How to "Hand-Color" B&W Photographs Digitally in Photoshop

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Not long ago, I wrote a B&H Explora “How-to” article about hand-coloring black & white photographs using toned black-and-white prints and transparent photo oils. The article was well received and fun to produce. It also got me wondering if there was a way to produce images that emulate the look, color, and feel of hand-colored prints electronically using Photoshop.

Long story short, I played around a bit and—wouldn’t you know—it’s possible. You can do it. Not only that, but unlike hand-coloring photographs with oil paint, there’s zero cleanup. All you have to do when you’re finished is hit “Save.”

Photographs © Allan Weitz 2020

You Start with a Black-and-White Image…

If you have an existing black-and-white image, good; you’ve completed the first step. Take five and talk among yourselves. If you’re starting with a color image file, you have two choices. The first option is to open the image in Photoshop and go to IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS > HUE/SATURATION and slip the SATURATION slider in the MASTER channel all the way to your left. Boom, you have a black-and-white conversion of your color image file.

The second—and preferable—method is to open your image in Photoshop and go to IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS > BLACK & WHITE, and pause at the Color Channel Menu.

This step gives you an opportunity to tweak the tonality of the image by adjusting the Red, Yellow, Green, Cyan, Blue, and Magenta color channels individually. This is important because, when coloring photographs, you want to be able to open up the shadow areas in order expand the image’s range of tonality while revealing previously hidden detail. These adjustments can be performed globally in “Master” mode, but you have far more control over highlights and shadows if you go through the image file color channel by color channel.

The best method of converting a color image file to black-and-white in Photoshop is to go to IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS > BLACK & WHITE. From there you adjust each of the sliders in order to maximize the degree of detail you can see from highlights through to the darkest shadows. For best results, render the image a bit brighter than normal before hitting the Save button.

For best results, it’s recommended you lighten your final image about 10-15% more than you normally would before hitting the Save button. Doing so allows the colors to better blend and meld their way into the shadow areas. Keep in mind you can always increase the density of your shadow areas, as well as make fine adjustments to the saturation and tonal values of each of the color channels at the end of the process. (I will remind you about this again toward the end of the story)

Before moving forward, make sure you are using an RGB image file—not a single-channel Grayscale file. They look the same on your monitor, but we can’t make magic today if the image file is Grayscale only.

If you converted your color file to black-and-white using either of the methods described above, you are good to go. If you’re not sure if your black-and-white image is RGB or Grayscale, open the file in Photoshop and go to IMAGE > MODE. If the image is Grayscale, simply open your image file in Photoshop, go to IMAGE > MODE > RGB COLOR, and boom—you now have an RGB image file. OK, let’s move on.

This color photograph of the tow path that runs alongside the Delaware-Raritan Canal was taken with an iPhone 8-Plus. In order to “hand-color” the image electronically, I sent it to my workstation and opened it up in Photoshop.
The first step is to convert the image to monochrome. Take the time to adjust the tonality of the image in each of the color channels for optimal detail and coloring surfaces.

Now the Fun Begins

Let’s start by opening a black-and-white image file. Take a good look at the image and decide which portion of the picture you want to color and what color you want it to be. Once decided, go to IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS > PHOTO FILTER, and a selection of 21 industry-standard photographic filters appears. If you’re familiar with the basic filters for black-and-white and color photography, you will recognize all of them.

With few exceptions, I commonly begin the coloring process by lightly sepia-toning the entire image at a density lighter than the default 25%. (I said usually—please keep that in mind.) The reason is that with the exception of ash, Nantucket, and certain varieties of stone, nothing is neutral gray in this world. The moon is gray. Earth isn’t. When working on land and seascapes, I often keep certain rocks—or portions of the rocks—in the images natural gray tone. In the case of architecture, I will often leave a majority of the base image in its untouched neutral state.

When you go to IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS > COLOR FILTER, the default filter is an orange # 85 Warming Filter. The default density settings for each of the filters is 25% when you first open them. The filtered image can be viewed WYSIWYG, and like most filters and adjustment menus in Photoshop you can click the image or small checkbox to preview the image before and after.

Note: Each step of the way I make a point of adjusting the flow, edge hardness, and opacity of the new color in order to maintain a level of realism.

