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Hand Coloring Photos in PhotoShop

by Philip Greenspun, 1997

I always wanted to hand color photos but decided it was too much of a headache because my fine motor skills aren't so wonderful and I hate getting my hands dirty. Apparently, I was "born to program." Adobe PhotoShop, however, enables even the klutziest to hand color.

Here are the steps:

  1. Load picture off PhotoCD
  2. In PhotoShop 3.0, use the "Desaturate" command to remove all the color. In PhotoShop 2.5.1, convert the image to greyscale mode and then back to RGB. Either way, you now have a B&W image in a file that can take color.
  3. Pull down Make Snapshot.
  4. Double click on the Rubberstamp icon and choose "From Saved" and then pick a nice wide brush. Drag the mouse to restore color from the original image to any part of the current B&W image.
  5. Double click on the Rubberstamp icon again and choose "From Snapshot". Now choose a fine brush and go over any boo-boo areas where you restored color inadvertently. (You are restoring the image from the snapshot you made of the B&W image.)
  6. Print to Fujix 3000 photographic quality printer and sell as one of those "I spent 8 hours hand coloring this" art prints.

Before | After (I burned the sky in a bit also and reduced the color saturation slightly.)

Text and pictures copyright 1995 Philip Greenspun

Readers' Comments

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John Ballard , January 04, 1997; 05:30 P.M.

Hand coloring would be a misnomer considering that the computer did most of the work and all you did was a few mouse clicks. Sure it takes a certain visual ability to create your final results, but "hand coloring" it is not. Perhaps if you took out you box of Marshall oils and used the "old fashioned" way of hand coloring, then you could claim it as a true descrption of what you did. Is there any one who agrees with this? Perhaps there should be a seperate heading for "computer enhanced" images.

Barry Fairclough , February 01, 1997; 03:44 P.M.

I can`t agree with John Ballard where he maintains the traditionalists view that recent contributions to photography should be excluded from the art form simply because a computer has assisted the author with the eventual outcome - maybe he doesn`t use filters to enhance his images as they can be viewed in the same light as the computer in assisting the photographer.

Bennette -- , February 12, 1997; 12:16 A.M.

I believe there exists an easier way to produce the same effect as what being called "hand-coloring". First, use the lasso with 12 leather to select the girl and then invert the selection. Second de-saturate it. All the process takes less than 2 minutes. I don't see what's the purpose of taking slap shot or using the rubber stamp to restore from the saved version of the RGB file.

Phillip Ringwood , February 26, 1997; 06:56 P.M.

In response to Bennette's answer: I don't know what lasso with 12 leather is, but I am sure you can be arrested for using it on a girl, here in Utah. Seriously, I suspect you mean FEATHER the lasso tool. I don't find the lasso tool to be effective in outlining complex shapes such as the girl in the photograph. It is almost impossible to achieve the degree of sensitivity you need to outline accurately, even with the feather value set at 12 or higher. Phillip's method works very well, and is less time consuming for me than trying to outline something with the lasso tool.

Mitchell Leben , May 20, 1997; 07:20 P.M.

Rather than using the lasso or clone tool, how about cutting a path around the woman? Paths are the most precise way to outline something in Photoshop. Minor problem areas can be fixed with a clone from saved/snapshop, whichever applies.

I really like hand coloring. This image is not, IMHO, hand coloring. Try desaturating the entire image and then recreate the flesh tones with Photoshop's tools.

Nice image though, I love the coast.

Donald Campbell , January 09, 1998; 06:41 P.M.

I tried your method and it worked just fine. I use a graphics tablet and that makes it much easier to do fine work like this. Also, since you have the feeling that you are actually PAINTING with the computer, it is rather like hand colouring a B/W image. On the subject of selection, why not use the 'quickmask' in paintshop 4 (don't know if it's in V3) to paint in a selection. That way you don't have to use the awkward lassoo with or without leather. Thanks for the tip. I'll use it in future.

Tim Hess , February 04, 1998; 07:50 A.M.

