Distributed to Photography

How to Colorize an Old Photo

Bringing life to an old photo is possible with the right tools.

Anthony M. Davis
Aug 12 · 6 min read
Completed photo after colorization.
Completed photo after colorization.
Completed Photo by the Author

The black and white photo in this example is an image I shot back in the early 1980s at a track and field event.

Throughout this tutorial, you can click on the images below for a large view.

Camera / Lens: Canon F-1 w/ Tokina 35–105mm.
Film: Kodak Tri-x black and white 35mm film.

I used a slow shutter speed and panned the image while the runner passed by.

Black and white image of a black runner during a track event.
Black and white image of a black runner during a track event.
The original scanned film image from the Author

The focus of this article is colorizing old black and white images. If I intended to restore the image and colorize it as a true-life photo, I would have painted it. That’s not my intent with this image.

I’m colorizing it for artistic value. One area I enjoy with photo editing is selective color where a portion of a grayscale image has a hint of color. This project is the inverse of that with a colorized image, leaving selective grayscale portions.

  • Photoshop 2020
  • Wacom Bamboo Tablet
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Screenshot by the Author: Creating a copy layer.

In Photoshop, before you change your image. Make a copy and ensure ALL your edits are done to the copy.

This way, if you make another version or like in my case, revisit this image almost 40-years later, you’ll have a good original to start with.

I know this sounds like a basic tip, but it’s one you don’t want to miss.

To make the copy:
In the upper Photoshop menu, select LAYER, then DUPLICATE LAYER.

Or use a shortcut: Command +J on a Mac / Control +J on a PC.

Since the photo is a black and white image, it’s defined as a “Grayscale” image. That means that if you want to colorize it, you must change the color mode to RGB as shown below.

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Screenshot by the Author: Setting Color Mode.

Be sure to work on your “Layer Copy” as shown in the screenshot below (on the right-hand side).

Select the Gradient tool as shown in the left-hand tool bar. Then choose a gradient pattern. For this example, I chose the “Transparent Rainbow” (sixth pattern of the second row). You could pick any pattern you want for your image, but I chose this one because it has more colors.

Gradient tool selected in Photoshop
Gradient tool selected in Photoshop
Screenshot by the Author: Setting up the gradient.

When placing the gradient over the image, you can select any angle. Because this image has horizontal lines from panning the image, I want the various colors to display horizontally.

Place your cursor near the top of the image and left-click with a mouse or click with a pen from a pen tablet depending on your tool of choice. Then drag down vertically to the bottom of the image and release. This will lay the gradient on top of the image.

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Screenshot by the Author: Drawing the gradient.
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Screenshot by the Author: Overlaid gradient

No worries. It’s under the gradient. The next step is to go over to the Layer Menu on the right. At the top you’ll see the word “Layers”, then Kind… then, right below that is the blending mode. It should say “Normal”. Click the Normal drop-down and scroll down to “Color”.

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Screenshot by the Author: Choosing the color blending mode.

I suppose I could have stopped, but I really don’t want the runner to have green arms and purple/pink legs. This is where a layer mask comes in.

At the bottom of the Layer menu, there is a black box with a hole in it. That is the “Layer Mask”.

  • Click that and you will see a white box show up next to the gradient image at the top. Click inside that white box. That selects the working layer mask — not the gradient image.
  • On the left-hand side, select the Brush tool, or type the B key (for the brush).
  • At the bottom left are two colored boxes. Be sure the top box is black, and the bottom one is white. This is the “Default” setup so you can type the D key and it should set it to black and white.
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Screenshot by the author: Creating the layer mask
  • Zoom in the image so you can paint easily. Command + (zoom in) or Command — (zoom out on a Mac) / Control + and Control — for a PC.
  • Adjust your brush size to keep control of the area you want to paint. To make the brush smaller, press the left-hand bracket “[“, or right-hand bracket to make the brush larger “]”.
  • With the layer mask set on black, you are painting the overlaid gradient away. If you go too far, switch to white and you can paint it back in place.
  • The next thing to consider is the “Amount” of gradient you are removing. You could paint with 100% opacity, but I’ve found that it most often takes too much away. It’s usually best to remove a bit at a time and sometimes a mix of the gradient and background image looks more realistic. For this image, I’ll start with 40% opacity (meaning you are leaving 60% behind).
  • To adjust opacity, refer to the image below. For 40%, you can type the number 4 (5 for 50%, 6 for 60%, etc. up to 0 for 100%).
  • Note: One thing about opacity is that each painting pass will increase by the amount of the opacity selected. What that means is, in this case, I’m painting with 40%. When I lift the brush off and return, it will show another 40% removal equaling 80% (up to 100%. Three passes won’t give you 120%). Most of my image has 100% gradient removed, it’s still my preference to paint it away a little at a time. Each person has their own approach.
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Screenshot by the Author: Zooming in and showing the Opacity selection

It’s just a matter of painting away the parts where you want the gradient removed. Remember, if you do too much, switch to white and paint it back. If it totally gets hosed up, that’s okay… you are working with a copy layer. Your original is still intact.

The completed image is at the top of this page. In this article, we looked at changing color mode, creating a working layer copy, working with gradients, layer masks, and resizing the image view and brush size for editing, and opacity levels.

I’ve got over 160K images in my collection. I have some that need work. Images like this are good example to dig in and play with Photoshop to learn new skills.

Happy Shooting — Happy Editing.

Anthony M. Davis is a Leadership, Success & Stress Coach, Board Certified Therapist, and Top-100 International Travel Photographer. His free book, “Keys to Your Success” is available now.

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Anthony M. Davis

Written by

Leadership & Success Coach / Board Certified Therapist / Stress Coach / Top-100 Travel Photographer / Author / USN & USCG Veteran / www.anthonymdavis.com

ILLUMINATION-Curated

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Anthony M. Davis

Written by

Leadership & Success Coach / Board Certified Therapist / Stress Coach / Top-100 Travel Photographer / Author / USN & USCG Veteran / www.anthonymdavis.com

ILLUMINATION-Curated

Outstanding stories objectively and diligently selected by 40+ senior editors on ILLUMINATION

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