April 10, 2023

Quick Guide to Changing a Black and White Photo to Colour

Photo Colourising - how hard can it be?

Photo colourisation is the process of adding colour to black and white photos to make them appear more lifelike and realistic. While many people enjoy the classic and timeless look of black and white photos, colourising old family photos can bring them to life and provide a new perspective on the past.

 I will tell you all you need to know on the subject, plus some first practices and tips, some pros and cons of DIY versus professional photo colourisation, and the likely costs.


Historical Significance - is it the right decision to add colour to your photo

Before beginning the colourisation process, it's important to understand the context and historical significance of the original black and white photo being colourized. Adding colour to a photo can change the entire mood and feeling of the image, so it's important to consider the time period, social norms, and cultural significance of the original photo. For example, if colourising a photo from the 1920s, it's important to understand the colours and clothing styles of that era to achieve an authentic look. If colourising a photo from the 50s or 60s, the tones will be different, probably more vibrant in keeping with the mood of the time.  But the process is not an exact science, in truth it is educated guesswork! When the client knows the person in the photo to be coloured up, they can relay that information to me, for example eye and hair colour, and I can then ensure this is depicted in the colour up when it's completed.

Techniques and Software for colouring up a black and white photo

There are several techniques and software used for photo colourisation, including manual colouring, automated software, and digital painting. Manual colouring involves using traditional art materials such as watercolours or acrylic paints to add colour to a black and white photo - this isn’t really done anymore except by dedicated artists. 

Automated software, such as colourize.cc which is an online tool that uses artificial intelligence to colourize black and white photos. It uses deep learning algorithms to analyze and colourize images automatically.

Another one is MyHeritage which is a genealogy website that offers a photo colourisation feature as part of their photo tools. It uses deep learning technology to automatically colourize black and white photos.

Digital painting involves using a stylus and graphics, tablet, or even just a mouse, to paint colour onto the black and white photo. Obviously this is a time consuming process!

black white photo converted to colour

Choosing the Right Photo for colourisation

Not all photos are suitable for colourisation, so it's important to select a photo that will work well. Photos with a lower level of contrast and clear details are ideal for colourisation, as they provide a clear guide for where to add colour. Photos with lots of black shadows tend not to take colour very well - an image with lots of grey tones is ideal for colouring up however. It's also important to consider the overall composition of the photo and whether colourisation will enhance or detract from the original image.

Colour Choices and Basic Colour Theory

When adding colour to a black and white photo, it's important to understand colour theory and how to choose appropriate colours for a specific photo or time period. This includes considering skin tones, clothing colours, and environmental factors such as landscape or interior design. Understanding complementary colours and colour harmony is also important for achieving a cohesive and realistic look.

Preserving the Original Photo

Before beginning the colourisation process, it's important to make backups of the original black and white photo to ensure it is not lost or damaged. It's also important to work non-destructively, as out I outlined in A Complete Guide to Restoring Old and Damaged Photos

Best Practices and Tips

To achieve realistic and high-quality colourisation results, it's important to follow best practices and tips. This includes avoiding over-saturation of colours, paying attention to skin tones and shadows, and being mindful of colour choices. It's also important to consider the intended use of the colourized photo and adjust the colours accordingly.

DIY vs Professional colourisation

While some people may attempt colourisation as a DIY project, it can be a complex and time-consuming process that requires a certain level of skill and knowledge. Hiring a professional colourisation service can ensure high-quality and accurate results, but it can also be more expensive.

Cost of colourisation

The cost of colourisation can vary depending on whether it's done as a DIY project or through a professional service. DIY costs may include the cost of software and materials, while professional service costs may depend on the complexity of the project and the level of detail required. As a guide I charge on average 55e per colour up. On occasion for large format prints, that are going to be displayed on a wall or in an exhibition can take longer to do, due the amount of detail in the original picture that needs attention. Sometimes these can cost up to 100e for display quality results.

Some recent examples:

Guinness x 2, 


This is airbrushing.ie

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