Hand tinting BW photographs – Photoshop

As a lecturing in the subject of Adobe Photoshop, I get asked this question a lot.
“How do you hand-tint or hand-colour a black and white photograph?”
I have written this tutorial as a way to explain the principles behind successful hand-tinting; to achieve a high level of competence in this subject, you must work hard to develop an honest eye for colour as well as a mastering over a handful of Adobe Photoshop tools and functions.
Let’s start from the top and load up a reasonable sized black and white photograph.

Grayscale to RGB

Colour mode of image in Photoshop

Firstly, we will need to determine the colour mode settings of our image. Assuming of course, you are going to apply colour to a black and white image, your image will likely be a grayscale image. You can quickly establish this by observing the information at the top of your image’s window.

Grayscale (Gray) mode

A grayscale image contains 256 shades from black to white. You can’t apply colour to an image that has been saved as a grayscale.

RGB mode

An RGB image (Red, Green and Blue) can contain up to 16,777, 216 (nearly 16.8 Million) individual colours.
In order to add colour to a image, you must ensure that it is RGB and not grayscale. You can easily switch between these and other colour modes by clicking on (Menu at top of screen) ‘Image > Mode >‘ and selecting from the roll-out menu.

Background colour

black and white photograph

I have to be completely honest with you – this image did start life as a colour photograph – I have converted to a grayscale for this tutorials and promise not to cheat at any point and refer back to the original colour image 😉

Now that our image is set to receive colour in RGB mode, let’s add a general, overall colour to our photograph. This will save us having to ‘fill in the colourless gaps’ at the end of this process.

Adding the colour with Colour balance

Colour Balance CTRL+B

In order to add colour to your image you must call upon the superb ‘Colour Balance‘ function within Adobe Photoshop. You can access Colour Balance by either the menu ‘Image > Adjustments > Color Balance‘ or by the shortcut – CTRL+B. If this function is currently unavailable, it is likely you haven’t selected the correct colour mode – make sure you are working with an RGB not a Grayscale!

I know it looks complicated, but it isn’t – not really. If we wish to add a hint of Red (for arguments sake) to our image, then all we need to do is simply slide the first of three pointers from it’s centre position toward ‘Red’. Orange, anyone? Keep the red where it is and slide the bottom point toward ‘Yellow’. Red + Orange = Red…simple stuff. Have a play around with Colour balance and get accustomed to mixing different hues.

Colour Balance CTRL+B

I’m not sure whether orange is quite the right general colour for this image, so I am going to change my Colour balance to create a nice bluey-green hue.
As you can see (left), as I slide the pointers, Photoshop very kindly adjusts the image behind to give me an idea or ‘Preview‘ of the colour that I am currently mixing.

The colour hasn’t been added to the image yet. You will find the option ‘OK‘ and ‘Cancel‘ to the right of the Colour Balance dialogue box. Cancel will close Colour Balance with no colour changes applied. OK, on the other-hand will apply the mixed hue across the canvas of our photograph. Click on OK to apply colour changes.

Blue image

There! We have now applied some colour to our black and white photograph. This is a very useful technique for generating a ‘Sepia‘ effect.
Obviously, at this point our image looks far from being a colour photograph, but with the following techniques (plus tonnes of practise), you will soon be applying true to life hues and bring our monotone image into glorious Technicolour (a bit over the top…sorry).

Selections – the secret weapon!

The penny usually drops when I tell my students that right the at the core of hand colouring photographs is, amongst others, the selection tool. In order to have multiple colours we must firstly select areas of our image and apply colour to them. A selection allows you to isolate an area of an image for the application of certain effects or filters.

Lasso Tool

I’m going to start by making a few ‘ambiguous selection‘ to our images’ background, in order to add a splash of varied hues. The best tool for this particular kind of selection is undoubtedly the Lasso Tool.


As you can see (right), by left-clicking and dragging the mouse about my canvas, I have added a few selections to our photograph. Hold down the shift key to create more than one selection.


Now we need to soften our selection so that when we change the hue (via Colour Balance), we don’t see an unsightly ‘joins’ or steps in hue. Click on ‘Select > Feather…‘ to bring up the Feather dialogue box.
I’d suggest adding quite a high feather radius to create a very soft selection. The amount will greatly depend on the size of the image and the amount required.

In my case, I will choose a radius of 40 pixels (as my image is of a high resolution).
Let’s call up the Colour Balance (CTRL+B) and add a little more colour. Whilst changing the colour, it is useful to ‘Hide’ your selection so that you can fully appreciate the overall effect. To hide your selection (It will still be there!) use the quick key ‘CTRL+H‘. If you pressed again, this shortcut will ‘Show‘ selection.

Colour patches

In this case, I have added a little orange to the background. The secret is to be subtle with your mixes. I added a minuscule amount of red and yellow to achieve this effect. De-select your selection once you have done this (CTRL+ D). If you would like to really make an impact with your image, repeat this process and add different hues via different selections.

