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How to Colorize a black and white photo in Photoshop – portrait

How to turn a black and white photo into color in Adobe Photoshop

This tutorial was created in Photoshop CC, but can be adapted to work on any version of Photoshop.

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This week we are looking at how to take a black and white photo and turn it into a color photo. The following steps can be used to create a very realistic result, or you can adapt them for a painterly look or even hand tinted. For hand tinted, lower the opacity of the color layer at the end. The video goes in detail through all the steps. I have created the written notes in a style that I use when I write my books. Let me know if you like this ,ore concise style, or prefer basic individual steps.

You can find historic photos that are free to use and public domain from the Library of Congress


The photos Ive used in this tutorial from Adobe Stock


Step 1

If the image is grayscale, choose Image>Mode>RGB, Now you can colorize it.

black and white to color tutorial

Step 2

Let’s make it easy to paint within the lines (optional)

Choose Quick select and make a selection. If you are on Photoshop CC 2019 or newer, choose Select Subject.

select subject in photoshop

Step 3

Choose Select and mask

(1) Grab the refine selection brush

(2) paint around the hair)

(3) Choose New Layer with Layer mask

Click ok

select and mask in photoshop CC

Step 4

(1) Create a new Layer

(2) Hold down the alt/Option key and lick between the new layer and the underlaying layer. This will create a clipping group and keep all painting within the shape of the cutout. You don’t have to worry about painting outside the lines.

(3) Change to color blending mode, so only the color will change when you paint.

setting up layers to paint color into black and white

Step 5

The key to getting realistic color is to use a reference photo. I grabbed one from Adobe stock for free, see the video to see how to get it into Photoshop. I downloaded the reference photo and dropped it onto the top layer so we can steal the color from it.

(1) Choose the eyedropper. Change sample size to 5×5 and select all layers from select. This will sample the average value of 35 surrounding pixels and give an more accurate reading.

(2) Choose the paintbrush.

(3) Hold down alt/Option and click on the reference photo to sample the basic skin color.

(4) Paint over the entire face to put down a flat color.

painting flat color in photoshop

Step 6

Hold down alt/Option and sample the hair color

Paint over the hair, as well as the beard and eyebrows, Make sure to sample the colors often as facial hair can be different tones.


colorize hair in photoshop

Step 7. Adding additional skin tones.

The face isn’t just one tone of color. The forehead and top of head has thinner skin as thus can appear more yellowish. The cheeks and nose are more fleshy, and have more blood vessels and thus appear more reddish. Under the eyes can also be more red. The chin and jaw reflect the clothing and also can be a little bluish/green because of stubble. Notice I have sampled and painted some of the color onto the background as a paint palette.

Sample from the reference photo and paint the additional skin tones using a low brush opacity. See the video above for a demonstration.

create a skin tone color palette in Photoshop

Step 8

Make sure to get the details such as pink on the inside of the eye lids

painting around eyes in Photoshop

Step 9 painting the eyes.

Its time to fix the eyes.

(1) Create a layer mask on the color layer

(2) With a black brush, carefully paint away the color. Don’t remove all the color, leave about 5% as pure white will look ghoulish.

(3) Create a new layer and change it to color blending mode. Choose a color for the iris. In this case, blue. Remember a little bit of color goes a long way. Paint the color into the eyes.

(4) Press Cmd/Ctrl+U for Hue Saturation (Or even better, use an adjustment layer). Fine tune the color and you will probably have to reduce the saturation.


how to colorize eyes in photoshop

Related tutorial: How to change eye color in Photoshop


Step 10

Don’t forget the ears, sampling from the reference for the outside and inside.

add color to ears in photoshop

Step 11. Colorize the clothing.

Create a new layer, call it sweater. Change to color blending mode

Make a selection around the Turtleneck sweater with the quick selection brush.

Choose a color. In this case a purple shade. Paint over the clothing.

colorize clothing in Photoshop

Step 12. Colorize the background.

(1) Click on the background layer. Create a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer,

(2) Click on colorize.

(3) Lightness enables you to add color to white, by slightly lowering the lightness, or add color to black by increasing it. Move the hue to choose a color, Saturation to vary the amount of color.


How to change the color of a background in Photoshop

And we are done. You can use this tutorial to colorize any black and white photo. This also works when you are colorizing a painting or sketch. You will get different results by using different reference photos. You can also save the colors as color swatches for use later.

Thanks for using this tutorial and I hope you enjoyed it.




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selections and masks in Photoshop CC





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6 responses to “How to Colorize a black and white photo in Photoshop – portrait”

  1. Hi Colin, this is the 1st time I’ve seen a B&W pic converted to a colour pic and it is well presented in easy to understand written steps which dummies like myself can follow

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