There are at least three ways, probably more, of "handpainting" a photo. That does not detract from the creative process. Neither does the use of the computer detract from it. The true water-colorist allows the watercolor to do most of the work. The true photographer allows the lens and the film to do it. Why then is it not "OK" in computer art to allow the computer do do the work? Keep on blazing on, push the medium to its max, learn everything you can about the process and don't let the critics get you down.

Scott Gant , June 25, 1998; 10:42 A.M.

There's an even better way to "hand tint" a B&W photo with Photoshop...and it's very similar to the traditional way of doing it.

Take your grayscale image and convert it back to RGB or CMYK. Then using your Brush tool in "color" mode in your Brush Options. Pick a color up and start tinting away!

If you use your opacity for the brush set up to say 40 or 50% and have a nice feathered brush, the paint strokes should build up on top of one another...similar to traditional tinting.

An even better way would be to add another Layer and do your tinting on that layer, not touching the real image below. That way, when your done with your tinting, you can adjust the overall opacity of the tint...making it nice and subtle. Also the benefit of doing it on another layer is so if you screw up, it's easy to go back without having to revert to saved. You can also turn the layer on and off...seeing a before and after effect.

After hand tinting the image, how about a nice soft-focus effect? Soft focus is so easy to do. Just flatten the tinted image (if you were doing it on a layer like I suggested). Then make a duplicate layer of the image. On the duplicate layer, Gaussian blur the hell out of it. The amount depends on the overall size and DPI of the image. A bigger image needs more blur. But for a reference say an image that's 1024x768 needs a blur radius of around 5 or 6. Don't blur it so much that it's just a mess....but enough to where you can still just make out the overall image if you sit back a ways. (this is all very subjective and your milage may vary...experiment a bit).

Ok..now with that blured layer simply turn back the opacity of the layer to around 25-40%. The original, un-blurred image will come through and the blurred image will be ghosted over it. The effect is one that looks like a true soft-focus lens was used to take the picture! The lower the opacity, the less blurred effect.

Give it a try and have fun.

Annaliese Thro , November 09, 1998; 12:12 P.M.

I don't know if this is a correct place to put this, but I need directions on simple, at-home hand tinting I can do on existing photos. What paints to use, techniques, and pre-cautions. Is this possible without fancy equipments or chemicals?

Timothy P. Dingman , January 02, 1999; 09:26 P.M.

Like the author, I was fearfull of hand coloring my black and white prints because of my lack of dexterity and ageing eyes. I began working with photoshop but was constrained by my conscience (it felt like cheating) and by the absolute "perfection" of the end result. For $14.95, I bought a Marshall's oils starter kit. After a few trials, I was able to wow some clients and suprise myself with the results.

If I had a better sense of the commercial and a more secure sense of self, I would persue the photoshop method. Working with photo stock agencies day in and day out has hardened my "pallet" to the absolutely perfect images that computer correction brings.

Mike Johnson , March 08, 1999; 12:18 A.M.

Hand colouring is using the wrong words for the technique described. Better is saying it was hand decolouring, but that doesn't sound good.

It's so much easier to get colour out of a digital picture, but when you try to realy 'hand colour' originally b&w pictures, you easily end up with pix looking like old hand coloured b&w movies. Which are bad, imo.

Frank Kolwicz , March 14, 1999; 11:09 A.M.

Regarding the terminology for this kind of digital manipulation: there is already an accepted term for the re-coloring of B&W images - it is called "colorizing", from the movie industry.


sharon conley , July 23, 1999; 05:05 P.M.

I do photo manipulation for a living and all of these comments are helpful. The best way I find to colorize is to start with a GOOD b/w scan of 300 dpi or more. Change to RGB or CMYK. Use various selection tools and layer them. Use the color palate to select colors and paint or fill using the multiply command to maintain the tones below. Use the percent slider to lighten or darken the color. Using the path tool or the magnetic lasso tool are the best ways to select. Also the magic wand and selective color tool are also effective ways to make a selection. Hope these help. Update to V5.

add pfeiffer , August 29, 1999; 11:43 A.M.