My first step in the coloring process was to warm the overall image by filtering it with an 85 Warming Filter set to 25% density (IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS > PHOTO FILTER). Using the History brush, I clicked on the original image file and returned some of the rocks and a few other smaller details back to their original neutral tones. These are the sorts of details that reinforce the “realness” of the final color image.

Next, I went back to the filter menu (IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS > PHOTO FILTER) and selected the green filter, adjusted the density to a higher 78%, and applied the green filter to my image. Using my History brush, I clicked on the green-filtered image and began filling in the leaves in the trees and bushes that lined the canal. In order to vary the tone of the greenery without creating any jarring effects, I selectively adjusted the flow of my brushes to increase and decrease the color intensities of the green, which gives the image added depth and a more realistic feel.

I next applied a green filter at 78% density, and using my History brush, went back to my previous image and filled in the leaves and bushes. To vary the tonality of the greenery, I varied the flow from my brush to emphasize the highlight and shadow areas in the trees.

Next, I repeated the above step using a blue filter at 18% density for the sky and water. Using the History brush, I filled in the areas I wanted rendered in blue and hit Save.

Next, a blue photo filter was used at 18% density for the sky and water.

My final step was to add a bit of Sepia into the mix in order to vary the earthy tone of the tow path. I also went back to the original black-and-white conversion and, using the History brush, “neutralized” some of the stones along the water and a few other areas to render them gray.

The original iPhone photograph (left) and my digitally hand-colored rendition of the scene using Photoshop’s Black & White filters menu and the History brush (right). My intent was not to exactly duplicate the original image—though I could have if I’d pursued the effort—but to color the image by “feel” and personal aesthetics. The beauty of working in this manner is that there isn’t any right or wrong involved in the process—it’s purely personal.

Throughout the process, it’s important to monitor the flow, density, and edge sharpness of the brushes in order to maintain a balance of color and contrast. I often make fine adjustments to contrast and color levels along the way and often do a final tweak before saving the final image.

The following are additional before and after images of black-and-white photographs I have digitally colored using this workflow process. Most of the original images used in this series started off as color and were converted to black & white using the process described in the above text. In each set, the original image is on the left and the reimagined color version is on the right.

The “faux color process” described above is just one of many methods to choose from for emulating color photographs. I prefer this method because it works well and the Photo Filter color palette renders color similar to the look of traditional photo oils, which I’ve used often in the past. I also have years of familiarity using Kodak Photo filters, so when I hear the terms 81A and 85B, I know exactly what the tonal values should be.

Do keep in mind it’s not imperative to match the colors identically to the original. If anything, you should approach coloring these images as an interpretive creative process. If you have a preferred methodology, go for it, and when you have a moment, let us know about it in the Comments field below. No doubt others would like to hear about it. I know I would.

10 Comments

I might suggest, for those wanting to know why you might want to "hand color" a color photo in Photoshop, that you could try using one of the many brush tools in the filters section to get a little more/different texture to the image, to make the final image more personal, and less like the original. The final image is what is important, not the procedure of how you got there.

All good points - thanks Roger!

It’s called “creative interpretation.” You can take a snap-shot and record a beautiful scene but a (capital P) Photographer reacts to That scene and adds his own take on it. This technique is one more tool in the toolbox and I can’t wait to try it!

Your article seems to explain the process well but I guess I might ask why you would take a good color photo, convert it to B&W just so you can convert it back to color? I only due simple digital manipulations so it seems like if you want to correct the color, you skip the B&W. 

Good point Henry. Maybe a bit of background will tidy things up. This project originated when I was coloring photographs I originally captured in black & white using traditional transparent photo oils. Having diddled around bending the curves in Photoshop, it dawned on me the colors were similar to the tonality of my photo oils. One thing lead to another and before you know it, I'm playing around with color images.

-AW  

Sorry, I don't understand the point of Bruce B's comment. 

Step one: Dont

Step two: See step one

Good catch Luis - and that's one I usually spot myself. 

-AW

In this context, it's "palette", not "palate". Two very different things, check with Mr Webster if in doubt.

Luis!

Right you are. We have fixed the error. And didn't need to consult Mr. Webster, either. Thanks for your eagle eye. Sometimes, a word or two eludes us just by sheer volume of copy.

HG, Copy Editor

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