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· TSF - Emeritus
15,058 Posts
Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)
Expertise Level: Beginner to expert – the text below is written for primarily for beginners.

This is a simple Photoshop tutorial on colouring black & white photographs. Many of us have a box full of old black and white photos that were taken years ago. Some of these photographs may benefit from hand colouring to make them stand out from the ordinary.

Hand colouring is far easier than the name implies. In this tutorial we will be using only 4 colours. We won’t even need to worry about the different tones of the colour. The colouring technique looks after that for you.

The tutorial also gives an introduction to ‘Layers’. Again it is a very simple way of learning what a ‘layer’ is and what one can do with them and how they can interact with each other. Before we start the tutorial proper, it is a good idea to have a small understanding of what a layer is. You can think of a layer as a transparent film placed on top of the original image. That is a layer! In reality, when you open an image in Photoshop, that image is a layer and known as the ‘Background’. It is as easy as that. You can have as many layers as needed. In this tutorial, we will use five layers; one for the background image and one each of the four colours we use.

The Tutorial:

The object of this tutorial is to show the easy techniques used to convert this black & white image to the coloured version. This technique will work in virtually all versions of Photoshop and other imaging software that supports layers and layer blending. We will be creating a layer for each of the four colours.
(a) Skin tone layer
(b) Hair colour
(c) Lip colour layer
(d) Hat & coat colour layer
We will also set the blending mode for each layer and then paint the colour associated to that layer. When we select the appropriate colour for each of the tasks, you may think that it is wrong, especially the Skin Tone. It will look far too dark. But this is where the magic of Photoshop comes in. This technique will automatically blend the colour to the various shades needed. This is done by the darker portions of the image, the stronger the colour. Conversely, the lighter portions of the image will depict a lighter blended colour. You will fully understand this as soon as you start to paint onto the layer.

Fig 1: Before and after.

The starting image:

Fig 2: The starting image

The good news is that you do not have to be an expert or used Photoshop before. Photoshop can be quite intimidating if you are not familiar with it. Remember: You do not need to know what everything does or how to use the vast array of tools. In this tutorial, only the tools or features that are marked in Fig 3 will be used. You can totally ignore all other Photoshop tools and facilities. You will be guided as to when and how to use those listed.

Fig 3: Photoshop CS6 with the start image loaded.
Depicting the few tools needed for this tutorial
Note: Different versions of Photoshop may have different colour schemes to that shown here.

Section 1: Creating a layer.
With the start image loaded into Photoshop, we now need to create a new layer. Remember, a layer is invisible until something gets put onto it. To create a layer, simply click on the ‘Create New Layer’ icon at the bottom of your Layers Pallet as indicated in Fig 4.

Fig 4: the Layers Pallet. If you can’t see a layers Pallet, press F7 to display it.

The new layer will be created and given a generic name of ‘Layer 1’ as in Fig 5

Fig 5: The layers pallet now showing two layers. The original image (Background) and Layer 1.

It is advisable to give each layer an meaningful name. In this instance we will be colouring the skin. Therefore a good name for that layer will be ‘Skin Tone’. To change the layer name is simple. Just double click on its name and rename it.

Section 2: Setting the Blend Mode.
Ensuring that the Skin Tone layer is selected, now click on the ‘Normal’ mode selector as per (1) and select ‘Soft Light’ as per (2) in Fig 6.

Fig 6: Selecting the ‘blend mode’

The layers pallet should now look like Fig 7. Ensure that Soft Light blend and Skin Tone layer is selected.

Fig 7: The layers pallet showing Soft Light & Skin Tone layer is selected.

Section 3: Selecting the appropriate colour.
Now comes the interesting and therapeutic part of the exercise; adding the colour. We need to select a suitable skin colour. Click on the Colour Picker tool as shown in fig 8 and set the number in the # box as 696432. The new colour will also be shown in the box at the top of the Colour Picker box. Once you have set the new colour, click on OK.

