Black and white

Use the Gimp to create color photos from black and white photos

The Migrant Mother photo colorized

Recently I have been seeing a bunch of black and white photos being colorized. I thought it looked pretty neat, so I set out to see how to do it using The Gimp. Below is the tutorial for how I did it.
Before I begin, I would like to give credit where it is due. The main concepts of doing this I got from a Photoshop tutorial in (click for the original tutorial).

The first thing you will need to do is find a black and white photo. I decided to try using the most famous black and white photo I know of, "Migrant Mother" taken by Dorothea Lange in 1936. Open the image in The Gimp.

The first thing I like to do with all my projects is make a copy of the layer. This way if I mess up, I can always go back to the original.

I also like giving the layers appropriate names to make things less confusing in the future.

Next, you will want to right click on the image and create a layer mask.

Set the background as white.

Go ahead and make a copy of this as well.

You will need to make sure that the image is not in Grayscale mode. Go to Image>Mode>RGB and set the mode to RGB.

Now go to colors and select either Color Balance, Hue-Saturation, or Colorize. I tend to prefer Colorize.

For the Colorize dialog to actually come up, we need to make sure our image is selected and not the layer mask (look below). The image is on the left and layer mask is on the right.

With Color Balance or Colorize, we will now want to try to get the image to be same color of the object we want to color. I started with the collar. I made sure I created a copy of the image and layer mask I could use specifically for the collar.

If you use Colorize, it will start out bluish. Adjust the hue until you find the color you like.

I eventually got it to a red color I liked.

After you have the color you want, you will now need to select the layer mask by clicking on it.
Click on the right rectangle. This is the layer mask.
Now go to Colors and Invert the colors. Once the colors are inverted, it will look like the original without any color.

Next I used the selection tool to select the collar (I don't suggest doing this... it is much easier to just use the paintbrush and select the white color and paint).

Once I selected the collar, I used the paint bucket tool to fill it as white. Again... painting is easier.

Once you have that layer how you want it, create a new copy and repeat the process.

For my next layer I did the skin on the mother. I used the paintbrush tool this time. Much easier.

Keep on repeating the process for every object that is a different color (can be quite tedious but it quite fun).

One thing I should mention; don't worry too much about getting the colors correct. Close enough is good enough. Changing the colors later is quite easy.

Here you can see my different layers.

It is hard to get the colors right because it changes the colors for everything until you invert... don't worry; we will adjust later if you don't like the colors.

If you decide you want to go back and change a color, just select the layer and go back to colorize (make sure the layer mask is NOT selected).

I didn't like the orange sweater I did, so I made it a more brownish color. I did this using colorize and dropped the saturation down quite a bit.

After I had done all the layers, I started going back and adjusted the opacity on the layers to make it look a bit more natural and not over saturated.

Once you adjust the opacity on the layers, you are done!

Fun times!

Colorized version.

About McKay


  1. How long have you worked with this picture?

    well done!

  2. Awesome tutorial!
    I tried a few extra steps at the final result. In the original greyscale photo we lost the variation in saturation along the mother's face. The skin can be oily on the nose and the cheeks and may reflect light in a different manner.
    What I did was to add a transparent layer as saturation only and airbrush a few areas with white, thus reducing saturation on the result.
    Aldo I added some red on the darker areas.
    What do you think?

  3. Karol... Not sure how much time I spent on it. Perhaps about 3 hours? It would have been less if I was not working on putting the tutorial together though.

    The highlights you did are subtle but great! I think that is a really good idea. I probably could have done quite a bit more retouching.

  4. Simple but great tutorial

  5. What an exemplary tutorial for coloring photographs. I tried the above mentioned steps on the old black and white photographs, which I had. After following all the mentioned steps I managed to achieve the goal of adding colours to my image.

