How To Colorize Black and White Vintage Photographs in Photoshop

By Eric Z Goodnight on January 31st, 2011

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 Stetson-wearing wild man. During the day, he manages IT and product development for screenprinted apparel manufacturing; by night he creates geek art posters, writes JavaScript, and records weekly podcasts about comics.

  • Published 01/31/11
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