Colorize a black and white photo in GIMP

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This is a quick tutorial on how to use GIMP for colorizing a black and white photograph. The technique is described in general instead of in detail since each photograph will be unique in its own composition. The photograph I used is of Albert Einstein (and I borrowed the photo from this site) and this is one of my favorite photo of him since there is something beautiful over the playfulness in his smile.

The same technique can be used for Adobe Photoshop or other software as well and the method we are using are similar to what we did earlier when we exchanged a selected color in an image.

Let us begin!

  1. Start off with a black and white photo. The wider spectrum of grey tones and the more dynamic the photo is, the better the end result will be.
    Black and white photo loaded in GIMP
  2. Create a new layer
    New layer
  3. Select the brush tool and with the new layer selected, paint with a warm orange color over all parts of the portrait where you want skin.

    Advanced:You can start of by a large brush and go into more details using the eraser afterwards.

    A mask is created for where the skin in the portrait is

  4. When you have painted parts of the photo where there is visible skin, with the selected layer in the Layers toolbox, change the blending type to multiply. Using the transparency of the slider you can adjust the strength of the color.
    Colored layer is set to Blending type 'Multiply'
  5. Do the same for the other parts of the image you want colorized, adding a new layer for each new color. Set each layer to blending type, Multiply when finished.
    Repeat the proces
  6. When all parts have been colorized, right click on any of the layers in the Layers toolbox and select Flatten image.

    Advanced:Using Color adjust, you can set the overall color to meet your goal or to tweak the full color range. It can also be used to ting the part of the photo which was not colored into a warmer or colder tone.

  7. Done.

Black and white photography

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Black and white photos do no have the luxury of using color to catch the viewer. Instead we must capture the other parts of a scene to being able to deliver the feeling we got. There is also of course some photos that have better capabillties to become a great black and white photo then other. Urban photography is very trendy today and most photographers have tried it in some way. Often the objects found for this kind of photos are torn, old and have a high amount of contrast dy rust, old paint and materials and also quite often a less amount of ambient light. The perfect urban photo can be found in a sewer pipe with no direct sunlight or in an abandoned and shut building. Both of the examples with very low light. Low light is not always bad though, by utilizing the low light and beeing able to capture longer exposures we can create beautiful photos of ugly things and areas.

Often black and white photography can seem to be easier then color photography due to its forgiving effect. But in fact it is the complete differece. To being able to capture a great black and white photo the photographer have to see beyond the colors onto the object itself.

Different photos can call for different settings to be used to utilize the most of the situation. A nice blue sky can when desaturated look pale and lifeless instead of varm and beautiful. Using filters can help you to change the feeling of a black and white photo by bringing you more contrast and more details between the different colorscales which you are to remove.

  • If you have a very bright sky you can use a red filter to darken it while keeping the details in the foreground.
  • To bring more life into mist and fog you can go for a blue filter which will help those greys to jump out of the blur.
  • Green filters are great to use to capture the difference in greens while photographing vast landscapes or scenes of nature.

Camera settings
Most cameras today have the option of saving photos directly in black and white, both when using JPG and RAW. As most books and guides will tell you the best way to photograph black and white photos is to do so using RAW but not to use your cameras black and white setting. The main reason for this is so that you keep the colorinformation if you for any chance would change your mind afterwards and feel that the photo look better in color. You can also use the colorinformation to keep a single object in color while the rest of the photo is in black and white. This is an effect that have become very trendy lately and can be seen in many places.

“But if I shoot in color and RAW, how do I get my photos to become black and white?”, you might ask. Well, photoeditors today can create great black and white scales of color photos and the ways of desaturate an image are many. The easiest way that is almost always an option in editors is to change the colormode to black and white. This is a technique that might be a bit rough and you do not have as much control over it as you want but as an amateur photographer it will be enough for you to start getting a grasp on the posibilities.

Noise have an tendency to show even more in a black and white photo which mean that we should always keep the ISO-setting of the camera as low as possible. As soon as we start moving up the ISO we introduce noise which will show in our photos and sometimes this is something we want but most of the time we do not want this. It is due to this better to keep the ISO at the lowest setting possible for the scene and instead add noise in post-production if wanted.

General tips
A bright and sunny day can be great for your regular photos but might create slighly overexposed photos in black and white. To counter this at an early stage try to underexpose a couple of steps to keep the spectrum more balanced.

Great scenes for black and white photographs

  • Urban photography and decay in general have a natural feeling of desaturarion.
  • Architecture and abstract creations can be hard to photograph in black and white due to many areas with plain colors but in an interesting angle they can be great.
  • Landscapes can sometimes loose their grandness due to the strong colors. By removing the colors the observer can focus on the whole picture and not the stray details.
  • Textures exist all around us from macro-photos of a leaf to the patterns of a brick wall, and they all is just made for black and white photos in high contrast.