Friday, July 5, 2013

Colorizing Old Photos

Do you ever look at old B&W or sepia photos and feel like something is missing?  Do you wonder if your family would be able to better relate to the people in those photos if they were magically in color?  Well, I decided to try my hand at colorizing an old photo to see how it would look and how difficult the process was.  Here is the photo I started with.

Since I didn't want to pay for a fancy photo editing program I used the free program GIMP and found a helpful video tutorial to walk me through the process.  Here is what the photo looked like after I manipulated it.

I know it doesn't look perfect; the eyes, for example, look unnatural, but for a first attempt I don't think it looks terrible.  Perhaps, this was a poor image to begin with because there was not much contrast in the facial features, making it difficult to tell where the lips and eyes met the surrounding skin.  That said, I think this technique has the potential to refresh some of those old photos and bring them to life in a way. 

The process really wasn't that difficult, but it was time-consuming and repetitive.  However, if you just don't feel like thinking and yet you still want to accomplish something this might be just the task to fill the bill. 

Here are the basic steps I followed, though I'm sure there are many ways to achieve the same result.
  1. Make a copy of the photo you want to colorize. Don't even think about using your original!
  2. To make sure you can color your copy go to Image → Mode and select RGB.
  3. In the middle of the Toolbox window, click on the set of boxes (one black, one white) to select the color you want to begin with. When you choose a color keep in mind that it won't look exactly like that when applied to your photograph. The program takes into account the pigment density (for lack of a better descriptor) in the area you are coloring. For example in my photograph, the folds of the dress have a higher pigment density and thus look darker blue.
  4. Now go to Layer → New Layer. Name your layer, such as “skin” and make sure that you select “Foreground Color” before you click OK. Don't be alarmed when your photo is completely obscured by the color.
  5. In the Layers box (if it didn't pop up, go to Windows → Dockable Dialogs → Layers and then pull the window off to the side so you can see the screen with your photo as well) right click on your new layer and select Add Layer Mask from the drop-down menu. When the dialog box comes up select “Black, full transparency.”
  6. At the top of the Layers dialog box where it says Mode, click on it and select “Overlay” from the drop down menu.
  7. In the Toolbox window select the pink eraser tool. Now you are ready to color. At the bottom of the screen with your photograph zoom in to 200%-800% so you can easily see what you want to color. Move your cursor over onto the image and you will see a dotted circle or something like it. That is the size of your eraser. On the Toolbox window there is a Scale slider you can use to increase or decrease the size of your eraser to suit the area you are coloring. I like to start with a larger tool to do the large areas of the same color and then decrease the tool size to go back and do the edges and any nooks or crannies. To color in the area selected by the circle click the left mouse button. Keep the left mouse button down and move your cursor around to color your selected section. Save frequently so if you make a mistake you can go to Edit → Undo and you won't lose a lot of your work.
  8. Lather, rinse and repeat. Go back to step 3 to select your next color and so on until you have colored everything you want to.
  9. When you are completely done, you will need to combine all of the layers so you can save it as a jpg to share with your family. To do this go to Image → Flatten Image. Now you can Save As and choose the file type (.jpg).
A few last notes on coloring images, based on my admittedly limited experience: Be careful at the edges where one color will meet another. If the colors overlap you will see a combination of the two and it will draw your eye to the boundary and look unnatural. You may want to start with something simple like the floor or the wall to practice using the eraser. I was excited and wanted to begin with the face first when I wasn't used to the tools and so I discovered the effects of unintentionally overlapping colors. When working in little areas zoom to the maximum size and use a smaller eraser so you have more control.

Good luck if you decide to try this out.  Remember to start with a very simple photo like the one I chose.  Believe me, you do not want to try this out on a photo with lots of details.  Then amaze your family with the results.

Just for the record, this photo is of Mary Jo Townsend who lived with my family (the Clemens) in Island Creek, Steubenville, Jefferson Co, Ohio in 1860. The photo was in the Flynn family bible belonging to my gg-grandfather, Edward Flynn and his wife, Sarah Clemens. The photo was taken in Steubenville, OH.

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