Why You Should Think About Colorizing Old Black and Whites

Have you ever seen an expertly colorized photo and been impressed by its ‘trueness’ and realistic colors? While colorizing old black and whites is not a new technique, it does call for both time and skills. Luckily, we have great digital tools to help us with the process now.

As described in this article, the techniques used in the early part of the 20th century were ‘decidedly low-tech” and involved manual coloring by artists. But by the 1970s, there was a computerized solution developed by a Canadian engineer, Wilson Markle, whose company colorized many pictures for NASA – such as the one below.

Colorized shot of the man on the moon. Source: Getty images (via Mentalfloss.com)

Not everyone was a fan, given that black and white was the original photography format and was associated with a certain aesthetic. Color was often viewed as a jarring addition. In the 1980s, there was also a big commercial push to colorize old black and white movies. Ted Turner, the media mogul, was one of the biggest proponents of this. But the people behind the original productions were usually less enthusiastic. Upon learning that Turner planned to colorize the movie classic, ‘Citizen Kane’, its ailing director Orson Welles is said to have told a friend: “Don’t let Ted Turner deface my movie with his crayons.”

So, are there reasons to colorize a perfectly good black and white photo? We believe there are. Here are a few of them:

Reason #1: Colorizing can make history seem more accessible. For example, in this old picture of men from a cavalry regiment in the Civil War, the colors impart a more contemporary feel and flavour, allowing a distant moment in time to move closer to us.

Reason #2: Color both completes the story and fleshes it out by highlighting people and objects in an old picture. Here are a few examples of this effect at work from this terrific instagram site of historic photos.

Details from the scene of a car crash in Maryland (circa 1940) stand out more in the color version below with yellows, browns and greys juxtaposed against the green fields and blue sky.

Although black and white street photography can be very evocative, newly added colors give this photograph of the back of a grocery store a whole new dimension and character.

The original photo below is a black and white shot of Christopher Robin Milne – A.A. Milne’s son and the inspiration for the main human character in the Winnie the Pooh books – along with his fiancee. In the redone version, the colors add detail and depth to the photo while remaining true to the time period (1948) it was taken in.

Reason #3: Colors can also increase the drama in an already graphic photo, such as in this shot of the Hindenburg disaster of 1937 where the fiery flames from the doomed airship spread across a grey New Jersey sky. The monochrome black and white is less dramatic in comparison.

Source: Via airships.net

But even if you are sold on the why, you still have to figure out the ‘how’ of colorizing old black and whites.

This article on a DIY photography site includes a lot of solid information on the process, including a video tutorial that goes into the nuts and bolts of it. Armed with a tool like Photoshop, you can soon be on your way to experimenting with this fascinating technique.

But clearly, you can’t just pull up an old photo on your computer and start coloring within the lines. At the outset, you may need to perform some photo restoration on the original black and white to make sure you’re working with the best possible image. Next, comes the time-consuming part – research! You’ll need lots of it to figure out the right hues to use for clothing, backdrops and objects. If you are working on an old photo in the public domain, you can look up historical documents, books, magazines, ads and other sources to help you with color selection. If your photo is from your family archives, you may be able to talk to family members who can give you helpful pointers or clues. The goal is to gather as much data and information as possible to make sure your colorized photo is as accurate a recreation of history – public or personal – as possible. It’s also important to understand the various colors that go into producing human skin tones, as well as the role of light in the photo.

Colorized photos are not meant to take the place of the original black and whites. But they can exist alongside them – to reveal a little bit more of the picture than was originally captured.

Here are a couple of colorized photos from the ScanCafe archives: