Blog Home Contributor How to Transform Black-and-White Photography into Color

Look back on the history and development of color photography—and forward to colorizing old black-and-white photos with just a few clicks. 

These days, it’s easy to take color photography for granted. With one tap or click of a button, we’re able to capture wonderful, full-color photos with little regard for how color photography came to be. History serves as a reminder that color photography has come a long way since its inception.

Today, we can even undo the limitations of the past by colorizing old black-and-white photos with artificial intelligence.

Here, we’ll discuss some of the exciting ways you can breathe color into monochromatic images. But first—to appreciate how far we’ve come—let’s take a look back at where color photography began.

Old Photos
Color photography followed a long and difficult quest with many wrong turns and dead-ends along the way. Image via Olllllga.

The Birth of Color Photography 

When photography was first invented in 1839, it was greeted with an amazing sense of wonder. For the first time in history, it was possible to capture a scene in such exquisite detail, except for one important feature: color.

Photography was a black-and-white medium and remained that way for nearly a century. The quest for color photography was a long and difficult one—expensive, cumbersome, and slow. 

Scientists worked tirelessly to make color photography a reality. But, by the 1880s, the public was growing increasingly impatient. To remedy this demand, many photographers employed artists who hand-tinted daguerreotypes and calotypes. The hand-coloring technique was further refined in Japan, becoming a defining characteristic of Japanese tourist photography before it was later adopted in the West.

While the technique achieved beautiful results, hand-coloring, even at its best, couldn’t replicate the colors of nature. What was required was a photographic process that could record colors in the same way that was already possible when capturing light and shade.

Edgar Allan Poe
To be fair, no amount of hand-painting can make this man look less creepy—sorry E.A. Poe. Image via Everett Collection.

Enter Autochrome plates. Debuting in France in 1907, Autochrome Lumière was the first fully-practical and commercially successful color screen processinvented by two French brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumière. Their process for creating Autochromes involved glass plates, a backlight, soot, and potato starch (yes, potato starch), which completely revolutionized photography.

News of their invention quickly spread. And, by 1913, the Lumière factory was producing 6,000 Autochrome plates daily. For about thirty years, Autochromes were the most widely used process for capturing color in the world.

Still, despite its success, Autochromes had limitations. The result was a positive color transparency that could only be viewed against a backlight or as a projected image. Color photography was technically possible, but the advancement of color photography still had a long way to go. 

By 1935, a new modern era of color photography was ushered into existence thanks to Kodachrome film. It was the brainchild of Leopold Godowsky Jr. and Leopold Mannes, two musicians-turned-scientists (naturally) who worked at Kodak Research Laboratories in Rochester, New York. Together, they invented a color-positive film produced with a subtractive color photography process.

While other color films have dye directly printed onto the film stock, Kodachrome film was unique in that the dye was added during the development process. The absence of dye couplers in the emulsion meant that the film captured even the finest of details. 

Kodachrome
In the 1930s, Kodachrome film was described as “a photographic medium that changed the way we document the world.” Image via Thongchai Siriporn.

It wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s when color photography among amateurs really took off. Until this point, color photography was reserved for the upper and middle class, whereas black-and-white photography was the norm.

This all changed when companies like Kodak and Canon made color photography more widely accessible to the masses in terms of price and skillset. Color film grew into the predominant photography medium—and the rest is history.

Vintage Photo
Until the 1960s and 70s, black-and-white photos were still the norm—even for professionally-shot weddings. Then, everything changed. Images via Roman Nerud.

How to Colorize Black-and-White Photos 

Life doesn’t happen in black-and-white. People seek realism in their photos, and colorizing old monochromatic images brings them to life in ways we didn’t know were possible. As technology advances, there are more ways to colorize black-and-white photography, and it’s becoming easier and more impressive by the day.

Discover some of the exciting possibilities below. 

Adobe Sensei AI Technology

Earlier this year, Adobe gave Photoshop the ability to colorize photos instantly with Adobe Sensei AI technology.

Here’s a quick video to demonstrate how you can use AI to transform your black-and-white photos into color effortlessly. However, for a simple breakdown, follow these steps:

After uploading your photo to Adobe Photoshop, go to Filter > Neural Filters to open up the new Neural Filters panel.

In the Beta Filters section (on the right-hand side), you’ll see the Colorize icon. Click the toggle to turn it on and watch the magic unfold. Photoshop will use its image recognition technology to colorize your photos in the way it sees fit. 

Colorize – Color to Old Photos 

Just when you thought colorizing photos couldn’t get any easier, now you can upload your images using an AI-powered app on your phone. Colorize – Color to Old Photos helps you transform your black-and-white images into color automatically. 

Simply scan your black-and-white photo or upload one from your camera roll. With just a single tap, your photo is instantly colorized. Once completed, save your colorized photo to your camera roll. 

Adobe Photoshop

While A.I. is the future, it’s still greatly beneficial to know how to colorize black-and-white images the old-fashioned way. Sure, it’s not automatic, but colorizing your photos manually means you have complete creative control of the editing process, down to the smallest details. You can even pick and choose which colors you’d like to include and which colors to leave out. 

Clock Tower
Enhance the photo by choosing which colors to include and which to leave out. Image via Photos by D.
  1. Before touching your source image, create a new layer, so you always have the original. Use layer masks to add your color of choice to your photo. 
  2. If you’re working with an old photo, chances are, you’ll need to clean the image. Remove any imperfections like dust and scratches by making slight adjustments to the Radius and Threshold levels until the flecks are gone. If that doesn’t remove all of them, create a layer mask to mask over any flaws.
  3. Neutralize the color and adjust the contrast of your photo. If it’s sepia-toned, add a Black & White adjustment layer to neutralize the color and a Levels adjustment layer to fix the contrast. 
  4. Adding color: There are several other ways you can add color to your black-and-white images in Photoshop. One such method involves adding Solid Color adjustment layers to every aspect of the photo you want to paint. Change the Blending Mode to Color so the detail of the original image shows through the paint. Then Invert the layer mask to black and use the brush to paint over the part of the image you want to colorize.

Final Thoughts

Thanks to the advancement of photography, capturing images in black-and-white is a creative choice, not a requirement. For photographers today, it’s a decision to shoot in color or black-and-white, and thanks to advancing photo editing software, we have the option to add or remove color in images, too.

We now have more freedom to capture (and edit) the world as we see it—or the way we want it to be seen.


A few more photography tips, tricks, and advice for you:

Cover image via Elena Dijour.