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How to Transform Black and White Photographs into Colour using Photoshop

Updated on December 3, 2018

The question was asked “Does anyone happen to know how to combine black and white photos with color?”

I was reading hubCrafter’s hub HOW TO TRANSFORM PHOTOS INTO ART which I enjoyed very much, and while I was reading the comments at the end of the hub I came upon this one from Janey Townsend:

JaneyTownsend Hey thanks for the tips, but does anyone happen to know how to combine black and white photos with color? I was thinking along the lines of the girl in the red dress in the "Les Miserables" movie; where everything is black and white except for a specific object that is in full color. I've been trying to find a way to do it in Photoshop, but I just can't seem to do it. Any suggestions?

HubCrafter in response to a further question on this subject by Janey mentioned in his reply that ‘…....I can't even do 'layering' yet!

So I thought I would have a go at explaining how to colour a black and white photo using layers thus killing two birds with one stone as the saying goes.

The way I do it

Now before I start I will tell you that I am self taught and I know that there are other ways to do this and maybe better ways but I am going to share with you in the best way I can, the way that I do it. I will use a before and after photo so you can see for yourself the kind of result that you can obtain using this method.

For those of you that know how to operate the software please be patient with me as I go step by step stating what to you might seem obvious, but I know that often I find in tutorials there is much assumed knowledge.

In my case this dangerous assumption is often wrong, for example if directed to open a new layer, you are stuck if you don’t know how to do that. It is then a fat lot of good what follows after in a tutorial for no matter how good it is none of it is of any use to you if you can’t get the layer open to follow the instructions.

I am not trying to insult your intelligence I am hopefully just laying out the steps along with the how too instructions to help the likes of me who came to this software with nearly no knowledge of how to use it.

The Before Photo

Before Photo

My husband joined the Royal Navy at the tender age of 15 as a boy seaman in the training establishment H.M.S. Ganges.

This photograph was taken shortly after he joined, and of course it is in black and white as most photographs were in those days.


When I was trying to get to grips with Photoshop I thought that it would be a nice surprise for him if I could add colour to this photo.

The Source Photo

The photo I used as my source for the colours
The photo I used as my source for the colours

The Source Photo

The easiest way to make sure the colours that you use are realistic is to have a source photo which you can use the tool shaped like an eye dropper to sample the colour.


I didn’t have a suitable colour photograph myself so I went on the web to see if I could find one with some one in Navy uniform.


I was lucky that I found one of a modern day Ganges boy which gave me every thing I needed.

The After Photo

This is the after photo
This is the after photo

The After Photo

After much trial and error this is the result, which I was pretty pleased with.


I have done quite a few since and the more you do the easier it becomes. One word of advice never use your original photograph to experiment on make a copy of the original and rename it so that you don’t get them mixed up.


If you use a copy then if you mess up you can make another copy and have another go.


Open up Photoshop

Right are you ready to begin? First open up Photoshop and open the photograph that you want to work on in my case it is the before photograph above.

Please feel free to copy the photos I have used on the hub it might make it easier to follow the step by step instructions in this hub.

You can copy my photos by putting your cursor on my photo and then right clicking, this should give you a drop down menu choose the ‘save picture as option’ save it where you can find it and then go to Photoshop and open it up.

You should now have a screen that looks something like fig one.

fig. one

You should have a screen that looks something like this.
You should have a screen that looks something like this.

Open up your source photo

The next thing to do is open up your source photo, by going to file in the top left hand corner and clicking on it then choosing the open option from the drop down menu. Your screen should now look something like fig. two.


Fig. two

How to move from photo to photo

Don’t worry, both photographs are still there you can get back to the photo you are going to work on by clicking on window which is on the top bar on the next to last option on the right see fig three.

Go right down to the bottom of the drop down menu (I've highlighted it in blue) where you should see the names of both photos with a tick against the photo that is showing on the screen now.

To change to the other photo just put your cursor over the one without the tick and click on it then the screen will now show the other photo this way you can move from photo to photo.

You can have more than two photos open when you are working I often have a list of five of six in this drop down window and I just click on the one I want to work on next.

Fig Three

fig four

fig five

Fig six

How to add a new layer

You should now have the photo that you are going to work on showing on your screen (see fig one ) now we are going to add some new layers, are you having fun yet?

The layers pallet is located on the bottom of the screen on the right hand side and looks like fig four you will notice that there is a cross alongside the layer tab which signifies that this is the tab that is open.

If either the channels or paths tabs has the cross alongside it instead, don’t worry, all you need to do is put your cursor on the layers tab and click this will open the layers tab and you should see the cross now alongside the layer tab as in fig four.

As you can see in fig four your open photo is showing as a layer named background the fact that this layer is highlighted in blue indicates that this is the layer that is open at the moment.

Alongside this layer is an icon that looks like an eye when this eye is there it means that this layer is visible. If you click on this eye icon the eye will disappear and the layer will cease to be visible on your screen.

You will notice that there is also an icon in the shape of a small padlock indicating that this layer is partially locked.