I tend to use the quickmask to outline people. It is fast and extremely precise. If you want to hand color a photo, use photshop 5.0.2. It is excellent for hand coloring. Make the pic, black and white. then use the quick mask, with a feathered brush, cover the entire pic with the quick mask,leaving the section open that is to be colored. click off the quick mask and inverse the pic, color the section that is highlighted, and then use the layer option to lighten the area colored.

Jack Blake , September 23, 1999; 01:11 A.M.

I have just bought Photoshop 5.0 and am learning to use it. I tried the "rubberstamping" from the orig. color image to the b&w copy and had some success, however I had a problem with positioning of the "rubberstamp from"....I kept getting the wrong portions of the orig. on top of the copy...any sugestions on how to do this properely would be appriciated. What I ended up with was great for Picaso (cool eye on her ear)....but NOT what I had in mind!! <grin> Thanks in advance... JB

Shourya Ray , February 11, 2000; 09:45 A.M.


if you're having trouble with the rubber-stamp tool try this (i'm using 5.5 but i think this should work in 5.0 also):

  • Take a color picture and desaturate it (Image -> Adjust ->Desaturate)
  • Create a snapshot (from the history pane in 5.5)
  • Use the magic wand to make a selection (use the tolerance parameter in the options window to fine tune your selection)
  • Now pick the History Brush tool and a wide brush (say 300 point) and then click and drag the mouse over the selected area.
What you should have now is the color restored back to the selected area of the black and white picture.

Willa Cline , March 04, 2000; 07:36 P.M.

My method of colorizing digital photographs is to copy the color photograph, desaturate the copy and convert to b/w, then back to color, then paste it on top of the original photograph as a new layer. I then use the eraser tool to "remove" the parts of the copied photograph that I want to be colored, i.e., exposing the color photograph underneath.

Bruce McElhaney , April 10, 2000; 08:44 P.M.

I find it amusing that the, "Hand Coloring" term seems to generate so much controversy. I believe we all know what it means, regardless of the degree of actual hand involvement. For all those purists out there, how about, Color & Tone Manipulation? We do a lot of it at our studio (mostly the old fashioned way) and in our brochures we refer to it as, Portrait Colorizing Enhancement, but we still call it Hand coloring. We find we can get more money for "Hand" Coloring than for "Computerized" Coloring. So, why not?

Bruce Mc

Alan Lesheim , June 02, 2000; 08:36 A.M.

You've still got to use your hand whether colouring analogue or digital, so both are "hand-colouring"! However, there is no way that any current digital output will last the centuries that a well-processed sepia-toned fibre-based gelatin-silver hand-coloured print will. So if you want your work to last the distance, go conventional. Learn the techniques and processes, develop the skills. Produce individual, unique, results. Charge accordingly. I have many people seeking me out because my hand-coloured conventional prints look so much more "natural" than colour photos. Go figure!

Joe England , November 10, 2000; 10:44 A.M.

Technique and equipment are irrelevant. All that matters is that you have created something unique and beautiful.

Josh Liechty , January 21, 2004; 10:10 A.M.

I've found that it's simplest for me to create a Channel Mixer adjustment layer in Monochrome mode, and paint the layer mask as necessary to determine what shows through and what doesn't.

Michael Dossett , August 25, 2004; 11:31 P.M.

bridal portrait

Another way to do this is to add a duplicate layer, desaturate the layer, and use the eraser tool on the areas you want the color back in. I agree this isn't real handcoloring, but only bringing the original color back, but you can also hit your saturation adjustment, and lower your saturation untill you have almost a sepia print, then proceed with the layer method and you will get more of a pastel color out of brighter colors such as flowers, bright clothes,etc.

Gary Phillips , February 03, 2005; 02:36 P.M.

