Photoshop tutorial: Colorize a photo in Photoshop

Learn how to add colour to an old black-and-white photo with beautiful results, in 11 simple steps.


Adding colour to black-and-white archive photography is great way to bring the past to life. There are a lot of really awful ‘tutorials’ on the web that will give your awful looking results, so we asked photographer Tigz Rice to develop a technique for colorizing old photos in Photoshop that will deliver attractive, appealing, realistic results.

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The aim here isn’t to make an old photo look like it was taken yesterday, but to maintain its vintage feel while using colour to make it visually appealing in a different way – and more eye-catching when used in print or online.

See also: How to whiten teeth in Photoshop and How to brighten eyes in Photoshop.

Or you could use it to make a new colour photo look like a colourised old photo by first converting it to black-and-white (Image > Adjustments > Black & White). Tigz has done something similar here, starting with a black-and-white photo of model Felicity Furore that she shot recently in monochrome – but this technique works just as well whether your photo was taken in 1916, 1966 or 2016.

STEP 1

Open your chosen black-and-white photo in Photoshop and clean up as necessary.

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If you are working from a scanned-in image, you may have creases or folds in the image you may want to remove using the Healing or Clone Brush.


STEP 2

To make it easier to add colour to your image, you’ll need to convert it into the CMYK colour space. While RGB channels represent light and brightness, CMYK channels represent pigment and how much of each colour is applied to the image. With this in mind, along with a little basic colour theory, it will make controlling our channels and finding the right colour far easier. It will also allow us to tone the image without too much of an affect on the overall brightness.

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To do this, go to Image > Mode > CMYK Color.

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STEP 3

First, lets look at adding some colour to the skin. We'll make adjustments to the whole image to begin with, then limit its effect to the areas of skin afterwards.

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In the Adjustments panel, click on Add New Curves icon. Rename this layer to ‘Skin’.


STEP 4

Still on the ‘Skin’ layer, click on the half-filled circle next to the layer mask to make the curve itself active again.

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In the Properties panel (Window > Properties) click on the CMYK dropdown menu and choose Cyan. 


STEP 5

Click in the middle of the line that runs bottom-left to top-right in the graph to create a new adjustment poin. Drag it down by about two squares on the grid to create a curve as shown.

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The Input number below the curves grid should sit at 50, whilst the Output should sit at around 30.

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STEP 6

Next, click on the dropdown menu again and choose Yellow. This time, create an adjustment point with an Input of 50 and an Output of around 52-53.

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STEP 7

Now, click on the dropdown menu once more and choose Magenta. Again, create an adjustment point with an Input of 50 and an Output of around 51-52.

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STEP 8

By now, you should have a pretty good starting point for all of your skin tones. Depending on the image and personal preference, you may need to go back and make minor tweaks to each of the three curves.

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STEP 9

Click on the layer mask attached to the Skin layer. Use Brush tool and set the foreground colour to black. Paint carefully over any areas of your image that are not skin.

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Tip: Depending on your image and the amount of contrast between surrounding areas of the image, you may find using one of the selection tools quicker.


STEP 10

Once you’re happy with the skin tone, repeat steps 3-8 for each additional colour you want to add to your image.

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If you want your new tones to sit well against each other in the image, try to keep your curve combinations within the same parameters on the curve graph. For example, if all of your curves have an Output marker sitting between 30-60, any tones that sits outside that range will appear more saturated in comparison.


STEP 11

Don’t forget to work on the black and white areas of your image too. Here I’ve created another curve for the whites of the eyes and the bedsheets, dropping the curve down in the K (Black) channel to add a little extra brightness.

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STEP 12

I’ve also added a hint of colour with the Cyan channel, with an Input of 50 and an Output of 48.

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And I'm finished. But before I go, read on for some tips to better colourize black-&-white photos.


STEP 13

Dragging down the Magenta will create a green base colour to work from. Dragging down Cyan will create an orange/brown base colour, whilst dragging down Yellow will create a deep blue/indigo.

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