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How To Colorize Black and White Vintage Photographs in Photoshop

Ever wanted to add color to your old, vintage, or historical photographs? Load up some old pictures and see how color can be added quickly to any black and white photograph in this simple Photoshop how to.

While many purists simply don’t like the look of colorized black and white photographs, the ability to add color to black and white images is as indispensible as it is simple. Read on to see just how easy it can be.

Starting with Grayscale Images

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Simply because an image is in black and white doesn’t mean that it is a Grayscale image. Once your photograph is open, our first task is checking our Color Mode.

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Navigate to Image > Mode > RGB color to set your image to RGB. If it is in Grayscale or some other color mode, Photoshop will convert it for you. Once this is done, you’ll be ready to add color to your image.

Using Blending Modes to Add Color

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One of the simplest ways to add color to a black and white image is using Blending Modes. But rather than create a dozen layers with individual blending modes, we will create a single layer group with a group blending mode. Here’s how to do it:

  • Press ctrl shift N to create a New Layer.
  • With that New Layer selected, press Ctrl shift g to group your new layer.
  • Select your new layer group as shown above, and set your Blending Mode to “Color.”

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You’ll find Blending Modes in the pulldown tab directly under the top of the “Layers” panel. Click to pull it down to set the blending mode of your Group to “Color” as shown above.

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Once your group is set to blending mode “Color” reselect your layer and let’s check out some ways to add color to our image.

Some Ways to Add Colors to Your Image without Painting

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You can now add color into any layer you make inside your new group. The question is, how? Any way you can add color to layers is a way that will work. Let’s start with a simple and quicker, but rougher method using the Lasso Tool or even the Pen Tool, if you feel like you’ve mastered it.

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The Lasso and the Pen Tool both do roughly the same thing in this situation. You’ll be drawing and outlining shapes, and then filling them with the Bucket Fill or by going to Edit > Fill and using your foreground color. While this method does not give the most refined of results, it can be the fastest. If you wish to take a more hands-on, controlled approach, you’ll want to keep reading to see the “painting” method using the Photoshop Brush tool.

Using the Brush Tool to Paint Color into Photographs

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If you’re not there, return to the group you set to Blending Mode “Color.” Navigate to the blank layer you made there and select the Brush Tool in your toolbar.

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Press b to select the Brush Tool, then right-click in your image to bring up the Brush Tool contextual menu. Select “Soft Round” as shown.

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Click the Foreground Color area of your toolbar (as shown above left) to bring up the Color Picker. Stick with colors much duller than you want your image to look like, as they’ll brighten up considerably when they’re painted on.

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Simply mouse over the areas of your image you want to be that color. Be as precise as possible, but feel free to use the eraser tool as needed.

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You may find that your color, even though it is dull, appear garish. You can adjust this many different ways.

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Reducing the opacity, as shown above, of your layers, can reduce the intensity of your colors and make them more naturalistic.

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ctrl shift N to add new layers whenever you want to add new colors. Keeping layers separate will give you greater control. And since they are contained within the same group, you’ll find they all conform to the same “Color” blending mode.

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Zoom in to add details as needed. Minor details, such as the right color of blue in the eyes, can really bring a colorized image to life.

Improve Garish Colors with the Hue/Saturation Tool

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It can be all to easy to start working with a color that seems like it’ll be the right shade, only to turn out too bright, garrish or ugly. Here’s how to adjust it and continue painting.

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Paint or find a sample of the color you want to change to better suit your image.

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Press ctrl U to bring up the  Hue/Saturation tool.

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Adjust Hue, Saturation, and Lightness values until your color suits your image. As you can see above, the garish red has transformed to a more appropriate reddish brown.

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Alt + Click on the hide layer in your layers panel, beside your active layer inorder to hide all the other layers. Then press the i to select the Eyedropper tool. Click your painted swatch once to select the changed color as your foreground color.

