How to add colour to a black and white photo in Photoshop

Photoshop Elements tutorial: want to add a touch of colour to your old black and white photographs? Here’s an easy way to add a hand-tinted effect…

If you’ve got some dusty old black-and-white prints in your attic, or even a mono digital file that you want to breathe new life into, this is the technique for you.

In this Photoshop Elements tutorial you’ll learn how to add colour to a black and white photo in the style of a hand-tinted photograph. Hand-tinting was a traditional technique used before the advent of colour photography. It was hugely popular with adventurous travelling photographers in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

It was also a rather laborious process that took skilled workers hours of painstaking toil to get right. Today, however, Photoshop Elements makes this technique easy, using some simple techniques and tools, including brushes, Blending Modes and layers, as we’ll show you here.

Inspired by the memorable travel shots of the great travel photographer Burton Holmes, we dug out some black and white shots taken in India. After scanning the negatives, we set about giving the striking portrait shown above the hand-tinted treatment. Read on to find out how to add colour to a black and white photo…

1. Turn it sepia

Download the add-colour-to-black-and-white.jpg and open in Photoshop Elements. First, we’ll give the image a slight sepia tone. To do this, go to Enhance > ColourVariations. In the new window that appears, move the Adjust Colour Intensity slider to the left (about a quarter of the way) and click the Add Red and Decrease Blue boxes.

2. Change the Blending Mode

To add the first of your colours to the image, go to Layer>New> Layer. Change the Blending Mode to Colour using the drop-down menu at the top of the Layers palette. This change is very important, because it reveals the tones and shapes from the original layer in a way that’s similar to hand-tinting inks.

3. Pick a brush

Next, select the Brush tool from the Tools palette and choose an appropriate sized brush for the area you want to colour. In this case, we’re going to work on the large area of sky first, so choose a wide, soft-edged brush so you can colour the area quickly. Use the Colour Picker to set the foreground colour to a deep blue.

4. Start painting

Paint in the area of sky – you can use the square bracket keys on your keyboard to make the brush smaller or bigger depending on the intricacy of the area you are painting (around the tree edges, for example). Don’t worry about being too accurate – we’re replicating a hand-tinted look, so it’s OK if the edges are a bit rough.

5. Reduce the opacity

Once you have applied the colour wash it can often still look a little too modern and garish. To calm the colour down a little, use the Opacity slider at the top of the Layers palette to reduce the opacity of the layer. Sometimes it’s good to reduce it to as little as 10%. However, in most cases about 25% to 35% is perfect.

6. And repeat…

Repeat steps 2 to 5 with different colours for the other areas of the scene. It’s good practice to keep and work on different colours and areas of the scene on separate layers, because the opacity required might be slightly different for each colour. Consequently, you can end up with lots of layers – at least 30 for a fully coloured scene.