Colourizing B&W old Photographs

Here is the sample image I have chosen to for this article.  It’s in bad shape, but the scene is fantastic.  These are also family members at the cottage, and I own the rights to it, so it's another bonus.  Perhaps in the future, I'll add another section to the article on how to go about replacing the missing piece of this image, but that will be an advanced section, and I wouldn't start with this image.  But it can be done, and done convincingly!  For the mean time, let's crop out what we don't need.  I scanned the original at 600 dpi; this will be an adequate resolution for our needs.  If your image is less then 300 dpi, now is the time when you would change the resolution to allow a large enough image to work with and to reduce image artefacts later on.

       
 


Step 1

We need to convert the image to greyscale to remove any colour staining from the original image.  This will give us a clean black and white canvas to work from.  It's very important that you now convert the image back to RGB; otherwise you will not see any colour no matter how much you apply. 
Create a new layer and set it's mode to Overlay.  You will always work in this layer, so be sure to check regularly that you have not changed layers.
There are only a couple tools in which we will be using primarily.  These are the airbrush tool and the Eyedropper tool.  The airbrush is self explanatory, but I'll explain the eyedropper.  Photoshop has preset colours called swatches which we will use and you also have the ability to create any colour you can think of.  But when it comes to what we are doing, arbitrarily picking colours will not do, they need to represent real life objects, so why not just select the colours from real objects.  This we will do with the eyedropper.

Your next step is to look at the image and determine the main elements.  Here we have water, rock, trees, and people.  We need to find colour samples of objects similar to the ones we whish to colour.  Go through your photographs and look for scenes that contain these elements.  Also make sure to match the lighting situations.  For instance, look in your photographs for pictures of water close to the bank with a backdrop of trees and in shade.  This will give you the closest colour match.  It will also show you what water really looks like in that situation.  Do the same for all the other elements.  Note:  Always make working copies, never work from the original, you'll just give yourself a bad day!  I usually make a folder for my colour sample images to make reviewing faster and easier.  You'll also find that you use the same images for many different projects, so it's nice to keep them together and ready to go.

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Step 2
I'll now explain the basic principle of the overlay layer.  We want to tint the image in colour's which match the original objects, we want to do it without loosing the detail of the image.  By painting in the overlay layer, we are allowing the colour to show through the transparent grayscale layer, the combination of flat colour and textured shades, gives us the illusion of a full colour image.  Pretty basic concept isn't it?  There are no other tricks, this is basically it.  Doing it convincingly may take some practice however.
I'll start by changing the view settings to actual pixels and focusing on the large boulder.  I'll use the swatch colours for the rock because I know what the moss growth looks like and can accurately simulate it with just a few of the preset colours.  Begin by selecting your darkest colour first, set the paint brush to airbrush and reduce the opacity somewhere under 20% and flow around 12%.  You want to make light adjustments, adding many levels of colour, the same way you would use an airbrush in real life.  Depending on the darkness of the object, you may need to adjust the flow and opacity.  An interesting fact is that you cannot colour complete white, we are only changing the tone of the shaded areas, this actually aides in the illusion.
The history brush is extremely important, you will constantly find that you have made mistakes and will want to back up.  Increase the number of history steps to about 50 and be sure to save different version of the image along the process.  There is nothing worse then being nearly complete and learning a new technique but having to start all over because you didn't have an intermediate copy.  Your brush size will also be extremely important.  For this rock I used  a large brush to apply a large area of consistent colour, and then switched to a finer brush to highlight details and to get into corners.  The rock is not finished; it's best to lay down a foundation of colour then move on to another location, as you learn the feel of the photograph and how the colours interact as a whole, you can come back and make detail adjustments.

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Step 3
At first the process of adding minute amounts of colour to the image is tedious, but you will get much faster.  Here I have begun the process of colouring the leaves in the trees; this can be slow, but worth it.  Open your colour sample image as shown and select the eyedropper tool.  Change the sample size to 5 by 5; this will take an average reading in an area 5 pixels by 5 pixels.  This will be a more accurate representation of the colour you are seeing in the sample image.  I always select two samples at the same time, a light hue and a dark one.  This way I can quickly switch between the two to create depth and tone.  I said previously that it's good to start with the dark colour, most of the time this is true, but you'll have to experiment first to determine how much colour the area can take.  These leaves required constant adjustment of flow and opacity.  Each time you add a colour, it affects the layer of colour before it, this quickly compounds and you can easily apply too much.
It's far better during your first few times to put a rough layer of colour down to get the feel of doing it.  Pick small tasks and try different techniques.  If you get frustrated as soon as you begin, you will not stick with it long enough to increase your ability.
Just as you selected the green shades for the leaves, you will continue to do so for the entire image.  Working in small areas and making small adjustments.  This would be a good image to start working with flesh tones, because the people are not close up and only a minimal amount of shade will make it look realistic.  They will appear almost white to begin with.
This covers the bulk of what I can show you.  The tools are present in PhotoShop; it's a matter of finding your own abilities that make the difference.  This type of work is straight forward; there are very little mathematical tricks involved, just simple colouring and shading.  In the final section I will show a final draft image and how to create the final effect of realism.

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Step 4
I hope you have made it this far and that I have managed to explain this coherently.  Below is the final draft image of the sample project.  After you have finished your image, save it as a PhotoShop document with the layers intact, you'll need them if you want to make changes later on.  To finish the project, flatten  the layers to one image.
The image now has colour and some details not obvious in the original have surfaced.  The new detail will be determined by how much care you take in putting the proper colour where it needs to go and where it doesn't need to be.  Your eye will fill in and believe there is colour, even when there is not.  The trick is to learn when not to use colour.  For instance, in this image, the water and the bank have sporadic blotches of colour, but you brain fills in the rest.
This image still has a soft, cloudy feeling to it.  There is one final step that needs to be applied.
Note about Colour
Even if you are taking colour samples from your current photographs, it will pay off to do a little research on fabrics and fashion for the time period of your image.  Guys! Ask the gals about your colour schemes when it comes to women's clothes, they will tell you if it is right or not.


Once you have finished and flattened the image,  the next and final step is to apply the same colour correction you would apply to all of your scanned or digital photos.  You may choose to perform a manual correction of colour and levels, but I have found the most natural results from the automated levels, contrast and colour settings.  You will have to try each individually because they will all yield different results.  Below are the examples of each.  From left to right:  Auto Levels, Auto Color, and Auto Contrast.  Most of the time, levels and contrast give the same result, but you'll have to try them to make sure.  Auto Color has the most drastic change but not always pleasing.  The greens in the middle image are not as green, however the blues are richer.  It's also difficult to determine from the image at this resolution.  It will depend on the final output.
 
And now finally, here is the original image and the final colorized version
     

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