Colorized historic photographs enhance and refine the original black and white pictures, and make them come to live, giving them a new visual perspective. Each black and white monochrome photograph is professionally “painted” with the brilliance of color that’s perfect for the modern home, office, and any other space that’s prime for the art of colorful nostalgia.
So my latest art and photography endeavor has brought me to the art of colorizing old monochrome photographs. And I say art because it is an art form that’s been around almost since the advent of photography itself. In the old days, artists and print makers would hand paint monochrome photographs. Today we still hand paint monochrome photographs, but with the help of a computer and digital paint using software like Photoshop. In this blog, I will show you how I use today’s methods to achieve the colorization of old monochrome photos. I will focus on the use of the software Photoshop since that’s what I’m familiar with and there are a huge community of Photoshop users out there already that I can always rely on for tips and tricks and bug fixes. Of course, you can use the software of your choice, you’ll just have to extrapolate from the concepts and techniques that I will be presenting here. For colorizing monochrome photographs, a computer with a fast processor, a lot of RAM memory, and a good graphics card is recommended, but you can get by with most any computer today since most computers today will have more juice than what I currently use which is an older mediocre by today’s standards, Dell Precision M4500 laptop which has an Intel Core i7 CPU X 920 @ 2.00 GHz, and 16 GBytes of RAM memory. That’s as of this writing, circa 7/4/2017. I say as of this writing because when I look back at some of my older blogs like my “How To Photograph Birds In Flight (BIF)” which dates back to 2009 where I state the equipment that I used, I have to laugh and feel a tad embarrassed! Your computing needs will depend a lot on how far you want to take this, the resolution size of the image file, and how complex your colorized photo becomes. A good large monitor is a must, unless you’re okay squinting at a smaller monitor for hours at a time. I’m currently using an ASUS 27″ monitor at a resolution of 2,560×1,440 connected to my laptop. As for input device, I use the good old mouse. Some people will swear by the use of a graphics tablet like the Wacom Intuos Pro I have but don’t use, mainly because I haven’t spent enough time getting used to it, but for the number of times I’ve tried to use it, the drawing motion felt unnatural. What? Unnatural!? It’s as close to being a pen without actually having liquid ink, how can it be unnatural? I think the unnaturalness has to do with the fact that I’ve used the mouse for like 100 years now and my eye hand coordination is now infused with the mouse and I get more control from it than using a stylus on a tablet. Plus, there are a number of things while computing that you still have to use the mouse to do beyond just drawing. You end up jumping from mouse to stylus to mouse again.
Use High Resolution Image
Starting out with a high resolution image is a must, especially if you want to either show your work big on the monitor or print big. I try to use images anywhere from 3,000 pixels in the long side and larger. You generally don’t want to digitally enlarge an image since you will lose detail when you do so. And old monochrome photos are generally already naturally grainy due to the analog techniques used at the time, their details tend to fall apart fairly quick when you try to digitally enlarge them. There’s a number of places where you can find high resolution public domain images, two of my favorite sites are the Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons. Another one is photos from your old family album which you can scan at a high resolution.
Prepare, Straighten Up And Clean Your Monochrome Photos
Open up your monochrome photo image in Photoshop. Make a duplicate layer of the image [layer->duplicate layer], you never want to work on the original in case you need to go back to it at some point, so work on the duplicate layer and hide the original monochrome image until you need it which may be never but it’s still good to have it, like buying insurance. You’ll also want to make sure the image mode is in RGB [Image->Mode->RGB]. Most old monochrome images are saved in grayscale mode which keeps the size of the file small since no color is needed for a monochrome image. But you cannot add color to a grayscale image, so you’ll need to set the image mode to some sort of color, and in this case, we will set it the RGB.
If needed, proceed to straightening up the elements within your image. Not all images will have elements that need straightening, usually images with a lot of linear elements like buildings in a cityscape will need some sort of straightening due to the parallax effect of photography. Pull down [Edit->Transform]. You can experiment with what’s in that menu, but the ones I find to work best for performing this action is either the “Distort” or the “Perspective” functions.
If the entire photo is crooked, straighten it up! A good sign your entire photo is at an odd angle is if there is a horizon in the scene and it is not perfectly horizontal. Another sign of a crooked image is if objects in the scene look precariously like they’re going to fall off the shelf. Use the [edit->transform->rotate] function.
You’ll want to do either or both of the above straightening before you do any sort of coloring, it’ll make life a lot easier on yourself.
Crop your image if needed. You may find your image to show a white edge beyond the picture itself that doesn’t belong in the picture. Or you may just want to crop to a more standard size like a proportion of 8×10 or 8×12 or 9×12 or 9×16, etc. Window in the area you want to crop by using the “Rectangular Marquee Tool for this action. Then use the [Image->Crop] function to make the crop.
