The Digital Art of Colourising Old Photos

Photography is almost 200 years old, though its popularisation didn’t begin until the late 19th century with the Kodak box camera. Photos from that era and the early 20th century were typically in black and white, but the audience for those images today is often curious to see what they might have looked like in colour. Historical photos (e.g. from World War One) are often “colourised” by skilled practitioners in Photoshop.

Digital Art Restoration

If photography is accepted as one of the arts, a topic for debate, then modern digital repair work and colourisation is a legitimate form of art restoration. Colourisation is a more skilful version of what most of us did as children; colouring in. Most people amused themselves with colouring-in books during their infancy, and indeed the same pastime is used by adults today as a form of relaxation. However, Photoshop demands a different skill-set.

Tools of the Trade

To colourise black and white photos, you don’t strictly need any extraordinary gear. You could buy yourself a big monitor, or perhaps pick up a refurbished MacBook with a razor-sharp Retina screen from mresell, but other than that, and an average-spec PC, the main investment is in time. Some people use pen tablets so they can colourise photos using a pen rather than a mouse, but that is personal preference.

Apart from the hardware needed for colourisation, of course, you also need the software. Whichever software you choose, it must support layers and blending modes. You can use programs such as Photoshop CC, Photoshop Elements, Corel Paintshop Pro or any sophisticated editing software of similar capability.

Historical Accuracy

One of the inherent problems with colourisation is that the practitioner can never be entirely sure that their choice of colours is historically accurate. That’s one of the advantages of military photos; the colour of the uniforms is known or researchable. But for everyday photos, there’s always some guesswork involved. Colourisers with a conscience will agonise over their choices, and go to whatever lengths are possible to get the colours right. But many colourised photos are still part fiction.

Benefits of Colourisation

The flipside of historical inaccuracy in some colourised photos is that the refurbished pictures pique people’s interest in history. This is especially true of modern generations, for whom black and white pictures might be done, dusted and decidedly of the past. The ability to grab attention with freshly interpreted versions of history is useful; some historical events ought not to be forgotten. Perhaps the work of the colouriser is no less legitimate than that of a movie-maker.

If colourisation is partly fictitious, which it often is, it requires imagination as well as skill. In that sense, an argument exists for it being an art unto itself.