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Alt + Click the same hide layer again to turn all the layers back on. Shortcut key b will give you back the Brush Tool and allow you to return to painting like normal. Add as many or as few colors as you feel your image needs, in all the details you care to put in.

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And with minimal work and time invested, a black and white image is now full of rich color. Practice with the brush tool, as it is likely the best method for achieving excellent results in colorizing black and white photographs.


Have questions or comments concerning Graphics, Photos, Filetypes, or Photoshop? Send your questions to ericgoodnight@howtogeek.com, and they may be featured in a future How-To Geek Graphics article.

Image Credit: Portait of Thomas Edison, in public domain.

Eric Z Goodnight is an Illustrator and Graphics Geek who hopes to make Photoshop more accessible to How-To Geek readers. When he’s not headbanging to heavy metal or geeking out over manga, he’s often off screen printing T-Shirts.

  • Published 01/31/11

Comments (17)

  1. Hatryst

    Awesome man. That is going to help me a lot. You know there are colouring contests at worth1000.com (a digital art contest website), where you’re given a black n’ white picture, and you have to colour it using Photoshop. This technique would surely be applicable there :)
    Keep it up !!

  2. Bob

    How long did it take you to do something like this?

  3. Eric Z Goodnight

    @Bob: Not an extremely long time–I’d say 20 minutes at the longest? It does depend on your photo and your comfort level with Photoshop, but it shouldn’t take you a long time either.

  4. Richard

    Great article as always and easy to follow. Will have to try this at the weekend.

    Thanks.

  5. Sarath

    Good One. Need to put my hands this weekend !!

  6. Flex

    kudos. love your post, but with something of the same nature addressed to the how to geek staff,

    do you guys have an article on google sketchup 8? its pretty cool and worth investivating

  7. Eric Z Goodnight

    @Flex: I have Sketchup downloaded but haven’t played with it yet. I really want to but I keep a pretty busy schedule!

  8. John M

    Ok that is cool that you have the skills to do this, but the finished product looks ridiculous…and fake..

  9. mike

    I have been trying to colorize a photo for quite a while using the same technique that is described here. It works great for everything except skin color. Even in the photo used in this article the man’s skin color doesn’t look real. It looks more like a thick layer of makeup has been applied to the face.

    I continue to try tweaking the color used and the opacity level, but haven’t yet been able to make a black and white face look naturally colored. Even when I used the eyedropper tool to choose the color off a face on a color photo.

    So far my best and closest to real looking results have come by selecting only the face on a new layer and then adjusting hue, saturation, and brightness. Along with the opacity level on that layer.

    If anyone has done something else that works better, I for one would love to hear how to do it.

  10. Eric Z Goodnight

    Mike, skin tones are incredibly complex, and getting a realistic one is always an artistic challenge. They aren’t a single color, but have variable translucency, with the color of muscle, fat, bone and blood peering through giving them unique, complex colors. A good painter will use blues, greens, purples, reds, yellows, oranges, and browns to describe a face, but we often gloss over this and call it “flesh color.”

    Getting a completely realistic skin tone requires more painting and knowledge than I can impart in a single article. However, you can try to combine multiple layers using various blending modes like ‘darken,’ ‘multiply,’ ‘screen,’ ‘lighten,’ etc, in addition to what I’ve said here. This can help make your single skin tone richer and more lifelike.

  11. radhey

    i completely agree with Eric Z Goodnight , doing it using color map makes it more quick and blending modes do all the trick to make them feel genuine..Good article though!!

  12. Minesha

    Awesome ! Really cool and useful !

  13. cap

    Nice… but not everyone has photoshop. Can you guys do how-to’s with gimp? which is free and opensource!

  14. John O'Connell

    Another brilliant article. You guys Rock!

  15. ednync

    thanks a lot

  16. Supratim

    Thank you very much……………..this tutorial helped me a lot…………….

  17. Max

    thi tutorial is one of the best tutorial over the internet

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