Next, try to clean your image of as much of the aged anomalies as possible. This includes any folds, wrinkles, cracks, and all those white or black spots. The Spot Healing Brush tool works best, the icon looks like a band-aid, don’t know if that’s what it is, but it sure looks like one. This cleaning part can be very tedious and seem to take forever for some images. Luckily, this cleaning can be done in parts – do some in the beginning, then every so often while you are colorizing and you want to take a break from colorizing, spot heal some more, and do the rest at the end. In other words, jump to the monochrome image and work on the cleaning whenever you have nothing better to do, but at the end, it should be fairly clean, subject to your discriminating preference. The General Ulysses Grant image is an example of such anomalies you may find in an old monochrome image. There are obvious white and black dots as well as that big ugly black something at the left side and at the bottom left corner. When zoomed in, you can see a lot of scratches as well. The upper right corner has a funky edge that needs to be cropped. This particular monochrome example is shown here to clearly show some of the anomalies you will find in old images and the amount of preparation, cleaning, and straightening you may have to do on any given image before even getting started on coloring it. In this image, the background is a simple solid tone with no real objects to show, but in most cases, there are important background objects that need to remain in the photo to make it look real and you WILL have to do the preparing, cleaning, and straightening on those images. I point this out because, in the case of the General Ulysses Grant image, I was able to take a short cut and bypass cleaning all the anomalies by masking the background and applying a “dust and scratches” noise filter on it to blur and mash together the anomalies, effective hiding it instead of cleaning each anomaly. The more you work on your photos, the more you will start to find better more efficient ways of doing that work.
OK, Let’s Get to the Fun Part Already, Will Ya!
For the discussion below, I will use the first image above at the start of my blog, “Power House Mechanic Working On Steam Pump” by Lewis Hine.
Layers Layers Layers!
I use a lot of layers in my colorizations. I separate just about every element or sets of elements in the image into layers which corresponds with a distinct color. Name your layers short and concise to describe the element in the image. For example, use the layer name “skin” for skin, etc. And set the Mode to “Soft Light”. Soft light will allow the monochrome image tones to show through similar to applying a thin coat of watercolor to a monochrome picture. This is important since you still need the monochrome image to show but with a translucent color on top of it. And the use of layers to separate each element and its color is important for one simple but crucial reason – the ability to adjust them independently during and after you have finished the colorization. You will never stick the color just right the first time, nor will you ever get the brightness/contrast right for everything. So by separating each element into color layers, you have the ability to make those adjustments as your colorization evolves and continue to fine tune it after you are done. The “Power House Mechanic Working On Steam Pump” image has only 35 layers. My current colorized photo with the most layers used is the one I did for “Bandit’s Roost” by Jacob Hine, that one took 103 layers!
Use The Brush Tool
Use the brush tool and set the brush to a size appropriate for the area you are coloring in. Some experimentation will help you get to know the brush size you need for any given element. I use a Hardness of 0% to 20%, yes that’s very soft, you might want to experiment with the hardness to see what you are comfortable with using. I use a soft brush simply because that’s what I’ve been using with success for other things in the past. As they say YMMV! I start with a relatively large brush on a large area of an element to see what my chosen color will look like. If I don’t like it, I adjust the color and redo. Once I get the color just right, I zoom into the edges and reduce the size of my brush to get a finer but still soft edge. Once the edges on any given element is completed, I zoom back out, use a larger brush size, and brush in the inner parts of the element.
Now with the layer mode set to “soft light”, it’s difficult to see if you miss a spot or two. You can temporarily flip the layer mode to “normal” to see the spots you missed. Or my trick is to hide the monochrome image every so often to see all layers with missing spots at one time, and fill in those missed spots, since when you turn off the monochrome image, even with the color layer in “soft light” mode, the color will show up solid where you can easily see your all missed spots as shown in the “Power House Mechanic Working On Steam Pump” image above.
More Layers! And Keep Them Organized!
For images where the subject is a person as in the “Power House Mechanic Working On Steam Pump” image, I generally start by coloring the person, and more precisely the person’s head. Again, every element is a color layer. The skin is a layer. Sometimes, I even separate skin into head, hands, and feet layers, and if there are multiple people in the picture, they may also require separate skin layers depending on their ethnicity, etc. If the fingernail or toenail is showing, they would be on a different layer – look at your fingernail or toenail now, they are not the same as your skin color! Hair is a different layer, eyeballs are a different layer, lips are a different layer, eyebrows may be a different layer than the general hair layer. In effect, every element or set of similar elements should be placed in a separate color layer. I generally work my way from the front of the scene to the back of the scene. That also nicely keeps the layer list in a sequential order which is helpful in finding any darn layer once you start accumulating 30 or more layers. Imagine hundreds of layers and you’re trying to find that one bolt layer! Anyhow, that was the skin layer. Now like shampoo, apply, rinse, and repeat (minus the rinse) until you have all the elements in the image scene as separate color layers and all colored in.