That is exactly the way that I do it. I create a duplicate layer & then make the top layer B&W or sepia in your favorite way (a whole different topic). Then simply erase the areas that you want colored (it's actually just allowing the color from the original to come through the B&W layer). I usually do just what Michael said & lower the saturation of the original colors. Sometimes I'll also add in some noise to give it an older feel. See this example.

craig zac , January 03, 2006; 01:20 P.M.

id call the first pic of the girl and the ocean "Selective coloring" more than i would say it "hand colored". The shot of the blue eyed girl and asain fellow look to be more of a "Hand colored" image. Hand coloring to me is when you apply color to a B&W "Original" (meaning the original WAS shoot on B&W film and not color!) and turned a B&W shot to color. Selective color is when you make a color pic B&W then "fill" in a certain object back to its original color. -zacker-

Harry Stone , July 18, 2006; 12:50 A.M.

Okay after looking at all of your pictures here on this wonderful site and based on the snapshots I have been taking, I am new to photography as an ART form but I am trying to learn. However, I have found that if you are starting with a colored photo and you are using Adobe Photoshop (I am using 6) you can go to the IMAGE menu and select ADJUST to bring up the next 'drop down' menu - from there I use 'HUE/SATURATION' and just slide the selector for the saturation values (red, yellow, green, cyan, blue, magenta) that I do not want in the photo to negative 100 thereby removing them from the image. The other suggestions for dealing with original B&W images are as good as any I have heard.

Image Attachment: postcard.jpg

Vassil Mihov , July 23, 2006; 11:39 A.M.

I am using Photoshop Elements and was wondering how one can adapt Phil's recipe to Elements. I found the procedure outline here http://graphicssoft.about.com/od/pselements/ss/partialcolor.htm very helpful. I agree with some of the above comments that the laso tool does not work always well for complex shapes in comparison to the brush.

Image Attachment: bw-color.jpg

John Congdon , March 23, 2007; 03:31 P.M.

Using PS Elements 5.0, I followed the "B&W duplicate layer on top, erase to show original color underneath" method to produce this photo.

katielynn shaurette , March 26, 2007; 11:54 P.M.

OK, Im new to the altering photos, I want to take a sepia tone pic and add the color of just a dress or flowers. in easy 1.2.3 steps can someone help a novice at photoshop? I love the program but having an inpossible time figuring out all the fun stuff, any books someone would recommend?

Katielynn Surprise,AZ

Roger Poole , April 15, 2008; 06:20 A.M.

Hello im new to this just started to use Photoshop 10 and found that i could make a photo B & W with a selected part of the photo in color really fast and easy the way i did this was to use the quick selection tool then highlight the parts i wanted to change to B & W then once selected i went to image at top of screen and the adjustment and then chanded the hue/satuation, this worked first time i think its the fastest way of doing it took about 3 secs try it i think you will agree.

Image Attachment: Nathan.jpg

- - , April 20, 2008; 02:10 P.M.

Coloring "Nathan.jpg"

I think there's a less destructive and just as fast as Roger's method to colorize and image. It consists in painting on a different transparent layer above the original layer, setting this new layer in a different blending mode (color, overlay, screen, etc), and then creating a layer mask at this new layer to disappear those areas that are not supposed to be painted. Achieving nice results in only a few seconds:

Image Attachment: colorizacion_.jpg

Alexander Thompson , February 16, 2012; 09:23 A.M.

Words mean things.

The word "Hand" in this case means the application of pigment to a surface with the hand of the artist. Then again there's the word Photograph, which as a traditionalist I hold distinct from what is actually a Digital Image. Failing those basic details, it cannot be called a "Hand colored Photograph." it is by definition a "Computer enhanced Digital image."

Many who spout the term "Work" when referring to what they show here are fooling only themselves. I create images on film I bartered for, with a camera I was given, in a darkroom I built, using chemicals I compounded and mixed. I washed and then sepia toned them, dried and dry mounted them, and then was ready to apply a layer of PM solution. Once that dried I could color them, by hand with a brush and cotton, using oil colors (My chosen medium).

That's a long way from throwing a few thousand at a DSLR/Lens/PC/Adobe/Epson/Paper combo, then plugging it all in, pressing a few keys and buttons and calling it "Work."

That said it's not a bad image, I love the depth of atmospheric perspective and the figure looking away from us gives even more to it. But though my critique is more than a dozen years late, I only recently began coloring the photographs I've been making the old fashioned way all along, and still do.

Whatever you do out there folks, call it what it is, please.

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