How to Colorize a Black and White Photo at Your Ownself

Today anyone can paint old black and white photographs. We will tell you how to do it at the highest quality level.

Even though the technology of color photography has existed since the beginning of the 20th century (particularly the method of Adolphe Mite), it did not become trendy in our country. But to this day, many families keep plump albums with black and white photographs.

However, black and white images have never gone out of fashion: even today, in the era of the digital revolution, many artists continue to work in this genre. However, it also happens the other way around – after years, a person desires to turn black and white photography into color. What methods are available for this?

First of all, one cannot but recall the most familiar way for most older generations, when the artist painted a photograph using oil paints, watercolors, or special aniline dyes, which were used for professional retouching. Often, the original acquired a color palette and new details. Today, this technique is interesting exclusively from an artistic and art historical point of view.

If you are into sublimation printing, you have to work with photographs and images constantly. And, depending on the idea, the photo can be color or black and white.

Some projects require black and white photographs. Others work better with color images, but colored black and white pictures are best suited in some cases.

If you always thought that coloring a black and white photo is something super complicated and even from the category of magic, then you should know that you were wrong. Of course, to turn a black and white photo into color in Photoshop, you need to have some basic skills, but the main thing is perseverance.

So, today I will show you how to take a color black and white photo using Adobe Photoshop using the example of a portrait and an overview of popular services that do this automatically.

From black and white to color in Adobe Photoshop

The new version of Adobe Photoshop introduced the function of automatic colorization of black and white photos, but so far, this option is only available in the beta version. If you already have a brand new Photoshop, you can try making the photo in color. It’s straightforward:

  1. Open your black and white image.
  2. Go to the “Filter – Neural Filters” tab.
  3. Click on “Beta Filters.”
  4. Select the “Colorize” filter.
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Automatic colorization looks good, but manual recoloring of a black and white photo gives a more accurate and natural result. Since I’m using Photoshop 2020, I’ll do it all by hand and walk you through the process step by step. This tutorial is suitable for those who have recently started learning Adobe Photoshop. If you strictly follow the algorithm, you will succeed!

Now I will show you how to colorize a black and white picture using this photo as an example, and at the end, we will compare my work with a color source. Buckle up, and it will be fun!

Photography and reference

To make a color photograph natural, it is essential to choose the correct reference. Of course, I have the original color photo, but I will play it fair. Find a similar color picture with which you can take a color palette. The reference will help to color the photo well: this way, you can consider all the features of skin color and the nuances of lighting. As a reference, I found a picture similar in light and shadow. I put it on a separate layer and reduced it for ease of work.

How to create a skin color palette

Before coloring the black and white photo, we first need to create a palette of skin tones. Select the Eyedropper Tool (I) from the toolbar on the left side of the screen. Set the sample size to “Medium 5×5”: this will allow the eyedropper to pick up color from a 5×5 pixel area. Also, make sure the Sample box is set to All Layers.

Let’s take some color swatches on the face. Use the eyedropper to select the lightest area of ‚Äč‚Äčthe skin in the reference, then grab the Brush Tool (B) with 100% pressure, opacity and hardness.

Paint over some area on the reference layer to create a sample. Then retake the Eyedropper tool and select a darker place. Do the same for other skin tones. I will take five colors, from lightest to darkest.

How to create a gradient from the palette

The next step is to create a gradient from this color palette. We will superimpose on a black and white photo to get the most natural skin color possible. To create an angle:

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Select the black and white photo in the Layers panel.

Create an adjustment layer “Gradient map” (Gradient map).

Click on the gradient area to open the editor.

Now we need to create a gradient from our reference skin tone palette. Click on the rightmost point of the gradient color and then on the “Color” box.

Click on the lightest shade on our palette and hit OK.

The gradient should be built to lighter shades from left to the right. Click on the color stop on the left and select the darkest one.

Create the rest of the tint points. To add a new color stop, click below the gradient.

Move the control point sliders to create approximately natural lighting. Adjust shades as needed.

The layer with the palette can be hidden by clicking on the icon with the eye next to the layer.

Coloring a black and white photo

The first step is to change the layer’s blend mode. Select a Gradient Adjustment Layer and click on the Color Blending Mode.

Finally, we got to the most exciting part – here begins the transformation of black and white photography into color:

To paint, of course, you need a brush. Take a soft white round brush. By painting with a white brush, we reveal our gradient, which is on the layer mask.

Be careful not to touch other areas accidentally. If you painted over the wrong location, then select the black color of the brush and paint over this area ūüôā Change the size and softness of the meeting to make precise contours. Paint over the skin with a brush.

Once you’re done painting the face, double click on the gradient layer and open the Blending Options. To make the lighting effect look more natural, you need to move the sliders on the “Underlying Layer” a little. Hold Alt and click on the slider to split it.

Adjust the sliders so that the color and shadows on the face look more natural.

Refine color

Our black-and-white photograph gradually transforms into color, but the painted area still looks unnatural. The fact is that we used several similar skin tones, but in reality, our skin is not uniform in color.

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Open the gradient editor by double-clicking on the left icon next to the layer thumbnail and then clicking on the gradient. Select the color you want to correct and play with the different shade values ‚Äč‚Äčin the palette. For example, you can slightly change the saturation of one of the color points.

If you are happy with the result of the skin color, then you can stop there. But I would like to add reds to achieve a natural color. To do this:

Create a new Hue / Saturation adjustment layer.

Adjust the sliders to the red tint, adjust the brightness and saturation.

Take a white brush and paint over the areas you want to show with a new shade. I added some reddish nuances on the nose, chin, and a drop on the cheekbones.

In this way, you can add as many nuances of shades as you like to make the color image look as natural as possible!

At this stage, we have selected all the shades on the face, and now you can return to painting the rest of the exposed skin. To do this, click again on the Gradient Map Layer Mask and paint the rest of the areas with a white brush. I finished coloring. That’s what I did:

It seems to look natural enough.

Coloring the details of a black and white photo

In the same way, you can start coloring the lips and clothes because they are still in black and white. I won’t touch my hair and eyes, and it seems that they are perfect in black and white. To, for example, paint the lips in a portrait, do the following:

Create a Hue / Saturation adjustment layer.

Use the sliders to create the desired shade. 

Paint over the desired area with a white brush.

I will do the same operation with the clothes. And here is the result of the work.

Impressive, right? Of course, the work was detailed, but the output is an image with realistic colors and neat contours. Compare with the original and black and white image.

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