Some Tips and Precautions
Once you’ve gotten a few layers colored in, you can use those layers as borders for coloring other layers. Using the “Power House Mechanic Working On Steam Pump” as an example, once you’ve gotten the skin layer colored in and completed, you can use that layer as a border by which you can paint up to and having photoshop automatically prevent you from painting into it by first selecting the entire image by pressing the keyboard ctrl and “a” keys, which by itself will allow you to paint anywhere on the image. But since we want to use the skin layer as a border to paint up to and have photoshop automatically prevent you from painting into, press the keyboard ctrl and alt keys, then pick the skin layer’s icon to deselect elements in that layer, in essence allowing you to paint anywhere on the image up to the elements in that skin layer. For the sake of this discussion, I’m going to call this selection a “deselection set” since our goal is to deselect the elements of a layer from the selected area that can be painted on. Continuing the example, you can now create a “shirt” layer and color up to the skin without having to worry about coloring into the skin layer.
Once you’ve gotten the entire person colored in, you can load and use all the layers of that person as a border for coloring in the steam pump door behind the person. Again, start by pressing the keyboard ctrl and “a” keys to select the entire image, then press the keyboard ctrl and alt keys and pick a layer icon to deselect that layer’s element, and continue picking other layer’s icons (still with the keyboard cntl and alt keys press) to deselect elements from those layers too until you’ve gotten all the layers you want to deselect which in essence results in everything selected minus those elements from layers which you’ve deselected and which becomes the border by which you can paint up to and have photoshop automatically prevent you from painting into. After having deselected all the layers to create the borders of the person, you can save that for later use by picking from the top menu [select->save selection] and giving that “deselection set” a name. To use it again later, simply pick from the top menu [select->load selection] and pick the name you gave it previously found under “channel”. If you want to keep deselecting from that “deselection set”, load that “deselection set”, and then continue to press the keyboard ctrl and alt keys and picking the layer’s icon you want to deselect. I generally do this accumulative deselecting of layers and saving it to the same name to use as borders to paint areas that I haven’t painted. Be careful when saving your updated deselection set, once you have given your deselection set a name, you don’t want to type in the same name to save it, if you do, you just end up with another deselection set with the same name. What you want to do is, pull down the same [select->save], but instead of typing in a name, pull down the “channel” row and pick the name you gave it the first time.
But be careful when jumping from layer to layer when coloring. You can easily forget you are on one layer when you are on another and end up coloring in the wrong layer, effectively minimizing the effectiveness of layers and how you can adjust them. I often run into this coloring in the wrong layer problem right after I pick another layer to load its selection and forget to go back to the layer I was supposed to be coloring. If you find you have done that and if you are not too far into coloring into the wrong layer, simply go back in your history and start again from the right layer. If you have completed coloring the entire area in the layer, you can try to cut and paste the color back into its right layer.
Colorizing monochrome images can be very rewarding as you see the reality and power that color brings to an image. But creating color where there wasn’t any color before is not an easy task especially if you intend to keep true to the original colors that could not be shown or documented when the monochrome image was taken, namely for those monochrome images where color photography had not yet been invented. So a good eye for color combinations and having a good understanding for colors of the period your image was taken is key for a successful believable colorized photograph. Good thing we have Google and other search engines today where we can find information and other similar period images with color either hand painted or literally described. And even movies depicting that period is a good tool in so far as they usually have already done a certain amount of research for you. Then you add in a level of visual appeal to your palette to make the whole scene not only true to the period but visually appealing, cohesive and color coordinated! And you may add a flair of artistic licensing – where colors of the early 1900’s were mostly earth tones like browns, tans, and greens, plus grays and other dark tones which can dull a scene, toss in some color to make the scene pop. Give the scene some blues and cyans. Red is especially powerful when used sparingly. But again, as in most things, moderation is the key to success, so don’t over do the added colors.
Thank you for listening to my babbling! This whole colorizing monochrome images has been an exciting experience for me, and I hope you too will find that excitement once you do a few of your own. And please check out my website at www.wingsdomain.com or studio-v.wingsdomain.com where you can find not only my latest colorized photography artwork, but see and BUY (key word “BUY”!) any of my large and diverse collection of art and photography available in prints, framed prints, canvas prints, acrylic prints, metal prints, wood prints, and even as greeting cards! And tell a friend! Tell a family member! Tell your pet! Buying a print from my website is how I am able to write blogs like this to help you my viewers understand, appreciate, and create art and photography. Your contribution is appreciated. Below are some pieces from my website, you can pick on any of the images below (as well as any of the framed images throughout this blog) to get information on owning a museum quality print.