The complexity of re-colouring photos

The skill and science of re-colouring

Jordan J. Lloyd is Director of Dynamichrome, a company that specialises in re-colouring B/W photography.

This work is done not to replace the original but to provide a fresh perspective on the image. Often seeing these images with colour makes historical snapshots seemingly more current in their message. There is no doubt that colour changes the balance and composition of the viewer’s gaze, but it also opens up a wider world into the image. To make sure that the final result is appropriate Lloyd and his team do extensive research and craft each image. Far from being an automated job, each image is hand crafted. Human faces are particularly complex and can involve up to a dozen separate colours to build up the rich final natural looking result in the skin alone. Some images have 20 or more tinting and colouring layers.

In a way very familiar to experienced 3D artists, the team at Dynamichrome take into account not only bounce light and the time of day, but sub surface scattering, skin properties such as blood flow, the dermal layer, along with veins, arteries, etc. They even examine what make up was like when the picture was taken.

While the team do vast amounts of research of historical documents to produce accurate colours, the work requires complex photoshop skills that is greatly influenced by the experience of the artist.

It is a true balance of science and art.

Modern photography often seeks to document, but photographers do this from a point of being able to allow the camera technology to capture what is before them. Earlier photographers had to often design their subject around the technology, for example the blue channel in most film is the noisiest so subjects were advised not to wear blue. White caucasian skin was often over exposed to hide grain that might otherwise be interpreted as facial features or blemishes. Additionally, racial intolerances meant many people wanted to appear paler than they were. All of these aspects are taken into account when Dynamichrome addresses recolouring an image. The team picks apart the lighting to understand how the shot was taken, most of these photos were taken assuming there would be no retouching. “Today we know we can get away with quite a lot” jokes Lloyd as almost all commercial photography assumes grading and often digital retouch.

Lloyd believes his work allows a different view on the material. “When viewing a black and white, I think people view the image as a compositional whole, whereas when the colour is there, little details jump out at you, and I think that is really interesting”. He also does not force his craft on work that was designed to be B/W, thus working against the wishes of the photographer. Most of their work is based on images taken when colour photography was not an option (it had not been invented), or because the photographer themselves agrees it would be worthwhile.

1984: Steve Jobs

The peak for B/W photography was around the 1920s, but Dynamichrome does not just do very old historical shots. This image of Steve Jobs from the year of the Macintosh’s launch is an example of a much more recent image.

  • Cupertino, California, United States
  • by Norman Seeff
  • Retronaut / Norman Seeff

“I began the session by shooting the Mac team at the Apple offices and I could see Steve lurking in the background. It was clear that he was checking out how things were going. We were having tremendous fun and I was getting a lot of spontaneous and joyful shots… My desire with Steve was to engage in a genuine conversation about the world in which he lived and where he was most comfortable, and of course that came down to ideas about the future and where technology could go. These kinds of conversations are not at all heady and definitely require a balance of just having fun and hanging out together. That’s exactly what I was doing with Steve and as the session progressed, he became more and more informal.” – Original Caption of the B/W image.

“I very rarely do any colour restorations past 1950 for a number of reasons, not least for copyright, and frankly, black and white images are just amazing. It’s much easier to delve into photographs of events limited by camera technology of the time, rather than through creative intent. In this particular case however, this piece was specifically created for a talk I did for Apple, and I felt it would be appropriate to bookend the talk with a before and after of this great shot of Jobs looking pensive and relaxed”.

Specific colour references were found for most, if not every single object in the photograph, like 1984 Macintosh, Robotech – M.A.C. II Monster, Mid 1980’s Apple Business Cards, Steve Job’s jumper, The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise by Giovanni di Paolo, Symbol Sourcebook by Henry Dreyfuss (1972 edition), Graphic Design Britain by Studio Vista (1970 edition) as well as the actual office furniture used.

 August 28th 1963: The March on Washington


  • Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C, United States
  • by Warren K. Leffler
  • Library of Congress

A man surveys the 200,000 plus strong crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In what was one of the most memorable and effective political demonstrations in subject and organisation of all time, King would later deliver one of the defining and timeless speeches of the 20th Century.

“I’m just going to say large crowd shots, outdoors represent some of the biggest challenges a colouriser can have, due to the sheer quantity of visual detail”, says Lloyd. “Thankfully there were many colour photographs taken from different views, which provided a sense of hues or certain groups clustering together, and many examples of period clothing were matched to certain people based on a luminosity range – whilst it’s impossible to know exactly what a colour is unless you have an exact reference, you can significantly narrow down the range based on good references, the colour should then ‘stick’ on, and not look off – random elements, or unexpected colour choices based on research also reinforces the illusion of ‘realism’”.

