimmer “whites” and they will look much better, even though as a straight b & w they look very flat. Sometimes, especially with a nearly white sky, the easiest way is to use the magic wand selection tool and or others to select the sky, then make and adjustment layer of the selection. The shadows/highlights tool, using the highlights adjustment, can bring out more detail in the sky, which will lend itself nicely to tinting.

I hope you have fun with this, it’s pretty addictive, seeing what some of our old images look like in color!


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