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Adding Color to Photographs

Fig. 1
Digital photography gives you a lot of creative freedom with your images and it is easy to turn them into Black & White images in Adobe Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. One of the traditional creative techniques used by photographers is to colorize a Black & White image using paint or dye. While some people will go to the effort of having a B&W photo printed using photographic processes and then whipping out the brushes, Photoshop gives us the tools to create this effect with more flexibility and latitude for errors. This month I’m taking a look at techniques for colorizing B&W photos.

I started thinking about this when a client asked me to replace a Black & White product shot with the color version. After we realized there was no color photograph, I was asked to drop in some color. It was a simple product, composed of silver and gold metallic plastic (Fig. 1). The first step is to convert the grayscale image to RGB color mode (Image > Mode > RGB Color). To create the look of a color photograph, I worked with one element at a time starting with the silver area. I created a new layer (Layer > New Layer) above the photo, set it to Color Blending Mode and titled it ‘Silver Overlay’ (Fig. 2). I then selected the entire canvas (Select > All) and filled it a pale blue color (you won’t really be able to tell in this black and white magazine, but I used R-209, G-229, B-233). Since the layer is set to Color Mode you see only the hue and saturation of the color on this layer, the underlying luminance is preserved.

Fig. 2

This will give you a good idea what the colorization will look like, but in my case it was much too intense so I dialed the opacity of that layer back to 34%. Since I filled the entire canvas the whole image has a blue cast. To just put the effect where I want a created a Layer Mask that hid all of the ‘Silver Overlay’ layer (Layer > Add Layer Mask > Hide All). This fills the Layer Mask with black. Remember, anything in a Layer Mask that is white allows the image on that layer to show, anything that is black will be transparent and show the layers beneath. I then painted on the Layer Mask with white to reveal the parts of the Silver Overlay above the silver parts of the image.

These steps were then repeated for the gold areas of the image using a ‘Gold Overlay’ layer. The layer was filled with a yellow color (R-250, G-224, B-72) and the opacity was set to 27% (Fig. 3). This method gives you a lot of flexibility; you can easily change the hue or make it more or less saturated.

Fig. 3

It is very rare for most people to shoot Black & White photos, especially with digital cameras. But you can still use these techniques to add an artistic dimension to otherwise ordinary portraits or landscapes. Here’s how I like to approach this sort of thing. Open up a photo and duplicate the background layer by dragging it to the New Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers palette. Select the new layer, name it ‘B&W’ and Desaturate it (Image > Adjustments > Desaturate) to make it Black & White.

You can now duplicate the color background layer again, set it to Color Blending Mode, drag it above the B&W layer in the Layers palette and add a Layer Mask that hides everything. You can now selectively add in the color that you want by painting with white on the Layer Mask (Fig. 4). You can add to the effect by applying any of the artistic filters to this color layer. You can also use the color overlay technique described above to add colors that weren’t in the original image (Fig 5).

Fig. 4

Now here’s a different way to achieve a similar effect. This time, instead of painting a color on a layer above the Black & White image, we will paint underneath it. Start by putting the B&W layer in Multiply Blending Mode. In Multiply Mode, anything that is black will be black, but anything white will be transparent. Now add two new layers beneath the B&W layer, one filled with white and called ‘White’ and the other called ‘Color’. Leave both in the Normal Blending Mode.

Fig. 5

Now you can paint on the ‘Color’ layer and see the hues show through the parts of your image that are not completely black. Unless you are fairly delicate with your choice of colors, this effect can appear pretty cartoony, but that is the beauty of painting the color on a separate layer. You can easily lower the opacity level until you are satisfied with your image (Fig 6).

Fig. 6

Another cool effect that bridges the worlds of modern and traditional photography is the sepia tone look. This is that nice warm brown tone that you often see on old photographs. Take your desaturated color image and use the Hue/Saturation adjustment (Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation). Check the Colorize box and move the sliders until you have the color your looking for, I chose Hue 47 and Saturation 22 as well as Lightness +10 so that I could see the effect on more of the dark areas of the image (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7

Adobe’s Photoshop programs are great tools for working with digital photographs, but there is no reason o abandon over a century’s worth of techniques and experimentation now that the medium has been transformed. Elegantly colorized photographs can add additional meaning and emotion to an image.

Paul Vaughn is a freelance graphic artist, writer and web designer. If you would like to see the Graphics Guy address a specific topic email Paul Vaughn at


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