Colorize old photos by restoring them in Photoshop

Watch video: How to colorize photos in Photoshop CC

Restoring old photos is one of the most satisfying of digital touch-up jobs. Not only are we able to remove dirt, scratches and all the other detritus of time, we can also add our own creative input by colorizing these old prints. This is a simple process of painting on different layers set to the Color Blend mode, a technique that – with a little practice – even the complete Photoshop CC (opens in new tab) novice can get through.

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Often the trickiest part of the process is choosing which colors to use, but with some images a little research can help. Here, for example, our initial plan was to paint London’s famous Tower Bridge with the iconic bright blue styling that we see today. 

After a little digging, though, it emerged that when the bridge first opened in 1894 the cables were chocolate brown (they were only painted blue in 1982). We also discovered a painting of the opening ceremony by William Lionel Wylie that proved invaluable. It’s details like this that can not only help you choose the right colors, but also lends the photo extra authenticity.

If you like, you can take things beyond hand-coloring and add other enhancements too. Here the original sky was washed out, so we dropped in a few clouds from another image to add depth to the scene. Touches like this might leave an archivist aghast, but if it makes sense visually then a little creative license can add to the effect of the photograph.

01 Tidy up messy marks

(Image credit: James Paterson)
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Open your old photo (or download the Tower Bridge here (opens in new tab)), then go to the Layers panel and click the New Layer icon. Grab the Spot Healing Brush. Check ‘Sample All Layers’ in the tool options then zoom in close and paint to retouch small marks.

02 Add a color

(Image credit: James Paterson)

Click the Create New Layer icon again, then go to the Blending Mode dropdown at the top of the Layers panel and change it from Normal to Color. Grab the Brush tool and choose a color, then zoom in close and start painting over objects in the scene to colorize them.

03 Paint onto new layers

(Image credit: James Paterson)
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Continue on, adding new layers set to the Color Blending mode for each new color you add. If a color appears too strong, simply lower the layer opacity until it looks right. If a color is too bright, try duplicating the layer (Cmd/Ctrl + J) then set the Blending Mode to Multiply.

04 Select the sky

(Image credit: James Paterson)
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Hit Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + Alt + E to merge a layer, then go to Select > Select and Mask. Get the Quick Selection tool and paint over the sky to select it. Next grab the Refine Edge Brush and paint to up the refinement over the bridge. Set Output to: Selection and hit OK.

05 Drop in a new sky

(Image credit: James Paterson)

Open a picture of a sky or download our Sky.jpg start file here (opens in new tab) and use the Move tool to drag it in to the bridge shot. Click the Add Mask icon to convert the selection to a mask. In the Layers panel, click the link on the image and mask thumbnail and select the shot thumbnail and use the Move tool to alter the sky.

06 Boost the tones

(Image credit: James Paterson)

Highlight the mask thumbnail, then grab the Brush tool, hit 2 for 20% brush opacity and brush black to soften the sky. Hit Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + Alt + E again, then go to Filter > Camera Raw Filter. Use the tonal controls as shown to boost the colors and finish off the photo.

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James Paterson

The lead technique writer on Digital Camera Magazine (opens in new tab)PhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine (opens in new tab) and N-Photo: The Nikon Magazine (opens in new tab), James is a fantastic general practice photographer with an enviable array of skills across every genre of photography. 

Whether it's flash photography techniques like stroboscopic portraits, astrophotography projects like photographing the Northern Lights, or turning sound into art by making paint dance on a set of speakers, James' tutorials and projects are as creative as they are enjoyable. 

As the editor of Practical Photoshop magazine, he's also a wizard at the dark arts of Photoshop, Lightroom and Affinity, and is capable of some genuine black magic in the digital darkroom, making him one of the leading authorities on photo editing software and techniques.