This is how you know which colors to add when colorizing black and white photos
Photo colorization takes a lot of time and skill, and there are artists who do an impressive work doing it. One of these artists is Jordan Lloyd. In this video by Vox, he talks about the techniques and methods artists use not only to add color – but to learn which colors to add.
We have recently featured a great tutorial for photo colorization. A lot of people wondered how they are supposed to know which colors to add to a black and white photo to make it accurate. So if you were wondering the same thing, this video explains it. In case you want to start colorizing black and white photos (or if you’re just curious), this will definitely be useful to you.
Adding color to black and white photos isn’t a new thing, it’s practically as old as photography itself. I’m sure you’ve run into some old photos in your family album that were colored by hand. However, digital software like Photoshop, along with plenty of resources, makes the result much more realistic. And what’s also important – they help them be historically accurate.
Before they start adding color to an image, the artists turn to historical documents for a research. Jordan points out that there’s plenty of information available, you just need to know where to look for them.
You can consult diaries, memoirs, government records and old advertisements. You can talk to historical experts if necessary to gather as many information as possible about the moment in the past you’re trying to recreate in color. What crossed my mind is that you can visit museums (or at least look at the recent photos from museums) to see what the colors of jewelry, uniforms, traditional clothes etc. were like in a certain period. All in all, if you want to be as accurate as possible, you need to do plenty of research beforehand.
The process of adding color
So now that you know which colors to add, how do you do it? Jordan jokes that you take a graphic tablet and a pen and start coloring within the lines. But of course, it’s a little more complicated than that.
You need to restore the image first and get rid of all the scratches and stains. After this, you will add dozens or even hundreds of color layers. But it’s not just painting within the lines. For example, the human skin tone can have up to 20 different shades of pinks, yellows, greens, and blues. You should add them all for higher accuracy and realistic feel.
It takes hours or even days to complete one image. The longest time Jordan spent for colorizing a single photo was a full month.
But other than the research and meticulous painting over the image, there’s one more important skill a good colorization artist needs to have – the understanding of light.
Understanding and recreating the light
Light is a factor that affects our perception of color, so it’s very important to consider it when colorizing the image. For example, when a photo is taken during a golden hour (you can recognize it by long shadows), there will be an orange glow in parts of the photo. Then, if it was a cloudy day, the colors will most likely look a bit washed out. The light that reflects off a certain surface also affects the color, so it’s one more thing to take into consideration.
Details like this are crucial for recreating a photo and making it not only historically accurate, but also make the environment and the subjects as realistic as possible. It’s a long process that requires a lot of thinking, research, and devotion, but I believe it’s certainly worth it.
What’s also pointed out in the video is that critics argue that these photos should be left untouched and that the colorized versions can’t substitute these black and white images. Jordan points out that they are not meant to be a substitute, but they are merely a supplement. And I couldn’t agree more.
The added color makes the old photos seem more relatable. The people look more realistic and closer to us, and it was one of the first things I noticed when I first got interested in them. Also, accurately colorized photos help us learn more about history, as we can see what exactly costumes, uniforms and jewelry from certain periods looked.
All in all, I believe colorization is an art form of its own. I will gladly go on learning from the masters and enjoying their work. And if you want to become one of them – prepare for a lot of reading, learning, research and many hours in Photoshop.
Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.