I never work on this layer I always make a copy of this layer so that is what we are going to do next.

We do this by going to the top of the page see fig five click on layer then click on the duplicate layer option in the drop down menu (see highlighted in blue) in fig five.

If you have followed these steps you should now have two layers showing in this pallet, the second one will be on top and will be called Background copy and you will see that there is no icon of a padlock on this layer.

Along the bottom of this layer tab is a row of icons the last icon on the right is a little dustbin the one in front of that looks like a square with a smaller square in the bottom left hand corner, this is the add a new layer button.

Put your cursor on this icon and click and a new layer will be added named layer 1 this layer is empty and you should just see a checker board type icon instead of the photo which shows on the duplicate layer. Click on this icon again and another layer will be added this time named layer 2 your layer pallet should now look like fig six.

fig seven

Adding Colour

Now the real fun begins we are going to add some colour to this black and white photo. Go to window on the top of the screen and select the source photo.


When you have opened this window put your cursor on the icon on the tool bar to the left of your screen that looks like an eye dropper see fig seven. I’ve highlighted it in blue, click on this and your cursor turns into an icon of an eyedropper.


Place this eye dropper somewhere on the dark blue part of the boy’s uniform this changes the colour in your pallet to the same as you have selected with the dropper.


This is the first colour that we are going to add to our photo, now go back up to window and select the photo we are going to work on.

Now to add colour we need to change this black and white image into a colour one so go to image on the top bar click on this and on the drop down menu select the option mode this will cause another drop down menu to appear on this window the greyscale option has a tick against it telling us that this is a black and white image. Put your cursor on the option RGB Color (to my fellow Brits I know that isn’t how we spell colour) another box will open up see fig nine choose the Don’t Flatten option by clicking on it, the photo is now ready to be coloured.


fig eight

fig nine

fig ten

Almost ready to start colouring

Go to the layer pallet on the bottom right hand side of your screen which should look some thing like fig ten if you have followed the steps above.

Put your cursor on the clear layer above the background copy this is the layer that we will be working in.

Directly under the layer tab you can see the word normal we need to change this so that it reads color.

To do this click on the tick or v shape to the right of the word Normal this will open a drop down menu see fig eleven below.

fig eleven

fig twelve

From fig eleven you will see that the Color option is the one just above the bottom option of Luminosity.

Look again at fig ten and on the same level as the Normal box which you have just changed to read Color you will see the word Opacity click on the blue box with the sideways triangle alongside it and a drop down menu will appear drag the little slider until it reads around 50%.

If you find this difficult you can just capture the text 100% by placing the cursor to the right of the percentage sign then clicking and dragging your cursor to the left thus capturing the 100% then just type 50 in the box and press return the box should now show 50% instead of a 100%.

Put your cursor on layer 2 where the text says layer 2, your cursor will change to a little pointing hand double click and you can give this layer a title instead of just a number, I called mine uniform. Your layer pallet should now look like fig twelve

Start Colouring

Place your cursor on the brush icon on the tool bar on the left hand side of your screen. Choose a brush size by going to the top of the screen where brush is in the left hand corner. Click on the upside down triangle next to the number you see there or on the number itself.

See fig thirteen where I have highlighted both the brush icon and the top where you choose the size of brush. You choose the size that you want to use by moving the slider to the right to make it bigger and to the left to make it smaller.

When you are pleased with the size of brush move your cursor to the picture. Left click and keep the left part of your mouse down as you start to colour. Continue to hold the left part of your mouse down until you have coloured the parts of the photo that is the uniform.

You colour the collar and the darker parts with the same colour. The shading of the black and white photograph underneath will take care of the depth of colour. Now isn’t that neat.

Your screen should now look like fig thirteen with the uniform coloured in. If you are not satisfied with the depth of colour try changing the opacity of the layer in the layer pallet. Increasing the opacity will deepen the colour decreasing it will lighten it.

fig thirteen

The face

Select the remaining untitled layer in the layer pallet repeating all the steps listed above for the uniform layer only this time use the eyedropper to sample the skin colour instead of the uniform colour and then colour in the skin. Create as many new layers as you need to get the result you desire.

I used just between the eyes on the source photo as a good place to sample for the colour. For every colour I use I create a new layer remembering to change to layer to color and opacity to around 50% and I name the layer after what part I am colouring like hair teeth skin etc. Your photo should now look something like fig fourteen.

Fig fourteen is not the finished article I leave that now to you, if you look at my original after photo you can see that my husbands eyes are blue and his hair such as it is, is white blond and I cut away the old background and replaced it with another, all in all I used about six layers to achieve this but this hub is way too long already for me to go into anymore detail.


The more time you take the better the results, don’t worry if you go over the lines just click on the eraser on the appropriate layer and rub the offending piece out.


fig fourteen

Happy Colouring

Let me know how you get on and if you found this hub helpful now off you go and happy colouring.

If there is something that you would like to know how to do in Photoshop then let me know and if it is something that I know how to do then I will write a hub explaining how.


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