  6. This must be a good tutorial but I have been trying to colour a B&W photo for 2 months without success.
    I must confess that I am relatively a novice in this field.
    Firstly, with colourise or colour balance, I am not able to get the desired colour at all.
    Secondly, the default mode of layer mask is 'normal'. I feel it may have to be some other mode for the colouring to be done.
    Thirdly, your explanation:
    'Next I used the selection tool to select the collar (I don't suggest doing this... it is much easier to just use the paintbrush and select the white color and paint).
    Once I selected the collar, I used the paint bucket tool to fill it as white. Again... painting is easier.'
    just could not be understood; the collar is a chequered pattern of red and white. So the red will be painted over.
    It may be a good one for experienced users as I feel that some intermediate steps in the process, which you have taken for granted, are omitted.

  7. Is it possible to instead of manually picking a color, select a portion of a colored image to use as reference color?

    1. Try this out: Use the eyedrop tool to get the color you want (I would have two tabs open in Gimp; one of the image you are colorizing, and one of the image you want to take the colors from. Obviously you will want to use the eyedrop tool on the image you are trying to mimic). After you have your color, double click on the "Foreground and background colors" under the tools so the box "Change Foreground color" comes up. Once that is up, look at the value of "H" (hue). Whatever that number is, you can input for "Hue" in the colorize settings.

      Please let me know if that is what you are looking for or if you don't understand what I just wrote.

  8. I enjoyed this tutorial. But instead of selecting a single color to colorize you can use a selection of a colored image to use as color reference to colorize your image(looks really good). follow this link to see how.

    1. Thanks for posting that solution! Looks like a great idea.

  9. Thank you for this! I only have Gimp and saw a way to colorize photos in Photoshop on a Genealogy page on FB and wanted to try it out. Your tutorial was the best out of three that I looked at to figure out how to color in Gimp, and thus yours got bookmarked for future reference! I also linked your tutorial in my blog -

    1. Thank you so much for your comment! You did a great job on your photos! Thanks for sharing.

  10. Purest may complain but it is interesting that this photographer Dorthea Lang was not above an early 'photoshop' when she mostly removed the thumb from the bottom right, she may have been tempted to also remove the finger blocking the babies eye as well.

    1. Great and interesting comment! Thanks for taking the time to post. I love tidbits like that!

  11. Almost all about three are usually very critical with Αθήνα φωτογράφος γάμου which has a entirely formulated presentable picture, nevertheless the aperture is usually one that really can boost the landscape before you.

  12. Thank you for this awesome tutorial!

  13. Great Tutorial !! Helped me a lot. Thanks

  14. Beautiful job on an old classic! I have an old B&W military photo of myself from one of those photo booths in the late 70's, I tried to work with GiMP to colorize it, but my poor Dell laptop can't handle the processing and shuts the program down whenever I add too many tasks. Someday I'll have a better computer to work on it. Thanks for the tutorial.

    1. You can try to use - its a web service, so the processing of the image is not done on your computer.
      Good luck!

  15. I went to click on the original tutorial, you may want to remove that link. The website is infected with a virus and no longer has the tutorial.

    After doing the blouse, I got lost in this tutorial because after creating another layer, it is still coloring in red for the skin. I feel like I am missing something, I know I am missing something.

  16. How do you go over an already colorized section and overlay another color to add subtlety? Skin tones frequently have reflections of teal or purple, and shadow areas of clothes often have subtle back reflections of blue or teal.

    Also, every time I try to color, even if RGB is checked, all I get is grey. Other programs I have had simply layer color over color over color to get the proper tones. This is so difficult.

  17. Nice tutorial. Will try to colour my childhood pics. Thanks for sharing.

  18. Good tutorial. I think black and white photos are the best solution to pass feelings, want to recommend you great black and white photo editors for MAC users they'll help you to make your photos better, there are very simply to use and has a lot of amazing function, sure you'll like it.

  19. Awesome tutorial, the result is very great, the color tone is perfect here I made tutorial too but for dummies


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