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Many of us have these family treasures, old black and white photos of family members, some only known to us through the cherished photo, maybe it has some faded pen or pencil on the back stating who the picture is of, or even just a date. While there is a real charm surrounding these photos, we often wonder what they would be like in colour. With digital image editing, it has become very simple to do; Serif PhotoPlus has just the tools we need.

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Colouring an old black and white photo

If you have managed to stick with me, thank you... if you need further help or clarification, please contact me, either directly through my contact page or via flickr mail - I am happy to try to help.

As I started out saying, this is just one way to achieve a colour image from a black and white photo, what’s most important is to find a way that suits your method of working, become proficient and ... HAVE FUN!!!

Oh and by the way... I find a pen tablet works best with this method, you can use a mouse, but I found real freedom (particularly when painting around an image) once I picked up a pen tablet.

Ken (Major Confusion)

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Firstly, I must thank Star1950 of the Serif User Group on flickr for kindly allowing me to use one of her treasures for this project. Secondly, there are a number of ways to colour old black and white photos, one way, discussed on the flickr Serif User Group regarding a textured print can be found here. This project follows a slightly different method that is more suited to this type of photo. Depending on the size and complexity of the photo, it should only take between thirty minutes and an hour. I will be using PhotoPlus X2 for this project, however, all versions will be able to end up with the same results, and I will point you in the right direction if your version does not have everything you see here.

Before and After by Major Confusion :: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2006-2008 Before and After by Major Confusion :: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2006-2008 Before and After by Major Confusion :: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2006-2008 Before and After by Major Confusion :: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2006-2008 Before and After by Major Confusion :: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2006-2008 Before and After by Major Confusion :: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2006-2008 Before and After by Major Confusion :: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2006-2008 Before and After by Major Confusion :: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2006-2008 Before and After by Major Confusion :: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2006-2008

In this project, we will discover one way to go from the black and white version... to this ‘hand painted’ colour version.

Either use your scanning software, or scan via the PhotoPlus ‘File>Import>Acquire’ menu. Whichever way you choose, ensure the original scan is saved as a .tiff (or tif) image for quality, open in PhotoPlus and immediately save it as a native PhotoPlus (.spp) file. This preserves your original .tiff scan intact and all of our future work will be carried out on this spp copy. (There will be a separate discussion on scanning and file types in the Fun-damentals section in the near future).

Often these images are faded, or in need of some restoration. Restoration is a subject for another tutorial; if you would like to read up immediately, I strongly recommend looking up the Serif tutorials that comes with at least version 10 onwards. (For this image I simply used the excellent ‘Quick Fix Studio’ that ships with PhotoPlus X2 to straighten the original, then set about using the  patch and clone brush tools to tidy some creases and marks.)

Look at the layers tab, notice that the image is given the name ‘Background’, this is a special layer that is locked to many image effects but enabled for basic alteration like resizing (making the whole image larger or smaller), cropping (cutting edges off), erasing and retouching. One important note, if you are about to embark on any form of erasing and retouching, do so on a duplicate layer, not on this ‘Background Layer’ in case there’s an accident.

As you can see from this image, it is slightly too dark (look at the ‘Histogram’ tab above, ideally the ‘mountain’ should be more evenly spread from one side to the other). If we start by setting the levels first (getting the ‘mountain’ evenly spread), the rest of the image will build on this correction and make the whole job more enjoyable and easy.

Whilst PhotoPlus X2 provides us with the excellent ‘Quick Fix Studio’ to lighten our image by eye, there is a more flexible and accurate way via an Adjustment Layer using Levels. Earlier versions provide Levels adjustment too, so this will be our approach. Create a new ‘Adjustment Layer’ and choose ‘Levels’. A pop-up window appears (right).

Using an Adjustment Layer leaves the original ‘Background’ layer intact and untouched, any adjustment we make to the Adjustment Layer only affects the layer(s) beneath; it remains reversible and still allows further alterations to be made.

Notice the gap at both ends of the one sided 'mountain'. The ideal is to have most of the mountain evenly distributed. The three triangles running along the base are (from left to right) the black point, grey point and white point. Move the outer triangles inward so that they fall either end of the ‘mountain’ (in this screen shot they have already been moved inwards). Now move the grey (middle) triangle until you achieve a good result - with Preview checked we get automatic feedback in our image from moving the sliders. The individual colour channels can be set (Red Green and Blue channel) but as this is a grey image that we will be colouring it won't matter. The other controls are well worth investigating and experimenting with, I recommend looking them up in the manual and online help within PhotoPlus.

Colouring a Black and white photo part 03: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 03: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 03: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 03: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 03: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 03: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 03: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 03: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 03: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008

You will notice in the new histogram how the mountain now stretches between the dark and light ends but gaps have appeared along it. As we colour our image the gaps will fill in.

