In this tutorial we will color a black and white photo using gradient maps, solid colors, and the Color blending mode. Using these techniques, you will be able to hand color any black and white photo in a way that looks photorealistic.
Final Image Preview
Before we get started, let’s take a look at the image we’ll be creating. Before and after images are shown below.
Double-click on the background image to make it an active layer. Create a new group by clicking on the little folder icon located at the bottom of the layers palette and put the layer in the group. Name the group “girl”. Draw a path around all the hard edges of the girl. This includes the face and the shoulders. Don’t worry about the hair for now; we will do that separately. Save the path. Make a selection of the path by holding Command-clicking on the path thumbnail in the paths palette. Hit Alt+Command+D and Feather the selection by 0.5px. Apply the selection as a mask on the “girl” group.
Make a loose selection around the face and neck and feather it 50px. Make a curves adjustment layer just above the ‘skin’ Gradient Map that we made earlier. I just went in and tweaked the colors a bit to get a little more color variation in the skin tone. You can download the curve file I used here.
Now we need to make a selection of the hair. I used the path that I saved from Step 1. Then I modified it a little to line up with the hairline’s shape and softness. I did this by using Quick Mask Mode(Q), and using brushes of various sizes and softness to match the hairline.Make a new Gradient Map adjustment layer at the top of the “girl” group. Make the gradient a similar to the image below. I left the blending mode at Normal for this layer.
Choose a Sky image. I used one I shot myself, but there are plenty of stock images you could use. Bring it into the document below the “girl” group. Hit Command+T, and size it to fill the frame. It looks good, but notice that our hair mask still isn’t really looking that good against the blue background. The hair turns a muddy gray in the transition between hair and sky. To fix this, make a new blank layer just above Layer 0 (the image of the girl). With a large and soft black brush paint over those areas with an Opacity of 15-25% until the transition looks better.
As an added bonus, I applied the techniques from the Super Quick and Easy Facial Retouching tutorial to smooth out her face a little bit. As you can tell, I decided to make her red haired, but you can make your gradients whatever color you would like. She just seemed like a redhead to me. Here is the final image.