Walt Whitman, 1887

Elizabeth Taylor – Giant (1956 film)

Oscar II, King of Sweden and Norway, 1880

Charles Darwin

Charlie Chaplin at the age of 27, 1916

Abraham Lincoln, 1865

Albert Einstein, Summer 1939 Nassau Point, Long Island, NY

Nicola Tesla

Hindenburg Disaster – May 6, 1937

Anne Frank, 1942

H-Bomb Test

H-Bomb Test

View from Capitol in Nashville, Tennessee During the Civil War, 1864

Kissing the War Goodbye, V-J Day August 14, 1945

Auto Wreck in Washington D.C, 1921

Abandoned boy holding a stuffed toy animal. London 1945

Unemployed lumber worker, circa 1939

Mark Twain in the garden, circa 1900

Joseph Goebbels scowling at photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt after finding out he’s Jewish, 1933

Young boy in Baltimore slum area, July 1938

Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt

Japanese Archers circa 1860

Thich Quang Duc, 1963

Winston Churchill

British troops cheerfully board their train for the first stage of their trip to the front – England, September 20, 1939

"Old Gold," Country store, 1939

Audrey Hepburn

Co.Create

See History In A Whole New Light With Classic Black And White Photos, Now In Living Color

Colorizing historic black-and-white imagery is a thriving artform now. Image specialist Jordan J. Lloyd explains how to do so in a way that pays homage to the photo and to history.

Clicking through the Reddit subthread for “Colorization” feels like entering a timewarp. It’s a far cry from Ted Turner’s much-derided efforts to "modernize" black-and-white classics like Casablanca. Colorization has become more and more popular lately, and the creators behind this new breed of updated imagery use all the technological resources of the last 20 years to strive for more than just plausibility—their aim is for historical authenticity.

“I have one goal with colorizing,” says Jordan J. Lloyd. “I try and make it so realistic that the final image becomes unremarkable—until you become aware the original was in black and white.”

Lloyd is a specialist at digital image agency Dynamichrome. His work there is something of a digital counterpart to what waxworkers at Madame Tussauds do: he provides the nuance that creates an illusion of vitality. While anyone with a computer and the financial resources could potentially try their hand at colorization, like most pursuits, it takes someone devoted to the craft to master it, with coloring that looks natural and real.

“The details really count towards giving the impression of realism,” Lloyd says. “For instance, something like the sclera [the white part of the eyes] is a giveaway. They are not brilliant white unless they've been retouched in Photoshop. When colors are too perfect, it's a sign of a colorization no matter how flawless the execution.”

The first step is taking the black and white image, which often has some damage, and restoring it to how it looked before any physical deterioration of the negative. Before applying base layers or attempting to build up the necessary amount of depth, though, comes the research—another aspect of the process that separates the pros from the amateurs.

“Anyone interested in doing serious colorization must be willing to conduct methodical research for days at a time, and get in touch with actual experts on everything from military history to the soft drink industry,” says Lloyd. “Additionally, we already have folders full of reference shots—from old fashioned magazines to academic studies of particular uniforms. It's not restricted to eras either, but can also change depending on region too. When dealing with tribal clothing, for example, there are very specific colors based on everything from natural dyes to the climate.”

The working knowledge that image specialists accrue over time, combined with the custom research that comes up on a case by case basis, form the backbone of the entire procedure. In order to apply layers of color to a face, you have to be deeply familiar with anatomy, for instance.

Similar considerations also factor in when working on clothing, props, and anything that might appear in the background of the photo. The coloring for these objects needs to have the randomness of reality, but also include as much variation as possible within a believable visual range. It’s an imprecise mixture that’s tricky to achieve.

“I think even the best colorizers and restorers only get about 80% of the way there,” Lloyd says. “There is so much complexity in color variation, no matter how many layers you apply it's impossible to get it 100% right.”

The image specialist advises amateurs trying their hand at colorization to pay close attention to how light affects the colors of certain materials, especially machine parts. Along with his advice for developing one’s technique, Lloyd also suggests developing a thick skin.

“The irony is that colorizers are accused of destroying history,” he says, “when in fact we have the utmost reverence for the source material.”

Have a look through the photos above for examples of quality colorization from several sources.

Add New Comment

11 Comments

  • meachamrob

    Who is in #22. It seems like a Civil Rights famous photo but I can not place it.

  • Ramunas

    an interesting exercise but it distorts my view of history, in an unpleasant way

  • escoville

    I think rather that your subliminally distorted view of history is being corrected. You presumably don't regard Rembrandt's so-called Night Watch (for example) to be a distorted representation just because it's in colour? Whether you find it unpleasant or not is, of course, subjective.

  • Robertjm

    Lincoln obviously had no fashion sense!! I mean, who wears a brown vest with a dark blue suit? ;-)

  • escoville

    It is one of the curiosities of the 19th century that except when people had their portraits painted, we really don't know what colour their clothes were.

  • Robertjm

    Absolutely, I was being sarcastic since we really don't know. Personally, I would have colorized the vest either a grey or different blue shade myself, not brown.

  • Com_Truise

    There are pictures of an H-Bomb Test, the Hindenburg Disaster, pictures that suggest racial segregation, hate towards minorities, extreme poverty and wars.
    Why is it that the one picture that suggests sexual assault should be removed?
    I question your objectivity and rationality.

  • Some Guy

    This image is one that is celebrated; it's an iconic part of American history. Couples regularly imitate this pose in their own photos. It's required in art and TV shows etc.

    I do not believe that many people know that it suggests sexual assault; maybe that is the problem.

    Maybe that's why it should be removed. At the very least, we should talk about it. The items you listed are horrific parts of American history; Maybe we should talk about that allegedly forced sexual assault in a similar light.

  • Com_Truise

    Fair enough. You should definitaly highlight the picture in its correct context. But not showing it is IMO not the right way to deal with history.

  • thelma walker

    Interesting project. Color definitely changes the subjectiveness of the photos. But I Just cannot get over Einstein's "lady sandles."