Fig 8: The Colour Picker settings for the skin tones

Section 4: Painting the colour onto the layer.
Now select the Paint Brush tool (see Fig 3 above). Also set the size and softness of the brush. If you are using the start image, set the brush size to say 10 to 15 pixels and softness at about 20%. The softness will give a nice soft edge to the painted lines. You will find it helpful to change the size and softness/hardness of the brush from time to time. Only practice and experiments with this will show the true benefits of doing so.

Again, ensure that the Skin Tone later is selected; start to carefully paint over the skin of the subject. Avoid painting over the hair, eyes and the lips or non-skin areas. Only paint over the skin areas. Note how the shade of the colour changes as you paint. This is due to selecting the ‘Soft Light’ blend.

Fig 9: Start painting the skin tone in and notice how the shades blend in.

When you have finished the skin tone, you can check if you have missed any areas (easy to do) by temporarily making the background layer invisible. Just click on the little eye icon that is on the background layer in the layers pallet. The icon will change to a tiny box shape to indicate it is invisible.

Fig 10: the raw skin colour, unblended because there is no background image to blend with.

When you have had a look at the raw colour on the layer, set the background layer back to visible by clicking on the tiny box shaped icon.

Section 5: notes for ther rest of the tutorial
Basically, once you have got to this point in the tutorial, you have learned all the techniques needed to hand colour the rest of the starting image. Indeed you will be able to hand colour just about any photograph. However, the following sections show the colour details for the hair, lips, hat and coat

Section 6: Hair, lips and clothes
Completing the other three colours is virtually the same procedure as depicted in sections 1 to 4 above. The only difference will be:
(a) The name of the layer
(b) The colour selected in the Colour Picker
The Blend Mode must be set as Soft light in each of the four colour layers

Create a new layer.
Name that layer: Hair colour
Ensure that the layer is selected and the Blend Mode ‘Soft Light’ is set

Fig 11: Colour settings for the hair layer

Create a new layer
Name for that layer: Lip colour
Ensure that the layer is selected and the Blend Mode ‘Soft Light’ is set

Fig 12: Colour settings for the lips

Fig 13: Lip detail

Clothes (Both hat and coat same colour):
Create layer
Name layer: Hat & Coat
Ensure that the layer is selected and the Blend Mode ‘Soft Light’ is set

I have not given details of eye colour. It will left for you to decide on eye colour. If you are colouring this example, then the eye colour was medium brown.

When you have completed all for colour layers, you can check that colouring in again by making the background layer temporarily invisible again.

Fig 14: The raw unblended image of the four colour layers.

… and finaly:

Section 7: Flattening and saving
To save the resulting picture as a .jpg, all the separate layers must be merged into one. This is very easy.
On the top menu, go to the ‘Layers’ button. In the dropdown box, select ‘Flatten Image’. See Fig 15

Fig 15: Flattening the layers into one

Fig 16: The completed hand coloured photograph.

Save the image as per normal.

Congratulations, you are done. You have probably noticed that we have not coloured the background of the photograph. It is often not necessary to do so. In some instances it enhances and makes the subject stand out more with a black & white background. That said, it will do no harm for you to colour the background – experiment with various colours set in the colour picker.

As with any task, the more you practice, the better you will become. Practice on simple images before attempting complex ones. Be comfortable with the techniques you have just learnt.

Hand colouring is not restricted to black and white photographs, Think of sketches and drawings that might be improved with a spash of colour.

Tips on saving:
First of all never work on an original image. Always make a copy of the original and work on that copy. That way, if you make a mistake, you still have the original to copy from.

Some restoration and or colouring work can take time to complete. It is important to save work in progress (WIP) at regular intervals. To preserve transparancy and layers, it is best to save WIP as the native .psd format. This also preserves the quality as well as the layers etc.

As .jpg file format does not support transparancy and layers, it is important to flatten the image before attempting to save as a .jpg.

· Macintosh Methodology Wizard - TSF Retired
13,638 Posts
Nice. I do wonder how the instructions translate to The GIMP. I'm too poor for PS, well, actually I have other toys I want to spend money on. But I'll have to try this on some of the old photos I inherited.
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