1917: Jammie Reynolds, Daredevil

  • 9th NW, Washington D.C, United States
  • by Harris & Ewing
  • Library of Congress

Timelapse video


Jug ‘Jammie’ Reynolds, also known as ‘The Human Fly’, balances precariously over the edge of the Lansburgh furniture building on 9th NW, Washington DC, 1917 as part of a wider routine including acrobatics.

Reynolds toured his daredevil act across the USA, and began his routine by climbing up the building like Spider Man before his acrobatic and balancing displays. Whilst the date of this particular image is dated around 1917, a similar showcase in Carlisle, PA in October 1915 drew a crowd of 1,500 people. The local paper covered the stunt, Reynolds “starting at the awning and landing on the high tower… after reaching it successfully, he placed two tables and on them several chairs,” the article reads. “Then he balanced himself on a chair while people held their breath.”The restoration took several days on and off, with the glass plate negative itself showing extensive damage to the original coating which needed a lot of care and attention. Often with restoration, the aim is to fix the blemish while retaining the overall shape and texture of the undamaged surroundings.

“Colour references are taken from modern day images of buildings that have survived and coloured postcards from the time, and I spent a great deal of time figuring out the exact spot the photograph was taken (see link below), based on the location given and triangulating elements like the Library of Congress that can be seen in the background” points out Lloyd.

Link to different views and some before/afters

1865: Abraham Lincoln

This portrait of Abraham Lincoln taken by Alex Gardner, a few months before Lincoln’s assassination.

Each image requires preparation work to remove technical issues such as tears or scratches. Then the image regions are masked with mattes. From there the colourising begins. Images from different periods also reflect the technology of their day, images from say the 1860s reflect the collodion wet plate process of the day and this produced a very different response to light than a 1960 B/W Kodak stock. Each source is treated slightly differently.

One of the tricks that Lloyd uses is to lower the contrast on a re-coloured image. In this way he is affecting the luminance levels of the original, but he finds that this small amount of contrast loss makes the image more believable.

Each image has up to 50 + layers to build up the complex yet natural colours of the subject.

In this example, with the layers present, there are about a dozen layers for skin and a further three for the hair. In this very simple well lit example, the number of layers will be about 50 or 60, but this can go into the thousands for very complicated scenes. Lloyd does admit there is a point of diminishing returns, there is a point beyond which adding more colour will add no more realism, “but when you are painting on colour information, how many colours is how convincing you want the image to be!” he explains. Lloyd believes it is very hard to make something believable unless you use a vast amount of layers and colours, human skin is just too complex.

This is a photograph Lloyd had been waiting to tackle for a very long time. “Skin is not the easiest thing to do, and I am constantly trying new techniques and changing up the process — trying to get believable colour gradation and the illusion of skin is not unlike painting or waxworks; layers to simulate changes in the dermal layer, along with veins, arteries and blood vessels vary a great deal from subject to subject, based on their age, ethnicity, lighting and so on” he explains.

Before and After

  • by Alex Gardner
  • Library of Congress

Amongst the colour references Lloyd found on this particular shot was a Brooks Brothers suit that would be typical of what Lincoln’s wardrobe would have been. “The gold pocket watch is still floating around, and other elements such as the table, chair and book are taken from contemporaneous examples”.

June 1944: Private Ware applies last-second make-up to Private Plaudo

These soldiers, Charles Plaudo and Clarence Ware, are members of the “Filthy Thirteen”, the nickname given to the 1st Demolition Section of the Regimental Headquarters Company, which in turn was part of the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army. This unit was the inspiration for the book/movie The Dirty Dozen.


  • Exeter Airfield, Devon, UK
  • US National Archives

The picture was taken at Exeter Airfield in England, shortly before the Section carried out their mission as part of the Normandy Invasion, destroying targets behind enemy lines. Half of the Filthy Thirteen were captured, killed, or wounded during the invasion. Their haircuts and face paint were partly inspired by the unit’s leader, Jake McNiece, who was of Native American heritage.

References for the photographs, “including the waterproof M7 carrier for the M5 Gas mask and the Douglas C-47 Skytrain, were provided by a group of very enthusiastic WW2 enthusiasts and re-enactors”.

The team is careful to roll off the edges on their work. While human perception to colour masking is far less acute than to luminance boundaries, the team roll off the tint as both a function of form and focus. “I use actually a number of techniques in this regard, everything from tinting to colour pulling in the alpha channels, a lot of refining mask, feathering in select, .. but hopefully once you have done all those things the colours should run into together as a seamless edge”, Lloyd explains.

