Colorize Your Old Black and White Photos

By Roger (14 July 2015)

Both of us enjoy photo restoration projects now and then. We've done several blogs on this topic, in the past: restore your memories; repair the scan; and restoring in detail. Please, check them out for a quick reminder of how much fun this can be.

However, over the last couple of weeks, I've gotten comments and questions about how to colorize old monochrome photos. There have been several recent articles showing the results of others' work along these lines. I knew the basics of how to go about this, but I'd never tried it. I've turned lots of color photos to monochrome, but never really thought of going the other way around.

So, I looked into some specifics and several different methods. I found the easiest one to be the simple use of multiple color layers in Photoshop. It was a fun, little project and taught me a few new tricks. Although it is quick and easy, I don't think this is something I'm going to dedicate massive amounts of time to. Here is my first attempt.

Original scan of a fading photo

Original scan of a fading photo

I started with an easy photo that was in pretty good shape. You can see the photo is changing color with age, but there are only a few spots and scratches to repair. I took the photo into Photoshop; returned it to black and white; and fixed the flaws, using the basic techniques we wrote about in the blogs I linked to, above.

Restored photo

Restored photo

Once you are happy with the restoration in black and white, you should save the photo back to Lightroom. You can make some further adjustments in Lightroom if you need them. I might add some clarity or contrast and, maybe, tweak the blacks and whites. You now have the original and repaired photos in your database. I don't delete the old, scratched image because you never know when you will learn new techniques to improve your original repair.

Select the final, repaired image; right-click on it; and select “Edit in Photoshop.” When the dialog box opens, you should choose “Edit a copy with the Lightroom adjustments”, so Photoshop will create another copy of the photo.

Go to the Layer menu and select New Fill Layer ->Solid Color and pick a color for the first object you want colorize. Then add a black mask (Alt-click on the layer mask tool), and use a soft, white brush on the layer mask to reveal the color on the object. If you look at some of my layer masks, below, you'll see one labeled “white.” I created this layer using this method. I would recommend using this for small areas only, but you could continue this way until you've got a new color layer for each individual portion of the photo.

Lots of individual layers

Lots of individual layers

An easier method uses the the Quick Selection tool to select the portion of the photo you want to colorize. When you have the selection, right-click inside the selection and choose Refine Edge. Make sure you have a selection you want, and Output to: Selection when you're satisfied.

Now, just add a new color layer by selecting the Add a New Layer tool at the bottom, right of your Photoshop menu, and pick your color.

Click here for a new color layer

Click here for a new color layer

Refine Edge dialog box

Refine Edge dialog box

Photoshop creates the new layer, complete with a mask for the unselected portion of the photo. Easy. Just repeat these steps for all the items in the photo. As you can see in the screen capture of the layers, above, this is my preferred method.

For refining the effect, I used tried several different blending modes until I got the effect I liked best. By far, the most used blending modes, for me, were Overlay, Soft Light, or Color. If you want to adjust the color you chose, previously, just double click on the Color Layer icon, and pick a new color. I label each layer and keep them all separate, so I can go back to make further adjustments.

As you might imagine, the skin is the most difficult part. I used four separate color layers, with a couple of different blending modes, to get this tone. I, also, varied the opacity on the layers to fine-tune it. I'm not sure I got it perfectly correct, but I'm pretty satisfied with this first effort. There are free sample palettes of skin tones available on the internet.

My final image looks like this:

Colorized Black and White

Colorized Black and White

The baby's daughter was quite happy with the rendition, so I guess it was ok. I may try this another time. As I said, it was quite an interesting project. It took about 45 minutes, but I'm sure I could get that down to five minutes with some practice. It is a pretty easy task and lots of fun.

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