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  1. Design & Illustration
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Design

How to Colourise an Old Photograph in Adobe Photoshop

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Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

One of the most iconic themes in the Wizard of Oz is the transition from sepia to colour. In this tutorial, I'll show you how to colourise a sepia photo to create a coloured image.

Colourising a sepia or black-and-white image can seem like a real challenge, but although it takes time and patience, it’s probably easier than you think. Here I'll take you through colourising a photograph in Adobe Photoshop.

This is the image I'm going to use to take you through the colourising process:

stock image
'Kansas Farmers'. Image via the Library of Congress PPOC

I find black and white easier to work with than sepia, so the first thing I did was convert this. This is just my personal preference, and you don’t have to; work on the sepia if you prefer.

Black and white version of photograph

1. Make Sure the Image Mode Is Set Correctly

Once your image is loaded in, you need to make sure the Image Mode is RGB and not Grayscale, even if your image is monochrome or black and white. Click Image > Mode and see that RGB Colour is ticked.

RGB Colour
Make sure your image is RGB

2. Start With Large Blocks of Colour

Step 1

Use the Quick Select tool to select the sky or what would be the largest single block of colour in the photo.

Start with Large Blocks of Colour
Use Quick Select to select an area that would be the same colour, like the sky

Step 2

Hit Refine Edge.

refine edge
Use Refine Edge to tidy up your selection

Step 3

Below you can see I’ve checked Smart Radius and changed the amount to 5 px—you can adjust it to whatever looks best for your image. I’ve also increased Smooth to 3 px to take off the hard edges. You can use the Refine/Erase Refinements tools here to tidy up your selection, and when you’re happy hit OK.

Adjust Smart Radius and 'Smooth' to suit

Step 4

Now you have your selection, click Adjustment Layers and add a Solid Colour layer.

solid colour layer
Create a Solid Colour layer via the Adjustment Layers

Step 5

Choose a colour that you think will suit the sky for your picture. It doesn't matter if it looks really bright, because that will be adjusted in a minute. Once you’ve chosen the colour, hit OK and you’ll see it outputs to a mask.

select an appropriate colour
Select an appropriate colour for your layer

Step 6

Change the Blend Mode to Overlay and the colour will look much better. If it’s still not quite right, double click the blue square next to the mask and drag your picker about until you find a better colour.

blend mode to overlay
Change the Blend Mode to Overlay

Step 7

Once you’re happy, you can tidy up any missed or sloppy bits using a soft black/white brush on your mask. 

tidy up
Tidy up sloppy areas using a soft brush on your mask

3. Choose Areas of Similar Colours

Step 1

Repeat the selection process detailed in the previous steps, this time with the carrot tops and melon. Leave out the cucumber for now so that everything isn’t the exact same shade of green. This time I changed Smooth to 2 px when refining the edges, but again, do what works best for you.

refine edge on carrots
Refine Edge on the carrot tops

Step 2

Create a new Solid Colour layer with your selection again as you did before, and choose a shade of green. At the moment, leave the Opacity of each colour at 100%. These can be adjusted later when all the colours are finished.

carrot top colouring
Create a Solid Colour layer and choose a shade of green

Step 3

Change the blending mode to Overlay and then adjust your colouring to suit. Do the same for the cucumber but use a different shade of green. Once the veggies are finished, move on to the skin tones.

Change the Blending Mode to Overlay
progress so far
Our progress so far

4. Skin Tones and Eyes

Step 1

Do the man and woman separately as it’s unlikely they’d have the exact same skin colour; he’d probably be a little more weather-beaten!  

Select the skin and refine your edges as before. Then when you’ve hit OK, press Q to get the Quick Mask selection up and then use the brush to colour out his eyes and any other areas that you won’t want to be skin-coloured. Press again and you’ll see that the parts you coloured red are now taken out of your selection.

quick mask
Use Quick Mask to select any fiddly bits that you don't want to include in the selection

Step 2

When you’re choosing your skin tones, try a few to see which look best but remember that as the blend mode will be Overlay, the colours aren’t really ‘true’. So go for very muted pink/browns rather than peach colours, or you’ll end up with orange glowing skin!

skin tones
Opt for dull pinks and light browns rather than peach colours

Step 3

For the eyes, create a Solid Colour layer without any selection and choose a colour. Click on the mask and hit Control-I to invert the selection. Now paint over the eyes as with the other layers. As you can’t really see his eyes from behind the glasses, I dropped the Opacity to 40% so as to just give a hint of colour.

If you colour a photo where you can really see the eyes, remember to only colour the irises.

eye colour
Create a solid colour layer with no pre-selection
Skin tones finished
Skin tones finished

5. Lips and Hair

Step 1

When you’ve finished the skin and eyes, you can add a little light and shade by making the lips a slightly different colour. Choose a red/brown colour and use a low opacity brush to add some colour. 

lip colour
Choose a slightly different shade to the skin when colouring lips

Step 2

For hair, try to look at the shading in the photo to get the nearest match, even though it’s sepia or black and white. I chose a dark colour for the man and lowered the Opacity to 90% to fade the colour out a little as he’s obviously an older man. The woman doesn’t look as if she has dyed hair, so I went with a dark grey.

hair colour
Choose natural-looking hair colours and think about age when deciding on a colour

6. Finishing Touches

Finish up by choosing colours for the clothes, and then once you have your colours set you can start to tweak the opacity of the other layers and get them looking more natural. 

Remember, less is more, and if you’re going for an ‘authentic’ look then be realistic about colours that would have been worn at the time and reduce the saturation to keep the ‘old photo’ look. If you just want to be wacky with colours, then forget what I just said and go for it!

colours finished
Everything is coloured but looks a little too harsh

Awesome Work, You're Done!

When choosing your own photo to colourise, keep in mind that the more detailed it is, the more time-consuming and difficult it will be to colour. Try to pick images with large sections of the same colour first, and move on to more complex photos as the method becomes easier for you. This is a really fun process to do, so have fun with it and I'd love to see your colourised photos.

finished image
The finished, colourised image
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