How to Colorize Vintage Photos

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I recently tried adding color to a vintage black and white photo for the first time. It came out pretty well. It was neat to see the picture sort of “come to life”. I used Photoshop but most image programs have the capability.

Traditionally Hand-Coloring has been around almost as long as photography itself. Starting in the 1850s, daguerreotype could be hand painted with dyes or water colors to give a colorized effect. Now it can all be done digitally.

Step 1: Scan the black and white photo on the highest resolution possible. Scanners, copy machines and Kodak Picture Makers at local Walgreens can do this. Or take a photo with your camera.

Step 2: Find a color photo of a similar type to your B&W one. (ie is your photo of the ocean, the mountains, sunset, people with blonde hair, etc). This will be your color palette.

Step 3: If it is a portrait then start with the skin tone. Use the color picker tool (looks like an eyedropper) to pick flesh tones from your color photo.

Step 4: Select the Color Replacement Tool. This places color in a transparent wash similar to water color or airbrushing but doesn’t obscure the details of the photo. In photoshop, it is in the Paintbrush, then you select from a dropdown at the top for “Color”.

Step 5: Lower the opacity (aka the strength) of how much color is deposited. I start with about 30%. You can go over the same area several times to build up the color.

Step 6: Be sure to change your color palette as you go along. The forehead may have a different tone than the chin. For a rosier cheek common in Hand-Colored vintage photos pick up color from the lips.

Step 7: Change the size of your brush and zoom in for fine detail areas like eyes, hairline and jewelry.

Step 8: Save often so you won’t lose your work. I like to save a new version after finishing the skin tones in case I want to change the colors of the clothes or background later.

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