How to Colorize a Black and White Photo in GIMP

According to some photographers, black and white photography is the purest expression of light, shadow, and form. While some part of me agrees with that, that attitude is based in a world where we have easy access to color photography, and they make the choice to shoot black and white. 

This is a Red trillium, though you’d never know it!

Many photographers never got to see the advent of color photography at all, and that has given the world a strangely distorted view of the 1800s and early 1900s when black and white photography was all that was available. 

Thanks to the power of GIMP, you can decide what images have color and which don’t!

Typically in these tutorial posts, I show a quick method for users who just need a bit of guidance and then go into more detail later, but there isn’t really a “quick” way to do this kind of editing job. At least not until someone teaches an AI how to work with image data…

Instead, I’m going to show you two different methods for colorizing black and white photos, just to cover all the options. I’ll show you how to give a black and white photo a single color tint, like you’ll find in old sepia-toned photos (although you can use any color tint you want), and also how to turn black and white photos into full color. 

Personally, I find that black and white photos that have been colorized are never really satisfying because the person who does the colorizing is making their own individual choices about what they think the colors were supposed to be – but that should probably be the subject of another post 😉 

How to Color Tint a Black and White Photo in GIMP

If you just want to add a single color tint to a black and white photo to recreate the appearance of the popular sepia-tone and cyanotype looks, it’s a very simple process.

Open your black and white image in GIMP, and check to make sure the image is set to the RGB color mode. The Grayscale color space is used by some black and white images, and it’s obviously not designed to allow the use of color.

Most images will already be set to RGB, but make sure by opening the Image menu, selecting the Mode submenu, and clicking RGB (if it’s not already active).

Make sure your image is set to RGB mode, not Grayscale

Next, open the Colors menu and select Colorize. GIMP will open the Colorize dialog window shown below, allowing you to customize the final tint using the Hue, Saturation, and Lightness sliders. 

Don’t be confused by the Color setting below the sliders, however, as it just provides a different way of selecting your chosen tint color. When you update the HSL sliders, the Color setting displays the changes, and the sliders will update to show any changes made using the visual color picker

You’ll see the preview of your image update in real time so that you can tweak the results until you’re satisfied. Click the OK button to finalize the adjustment, and you’re done! 

How to Color Paint a Black and White Photo in GIMP

If you want to convert a black and white photograph into a full-color copy, the process is a bit more complicated, but not by much. The more colors you want to incorporate, the more time it will take, but the same general principle applies to any color that you want to add. 

A closeup of a trillium flower, before adding any colors

With your black and white photo open in GIMP, make sure that your image is set to use the RGB color space. With that done, it’s time to start painting in color.

To recreate the effect of colors in the black and white photo, we’ll use layers and layer blend modes. Blend modes are a very powerful tool, but they’re often confusing to new image editors. They control the way the different pixel layers are combined into your final image.

In this example, I’m going to turn the trillium flower into a color variety never found in nature, but you can use the exact same steps to create any color tint you want. 

Every time you create a new layer, use the New Layer dialog box to make sure the Mode: option is set to Multiply, and the Fill with: option is set to Transparency

Make sure that you get into the habit of naming each new layer you create descriptively because trying to sort through 16 different layers named “Green” to find the one you need could get confusing really quickly!

Switch to the Paintbrush tool using the toolbox or the keyboard shortcut P. Customize your brush tip characteristics to match the edges of the section you’re painting and select the color you want to use for tinting that specific section of the image.

Then it’s time to paint!  

Matching depth of field blur can be very difficult!

This example is a bit rough, but it illustrates the effect fairly well. You may want to experiment with different blend modes, although the Multiply mode is usually the most effective. 

Screen and Overlay are also worth testing out, but the best mode will depend on the color you choose to paint with, the subject itself, and the final effect you want to create. 

If you’ve never seen a colorized black and white photo before, you may be expecting a bit more than the technology can deliver. 

Part of the reason this style has never appealed to me is that it always seems a bit underwhelming: the saturation and contrast are never quite right, and the color masking is never detailed enough to create a truly believable result (even when you’re not actively trying to make something surreal, like the above example).

That being said, there can be a surprisingly humanizing effect created by adding color to historical black and white images. The addition of extra detail provides our brains with extra context clues, and that additional information can help us process what we see in new and different ways. 

Happy colorizing!

About Thomas Boldt
I’ve been working with digital images since the year 2000 or so, when I got my first digital camera. I've tried many image editing programs. GIMP is a free and powerful software, but not exactly user-friendly until you get comfortable with it, and I wanted to make the learning process easier for you here.

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  • Brad

    Just what I was looking for. Thank!

  • Ian C

    Thank you for this.