How to Colorize Black-and-White Photos in Photoshop Elements

By Barbara Obermeier, Ted Padova

You may have valid arguments for converting a grayscale image into a color one in Photoshop Elements 11. Perhaps the picture is an old one, taken before color film was widely used, and you want to colorize it. Or, you may come across a monochrome image that would look more interesting in color.

Elements can let you add back the missing colors to your original black-and-white pictures or can give you free rein to create your own, customized color image.

This example is a black-and-white photo of an adorable pair of siblings. Rather than try to duplicate a color photograph, you want to apply a technique that mimics the subtle, hand-colored look of the Marshall’s Photo Coloring System of pigments, photo oils, spot colors, retouch pencils, and other products popular in the 1950s and ’60s. You may have also seen this look used in greeting cards featuring children.

Follow these steps:

1In the Photo Editor, in Expert mode, open a grayscale image in Elements. Choose Image→Mode→RGB Color.

This selection is convert the grayscale image to a full-color image (even though it lacks color).

2Choose Layer→New→Layer.

This step creates a new, transparent layer to paint on. Although you can paint directly on an image, using a blank layer is safer and gives you more flexibility in editing when you make a mistake.

3In the New Layer dialog box that appears, name the layer and click OK.

You can paint all colors on a single layer, but you may find that using a separate layer for each part of the face lets you fade that color in and out as required to blend smoothly with your other hues.

4Select the Color mode from the Blend Mode drop-down menu in the Layers panel.

Elements uses this mode to combine the painting layer with the image layer, enabling you to apply color while retaining the details of the underlying image.

5Select a color you want to apply from the Swatches panel.

You also can use the Color panel to mix your own.

6Select the Brush tool from the Tools panel. Click the down arrow on the Brush Preset Picker in the Tool Options and select a brush from the drop-down panel.

Start with a soft-edged brush.

The Airbrush option in the Tool Options creates a subtle and soft effect. Just be sure to pick the kind of brush that works best for the area of the picture you’re colorizing. (Use a small, fuzzy brush for smaller areas, and use a bigger, sharper brush for more defined lines and wider areas.)

7Paint all parts of the image where you want to apply color.

If you make a mistake, you can use the Eraser tool (or the History panel) to erase the bad strokes without affecting the underlying grayscale image because you’re painting on a separate layer.

A small, fuzzy brush is perfect for small areas, such as the eyes.

Change brushes as necessary by clicking the Brush Preset Picker in the Tool Options and selecting a larger or smaller brush.

8When you finish with that area of the image, create a new layer for each of the image’s main components and repeat from step 3 with an additional color.

Eyes: When painting the eyes, paint only the irises and leave the pupils their original black color. Don’t paint over the catchlights in the eyes, either. (Catchlights are reflections of light sources, such as windows or the flash.)

Lips: Color the inner surface of the lips a darker, rosier pink than the outer surface. Lips look best when portrayed in at least two shades. Don’t forget to color the gums with an even lighter pink.

Hair: Hair looks best when the highlights and darker portions are slightly different colors.

Cheeks: To put a little blush in the cheeks, choose the Airbrush option on the Tool Options and work with a relatively large brush size. Apply a good dash of color to each cheek and a lighter bit of color to the forehead and chin.

9For the overall skin tone, choose a different technique, using the Hue/Saturation command.

This technique works especially well with those who have naturally dark complexions. You can choose to paint the skin with a brush or use this technique:

Duplicate the grayscale Background layer and then choose Enhance→Adjust Color→Adjust Hue/Saturation.

Choose the Colorize option and move the Hue slider to the left to produce a sepia tone. We set our Hue to 36 and Saturation to 25 percent and then clicked OK to colorize this layer.

Use the Eraser tool to remove everything in the colorized layer that isn’t skin. In our example, we removed the hair, background, eyes, lips, teeth, and clothing. This result is a nice sepia tone to the face.

10When you finish coloring your layers, experiment with different opacity levels for each colorized layer to see whether more transparent hues might look better.

Be sure to pick a color that’s as close to life as possible. If the subject has darker skin, you may need to move away from rosier blush tones.