Top 10 Tips

Good morning, all. Sorry this isn’t the Top 10 Tips to Win Jamie Fraser’s Heart. Hmm … that does give me an idea. I’ll have to come back to that. For now …

One of my readers indicated she would like to tackle colorizing her own photos and asked me how to get started. I began a reply which grew longer and longer. Before I knew it, I figured I had a new blog post. Perhaps there are a few others out there who would like to do the same. So …

If you want to experiment with enhancing your own photos, I recommend you work in a quality software package, like Photoshop. Unfortunately, I’m unfamiliar with most other non-professional compositing packages, but I know there are several out there, some for free. Whatever you decide to work in, make sure the software allows you to work in layers – that’s the most important part of the process. It gives you the flexibility to modify as you go. If you’re a beginner, don’t worry about how it looks in the early stages. What I mean is, get comfortable with breaking the image down into layers before worrying about how it looks. And remember to Save. Save. Save. Version up. Version up. Version up.

Here are a few basic pointers I can offer. They apply to Photoshop, but I’ve tried to keep them general:

  1. Use the highest resolution image you can obtain. Depending on your source, sometimes taking a picture with a high-resolution camera can result in a better quality “scan” than scanning the picture with your average printer/scanner – that includes scanners at places such as Walgreens, etc.
  2. Always keep an untouched reference layer in your project so you can go back to it if you erase or change something in one of your layers you can’t undo. This is especially important if you crop the image and make adjustments to its scale or canvas size at the very beginning. If you do find yourself in need of recreating the scale, change the layer type of the layer you need to adjust from Normal to Difference. Tweak it until the layers match.
  3. Remove scratches, dust, and imperfections from the reference image using paint and cloning tools. This is the layer you’ll duplicate and use throughout your project.
  4. As you break down the layers, play with the opacity of your brushes, erasers and layer visibility.
  5. Play with the coloring. You can use multiple layers to achieve the right tone(s), but the color and light adjustment variables are your best friends … so get to know them!
  6. The more layers you create, the more control you have. The order of your layers is important, but that’s something you’ll figure out as you go along.
  7. Once you’re happy with the overall colorization, turn your attention toward the details. Add shadows. This is where layers become extremely important. Clean up the lines between your layers. Add detail color to lips, cheeks, eyes, etc.
  8. Add some richness to the project by manipulating the background. For example, adding a soft gradient is easy if you’ve already given the background its own layer. Simply add another layer on top and apply whatever gradient you like to it. Make adjustments to the opacity, coloring and lighting. Or … change the background altogether. Challenge yourself to match the perspective, lighting, scale and coloring to your foreground image.
  9. After you’ve achieved a look you like, do not “flatten the file.” Export all the layers as a jpg, tiff, or whatever you prefer with a version number. I often add descriptives to the name of the exported file to help me keep track. Ambiguous version numbers can mount up. Never overwrite your versions. Once the file is gone, it’s gone.
  10. Import your exported image back into your program as a separate file. This is where you play with filters – if you want to add paint and/or texture effects. Remember less is more. Be subtle. I like to open multiple exported files into a Preview program so I can cycle through them for comparison. I do this to compare my editorial changes and to make final selection(s).

Most importantly, as in everything – do not give up. Good luck!

The 10 points above are by no means comprehensive. I’d be happy to make singular suggestions, assuming I have one to offer. But in this world of online tutorials and wiki how-to’s, I’m sure you all are overwhelmed with help. Let me know how your project comes along, Brenda!


  1. Brenda

    Candida, thank you so much for these instructions. It seems overwhelming but I know I can do it. I’ll keep you posted on my progress!!

    1. My pleasure. Can’t wait to see your masterpiece!

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