Take a bit of time studying your image because we are about to start having fun and it is far better to be organised than to go about things in a haphazard manner. Looking at this image I will divide into three Layer Groups (or sections), 1) Backdrop and foreground; 2) Gran; 3) Mum (it could just as easily have been separated into other groupings – whatever appears to be a good way of dealing with the image you are working on). Each layer group will hold their relevant layers Mum and Gran will each have a skin layer; clothes layer and so on. If your version doesn’t have ‘Layer Groups’ don’t worry, they just help to keep the Layers tab tidy, you can safely ignore the references to groups, but pay attention to the various layers. Now we are ready to have some fun!

Colouring a Black and white photo part 04: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Layer masking tutorial part 02: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 04: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 04: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 04: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 04: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 04: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 04: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 04: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008

Select the Levels layer then click on the Add a new layer button; I’ve called this one, ‘sky’. The Blend Mode box currently shows ‘Normal’, set this to ‘Colour’; a new layer with a grey and white box above the Levels layer appears. Those with Layer Groups can add a new Layer Group; I’ve called this ‘Backdrop and foreground’, choose the same Colour Blend Mode setting. This time a new layer appears with a small triangle pointing right - this is a Layer Group. Select the sky layer (click on it with the left-hand mouse button and while still holding the button down drag it into the Layer group above. (See screen-shot of the Layers tab below, if I’ve not made myself clear - sorry!)

Time to choose a suitable sized paintbrush and colour - but leave the opacity set to 100%. Leaving the opacity set at 100% means that if we take our finger off the mouse during a brush stroke and then start painting again there won’t be any noticeable brush stroke areas, once completed, we can easily adjust the opacity of the layer if necessary. The colours were all chosen in the HSL colour space (Hue, Saturation, Lightness) rather than RGB or CMYK because the colour blend mode uses the S & L information of the Black and White Background layer to provide part of the colour information (all will become clear as you begin to paint – I hope!).

Concentrating on the ‘sky’ layer, I chose a 70 pixel round brush for the large expanse and reduced it to 30 pixels as I got closer to the edges (around Gran and Mum). This first sky layer concentrated on the cloud colour, a pale blue H214, S49, L87. As I painted on the cloud, the colour picked up the SL (Saturation and Lightness) information of the Background Layer but the H (Hue) remains the same.

The rest of the image builds on this format of creating Layer groups and separate layers for the various elements; this screenshot, right, shows the other layer groups and layers created. Keep to creating individual sections; because sometimes the layer opacity needs reducing (both Gran and Mum’s eyes and lips went down to around 60% opacity while Mum’s dress reduced to 75%). To provide a bit more depth to the sky I added a second sky layer (sky2), set that as H208, S71, L87, and used a 150 pixel brush to bring out the centre of the sky.If you wanted to add some rouge to a face, or eye shadow to eyes, I would recommend adding it on another layer (as with sky2); you can achieve greater subtlety of blending by lowering the opacity if necessary.

Colouring a Black and white photo part 05: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 05: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 05: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 05: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 05: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 05: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 05: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 05: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 05: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 06: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 06: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 06: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 06: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 06: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 06: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 06: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 06: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 06: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 07: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 07: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 07: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Layer masking tutorial part 08: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 07: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 07: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 07: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 07: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 07: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008

The next layer ‘tree’ has a setting of H120, S21, L14. This is dark, but again, when we paint over the light trees their lightness keys the colour. It is important to test your colours on a couple of areas to ensure you have chosen a reasonable tone. The darkness of this colour is dictated by the shadow areas, choosing a lighter tone made the shadows look false, but this tone (or Hue) allows the saturation and lightness to colour more naturally.

This is a screen shot of the Backdrop and Foreground group nearly completed. Note the separate layers for the different elements. Should we get a colour wrong, keeping the elements separate like this means we can easily single out the offending element and correct it.

Colouring a Black and white photo part 08: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 07: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 07:: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 07:: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 07:: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 07:: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 07:: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 07:: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 07:: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008

Talking about ‘natural’ colour, my decisions for having a standard, single colour ‘wash’ is that this is a Photography studio backdrop, these tend to have a slightly washed out appearance to help make the subjects stand out. The only other thing worth mentioning here is the skin tone that works for this image; it is H20, S100, L96.

The screen shot, left, shows the colours used in creating this ‘colour blended’ image. You can see just how much information is provided by the background layer. You will also notice that Gran’s dress isn’t a uniform colour. After painting I took a large sized eraser with around 10% opacity and gently removed some of the colour to allow the shadows from the Background layer to show through more.

This final image shows how the Histogram (the mountains) have been filled in by adding the colour. If you want to re-adjust the levels, just open them up by clicking on the layer. If you turn off your Levels layer by clicking on the eye, you will see the image revert to the unadjusted version - nothing is lost!

Colouring a Black and white photo part 02: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 02: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 02: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 02: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 02: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Layer masking tutorial part 04: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 02: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 02: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008 Colouring a Black and white photo part 02: Kaptain-Chaos Designs ©2008

A word of warning: If your image has white (or faded white) borders, this will mess up the Levels readings, accentuating the white end of the image. Crop your photo to remove all white edges before creating the adjustment. As an experiment, you could see what the levels read before and after cropping to see what I mean.