How To Color a Black and White Photograph in 10 Steps

How To Color a Black and White Photograph in 10 Steps

In today's article, we will go through 10 short steps in order to learn the basics of colorizing Black and White photographs. These instructions will help you make a great start to the process of coloring vintage photos and with some practice, you could be well on your way to becoming the best out there. Learning how to color is a long process and you are only learning the basics here so do not feel down if your first attempt is not as good as some of the photographs on this website. 

Step 1: Find a Suitable Photograph to Color

The first step is very simple: just find a photograph to color. You may have a black and white photograph from your personal collection already but if you do not then there are some great places online with millions of images to pick from such as Wikimedia Commons, the Imperial War Museum, and the Library of Congress where millions of pictures from history have been digitized. Colorization tends to be more successful with images that have a higher resolution so aim for a size of over 1,000px for height and width. 

This is the photograph I found on Wikimedia Commons. It is Neil Armstrong in May 1952 whilst serving in the Korean War.


Step 2: Crop the Photograph

Step 1 - Crop.png

Cropping an image is very simple; all you have to do is use the Selection tool to pick what part of the image you want to keep, then go Image > Crop. This will make the end result better as the unneeded parts would have been removed.

Step 3: Set Brush Hardness to 10%

Step 2 - Set Hardness to 10%.png

Press the Brush tool, click the Arrow in the image provided and set the Hardness to 10%. This makes the brush stroke softer.

Step 4: Create a Solid Color Layer

Step 2 - Mask.png

Press Create a new Fill or Adjustment Layer

Step 3 - Select Solid Color.png

Select the Solid Color option.

Step 4 - Select a Red.png

Make sure to choose a Red color for this layer as it will be the undertone of the skin of the people in your photograph.

Step 6 - Change the Color Mask Thumbnail to Black by pressing Ctrl I.png

Press the Layer Mask Thumbnail and invert the color by pressing Ctrl + I.

Step 5 - Select Soft Light Layer.png

Set the Layer Blending Mode to Soft Light.

It is important to remember how to do this as you have to create Solid Color Fill layers for every color you use when coloring the Black and White Photograph. 

Step 5: Color in the Face

Step 7 - Color Face.png

Select the Color Fill Layer and use the Brush tool to color in all parts of the face except for the lips, eyes and eyebrows. Make sure the Brush is a suitable size for coloring the face.

Step 8 - Set Opacity to 15.png

Set the Opacity of this layer to 15% as this is only the undertone of the skin.

Step 6: Color in the Lips

Create a new Solid Color Fill Layer with a similar Red color used for the undertone and use the Brush tool to color the lips. Make sure the layer is of Soft Light Blending Mode You can then mess with the Opacity of the layer until it looks right. The sweet spot for me was 73%.

Step 7: Color in the Eyes

Step 10 - Color in Eyes - Lighter they are normally Blue Darker they are Brown.png

There are multiple ways of finding out what color a person's eyes are. You may already know the color if you knew the person, but if they are famous a quick Google will often come up with the answer. Also, old paintings can also be very helpful in finding the correct colors of things such as uniform and eye color. When you have found the correct color, create a new Solid Color Fill Layer and use the Brush tool to color in the eyes. You may have to reduce the Color and Opacity to make them look more realistic.

Step 8: Color the Hair

Step 11 - Color in Hair and Brows (Use Slightly Darker than what you would expect.png

In order to do the hair correctly, it is better to use a slightly darker color than what it actually is. The reason for this will be clear later in the tutorial. Do what you did before and Solid Color Fill Layer with the correct hair color and use the Brush tool to color.

Step 9: Color the Skin

Step 12 - Select A Color You Want For Skin.png

The first thing you have to do is make a Solid Color Fill Layer and select a Color that you want to use for the skin. The right tones for a Caucasian person tend to be lower down towards the orange and red. This is the color i decided to use for Neil Armstrong. I looked at modern pictures and found that this was the best color to use. 

Step 13 - Color in Face ( Same as Red).png

You then have to color in the face using the Brush tool. Follow the path that you took when creating the first layer of red as all the same places now need to be colored with your intended skin.

Step 14 - Lower Brush Opacity.png

Lower the Brush Opacity to 50%.

Step 15 - Color Over Hair With the Color used for Skin.png

Use the Brush tool and on the same layer, color the hair. This ensures that the colors merge with each other more effectively. This process also makes the hair lighter which is why you originally should use a darker tone for the hair.

Step 10: Color in the Rest of the Photograph

Step 17 - Create Layer Masks For Each and Color each part of clothing with wanted color.png

To do the clothes you may have to research to find the correct colors for each, but you can just make educated guesses. Make sure to create a new Solid Color Fill Layer for each color that you use.

Finally, Create your last Solid Color Fill Layer and select a color that will not look bad with the other colors used. This will be for the background. If it is a portrait of someone famous, you may be able to find out the actual color used for the background; this will add to the authenticity of the colorized image.

And just like that, you have colored your first ever Black and White Photograph! Remember, your first time will not be perfect, with practice you will only get better. These are only the basic steps taken towards coloring a vintage photo and there will be tutorials in the future so you can improve your skills even more. If you have any questions, feel free to comment down below.

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