1906: Portraits from Ellis Island – “Ruthenian woman”

Around the turn of the 20th Century at  Ellis Island there was a customs officer who encouraged new immigrants to model their native costumes. People were arriving in America from all over the world and most arrived with their normal traditional garments as part of their normal luggage.


  • Ellis Island, New York
  • by Augustus Sherman
  • New York Public Library

While there are clues in this woman’s garments, the exact home village of this Ruthenian woman – as she was originally titled – is uncertain. Her costume is characteristic of the Bukovina region that is today divided between Ukraine and Romania. Dynamichrome’s research unearthed that the embroidered motifs on her linen blouse suggest that she is likely from the Ukrainian side, but with this costume in particular, useful details are concealed by the lack of color in the original image. Included above is a museum piece and a markup sent to Lloyd by Jan Letwoski, a specialist in European ethnographic dress and founder of the Museum of Ethnic Dress and Adornment. “As you can see, this particular example is a near exact match to the photograph. This image was accompanied by detailed notes for every aspect of not only this photograph, but the rest of the set” Lloyd explained.


More Examples (- less focused on faces)

1939: Country Store   


  • Gordonton, North Carolina, United States
  • by Dorothea Lange
  • Library of Congress

“A lazy Sunday at a country store in North Carolina. The store owner’s brother stands in the doorway”

“Hands down, one of the most time consuming and well researched images I’ve done to date”, explains LLoyd. Sampling from a few contemporary photos of the store taken several years ago.Lloyd has tried to find originals of every single sign where possible off auction sites, collectibles and in one case, a specialist soda pop retailer. “This is probably one of the most powerful photographs I’ve ever seen and in black and white it’s the most stunning composition – in colour however, new details leap out at you, like the chicken creeping its way in the bottom left”.

“One of the things that jumps out at me when I see other versions of an image I’ve reconstructed, is where it’s clear where the research hasn’t been done, which is fairly obvious, but there are other more subtle things, and we’re very good at detecting when something isn’t quite right. This is why I am so amazed when I see showreels of CGI houses doing any composition work, when you take the grade off and see how CGI elements were incorporated in, you know there’s some real dedication to getting the details right: getting the atmosphere just so, the right amount of contrast, physical perspective, etc. so you don’t even notice it”. Lloyd’s aim is similar, in that the colour should be completely unremarkable until you remember the original only existed as a black and white photograph. One of the details that other attempts, by other artists, have gotten  wrong is the tin roof of the porch. “In every single version I’ve seen, there’s a load of rust coating the metal, but looking at the black and white image, it’s clear that there isn’t any which implies the roof at that time is relatively new. Looking at contemporary of the store today, you can see the years of accumulated rust, so a lot of the time you have to ‘de-age’ the details!”


June 6th, 1944: Into the Jaws of Death

This image was originally taken at 0740, 73 years ago, June 6th and it marks the commencement of Operation Neptune, more commonly known as D-Day.

  • Omaha Beach,
  • Normandy, France
  • by Robert F. Sargent
  • National Archives and Records Administration


Depicting a Higgins LCVP launching from the USS Samuel Chase, soldiers of the 16th Infantry Regiment, US 1st Infantry Division wade onto Omaha Beach. The original caption reads,“American invaders spring from the ramp of a Coast Guard-manned landing barge to wade those last perilous yards to the beach of Normandy. Enemy fire will cut some of them down. Their ‘taxi’ will pull itself off the sands and dash back to a Coast Guard manned transport for more passengers.”

Whilst the final image does have a very cinematic feel to it, “this is entirely down to Sargent’s original, rather than any conscious effort on my part to make it more ‘Hollywood’. I am constantly experimenting with new techniques and I am increasingly using Alpha Channels as a way of getting complex atmospheric effects”.

1888: The Eiffel Tower Under Construction

One year before the Paris World Fair for which it was created, Alexandre Gustave Eiffel’s Tower stands one third complete. At 1,000 feet, it was eventually to become the tallest building in the world.

  • Champs de Mars, Paris, France
  • by Roger Viollet
  • Getty Images

One surprising aspect that the team’s research discovered was that the original colour of the Eiffel Tower during its construction in 1888 was called ‘Venetian Red’ as shown in the photograph, applied in the workshop before being assembled on site.

The tower has been repainted over a dozen times since in different shades ranging from a reddish brown to bronze. Due to the increased blue sensitivity of the photographic emulsion used in the image, the sky appears very washed-out, but the lack of cast shadows in the photograph suggest an overcast day. “We used several paintings and picture postcards of the Exposition site as reference for the background buildings and could sample the stonework of Port de la Bourdonnais on the Seine riverbank, under construction in the middle of the photograph, from contemporary photographs” Lloyd explains.

January 1911: The Terra Nova Expedition

  • Antarctica
  • by Herbert G. