Colorize Black and White Photos in Photoshop

Some projects call for black-and-white photos; others work better with color images. But for certain projects, nothing can beat a black-and-white photo that you custom colorize.

In this tutorial, you’ll learn two helpful techniques for adding hues to grayscale photos using Adobe Photoshop. One technique works well when you’re adding a uniform color across an area, while the second, more subtle, method lets you paint varying color within the same area. Both approaches preserve the texture of the original photo, creating a realistic color photo from a black-and-white original.

Step 1
Open a black-and-white photo in Photoshop. You can follow along by downloading this public domain photo from the New York Public Library Digital Collection.

Step 2
Old photos often have scratches and dust marks. While the focus of this tutorial is not on removing those, I did get rid of a few of the obvious scratches in this image. One way to do so yourself is to select the Clone Stamp tool (S) and choose a size 60, soft-edged brush for this example.

Press Option (PC: Alt) and click on the top area where there aren’t many scratches for the Clone Stamp tool source area. Then click over a scratch to replace those pixels with the source pixels. Sample source pixels often so there’s not a lot of repetition in the pattern of the texture.

Step 3
Now that you’ve removed the noticeable scratches, let’s add some color. The first method involves selecting an area that you want to color, then adding that color via Hue/Saturation.

I’ll use the Polygonal Lasso tool since I’ll be selecting the dress area, and it has a lot of straight lines.

Note: You can press the Spacebar to click-and-drag around the canvas without having to interrupt the selection, and press Cmd (PC: Ctrl) and the – and + signs to zoom in and out without having to switch to the Zoom tool.

Step 4
Hold Shift and then click-and-drag another area that you want to apply the same color to. For this example, select around the rest of the dress. Holding Shift adds to the selection; hold Option (PC: Alt) to subtract from a selection. Once you’ve selected the entire area that needs to be adjusted to the same hue, soften the edge of the selection by going to Selection > Refine Edge and adding a 1-pixel feather.

Then go to Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation and check the Colorize box. Note: Before deselecting, you may want to go to Select > Save Selection. That makes it easy to open the selection later and adjust the hue quickly.

Step 5
Repeat steps 3 and 4 for other parts of the photo with varying hues, saturations, and lightness. Try different levels, too. Unless you’re going for a cartoonish look, keep the saturation levels lower.

Step 6
For the rest of the areas to adjust, such as the chicken legs, the hair, and the background, let’s use a different technique. The basic idea of this technique is to add a new layer and paint new hues on it, then adjust them with the Layer Blending Mode.

Select the chicken legs, the hair, and the background, even though they’ll be different colors.

Click the Create a New Layer icon on the bottom of the Layers panel. Making sure that this new layer is the active one, choose a soft-edged brush and paint your desired colors onto the canvas. You can adjust the brush size and color for variation. To see through the layer temporarily, adjust the Opacity of the new layer.

Don’t worry — this isn’t the final result!

Step 7
Use the dropdown menu at the top of the Layers panel to change the Layer Blending Mode of the layer you just painted on to Multiply, Overlay, Soft Light, or Color, depending on your photo. I chose Soft Light and also set the Opacity to 44%.

And there you go, a colorized photo! Use these two techniques for adding emphasis and interest to just about any grayscale photo.

 

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Posted on: February 22, 2010

Chad Neuman

I'm an internationally published freelance writer and journalist with a master's in journalism and media studies from the University of South Florida. Subscribe to my mailing list to receive very occasional updates and free vector art/graphics. I have experience in copy and layout editing, web design, and visual communication. I've worked as features editor, supervising layout editor, and copy editor for various newspapers as well as webmaster for the new media department of the News Chief. I've been the internet development director for an advertising design agency, designing web sites, newsletters, and even coming up with a slogan for a Publix/United Way event. I was most recently managing editor of two international graphic design magazines (helping launch one of them). I am currently an assistant professor of communication, teaching media ethics, journalism, layout and design, magazine design and production, public relations and media advertising writing, writing for digital media, and photography.

6 Comments on Colorize Black and White Photos in Photoshop

  1. Thanx Chad for the concise colorization lessons. I have lot’s of blk & wht family photos that could use a splash of color- never thought to do before!

  2. Thank you for the tutorial ! Though the Coloriage plugin looks easier for me. I do not have to do all these hard techniques, it’s an automation plugin. And I like the result.
    It works with any version of Photoshop and PSE.
    http://creativepro.com/article/colorize-grayscale-photos

  3. AWSOMEEE (Y)

  4. Try to look in the mirror… U think colors are matching?

  5. Hi! I’ve always wondered how this was possible, and thanks to your tutorial I now can do so much more.
    But i’m stuck at one step.. After using the Polignal tool I can’t use te HueSaturation tool. It’s blocked. Is it because I need to work from the start at the original Background layer? I’m using a Background copy layer to work at.
    Thanks!

  6. thank you soooo very much

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