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How to “Hand-Color” B&W Photographs Digitally in Photoshop

Not long ago, I wrote a B&H Explora “How-to” article about hand-coloring black & white photographs using toned black-and-white prints and transparent photo oils. The article was well received and fun to produce. It also got me wondering if there was a way to produce images that emulate the look, color, and feel of hand-colored prints electronically using Photoshop.

Long story short, I played around a bit and—wouldn’t you know—it’s possible. You can do it. Not only that, but unlike hand-coloring photographs with oil paint, there’s zero cleanup. All you have to do when you’re finished is hit “Save.”

Photographs © Allan Weitz 2020

You Start with a Black-and-White Image…

If you have an existing black-and-white image, good; you’ve completed the first step. Take five and talk among yourselves. If you’re starting with a color image file, you have two choices. The first option is to open the image in Photoshop and go to IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS > HUE/SATURATION and slip the SATURATION slider in the MASTER channel all the way to your left. Boom, you have a black-and-white conversion of your color image file.

The second—and preferable—method is to open your image in Photoshop and go to IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS > BLACK & WHITE, and pause at the Color Channel Menu.

This step gives you an opportunity to tweak the tonality of the image by adjusting the Red, Yellow, Green, Cyan, Blue, and Magenta color channels individually. This is important because, when coloring photographs, you want to be able to open up the shadow areas in order expand the image’s range of tonality while revealing previously hidden detail. These adjustments can be performed globally in “Master” mode, but you have far more control over highlights and shadows if you go through the image file color channel by color channel.

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