Colouring skin

This is very, very tricky! What colour is skin? Cecilia, the lady in this image, can be described as a ‘white European’. But that description doesn’t really hold water as her skin is not really white. And what about ‘Black skin’, is it really black? The truth is, both black and white skin types belong to the same colour, only the tone varies.

When we mix colours using colour balance, it doesn’t make the image any lighter or darker (to any large degree), it only changes the hue. After all, you can make an accurate assumption of the colour somebody’s skin by looking at a black and white photograph. For this image, we are now going to apply a ‘Tan-like’ colour to Cecilia’s skin. But firstly, we need to make a selection around the skin areas within the image. I’d also include her hair, eyes and teeth.

QuickmaskFor the sake of this tutorial, I have hight-lighted in red the areas that I am now going to select (right).
Use the Polygonal Lasso to give control over your selection. Remember, you can alway unpick your selection (whilst creating it) by tapping on the ‘Backspace‘ or ‘Delete‘ keys.

It makes sense to select all of these areas together by using combinations of the ‘Add to selection‘ (Shift key) or ‘Subtract from selection‘ (Alt key) so that when you mix a hue into the skin, the hues don’t vary from limb to limb!

Clear your palette!

All good artists, when applying a completely different colour to a painting will give the mixing palette a good wipe before adding colour. After all, by mixing colour on top of older, inappropriate colours, you will be on a loosing battle to attain the hue that you are after.

Saturation level

To do this in Photoshop is easy (put the cloth down!). Once you have made your selection, add a small amount of Feathering (about 2px) and call up ‘Hue and Saturation’ (CTRL+U) – ‘Image > Adjustments > Hue and Saturation‘ and drag the ‘Saturation’ pointer over to the far left. Click on ‘OK’. Now you have removed all ‘Blue-green’ from this part of the image, levelling the playing field for the addition of other colours.

Skin tones

Now, call up the Colour Balance (CTRL+B) and add a little red and a little yellow. BE SUBTLE! You will find this to be quite a challenge; the cheeks looks good but the nose doesn’t, or the nose looks great, but the lips are weird…don’t worry, try and achieve a general ‘skin-like’ tone.
Mmm, don’t de-select just yet – I’m afraid we are far from done.


Hair is quite easy to hand colour. Do you remember me saying that you should include her hair in your skin selection and Colour Balancing? Hair, unless your subject has had a blue rinse, should be relatively similar to the colour of skin. Again, as with black and white skin types, dark brown to blond will be influenced not by the actual colour, but the tone, which is already in your image. The only thing you will have to do is slightly reduce the amount of saturation within the hair.

Hair tones

Select around the hair (plus eyebrows), add a pinch of Feathering and call up the Hue and Saturation dialogue box (CTRL+U). Don’t remove all of the saturation this time, only a small amount. Adjust to suite your requirements. If your subject has grey hair then reduce more, but not all saturation. If you subject has red hair, increase saturation by dragging the saturation pointer to the right a little. De-select (CTRL+D).
Wow! Already the image is starting to look better!

Hand-tinting lips and mouth

Lip selection

This part of our image is looking a little ropey at the moment. Let’s start by selecting around the lips and adding a little feathering.
Now we are confronted with the choice, do we A. remove the colour and add it back again (lower saturation, apply colour balance), or B. just tweak our existing colour (apply colour balance)?
I this case, it is clear cut. We need to tweak our existing colours to produce a lip-like hue. Call up the Colour Balance (CTRL+B).

Lip colouring

Add a little blue and some red to the mix. It’s alive! De-select.

Colouring teeth

Teeth colouring

Nobody has pure white teeth, so next we are going to select the teeth and reduce the saturation – not by much, about -30 to -40 should do it.
This can be a useful skill to have if a dear family member has teeth that are far from dazzling white 😉
If you can see your subjects gums, then select then also and add a little purple.

Colouring Eyes

Eye white colouring

Let’s start with the whites of the eyes. Select them, add your feathering and slightly de-saturate to produce a perfect eye white effect.

Iris colouring

Now select the iris of each eye (as always, select both together) add a little feathering and reduce saturation. This will work with just about any iris colour. For brown, reduce the saturation a little – for blue reduce it even further. Blue eyes are really grey, they just appear blue against the red hues of skin.

Adding the finishing touches to our hand coloured image

Colour cheeks

Let’s now put a bit of colour back into the cheeks. Using the Lasso tool, ambiguously select around each cheek, add lots of feathering and call up colour balance. Again, we are only tweaking the existing colour a little.

Colour Balance cheeks

I find a little bit of blue and a some amount of red usually creates a good effect. Repeat this process on different part of the face to vary the hue mixtures.


Hand coloured photograph

There, impressed? Ok, time is money for me, I couldn’t spend too long on my example…could have done better 😉 As you can see, I have also selected the clothing and lightened/desaturated it via the Hue and Saturation dialogue box and Colour Balanced red into it to contrast against the blue background. I have also increased the overall saturation a little to enhance the result.

If you would like to work on the same image, you can download it from here.

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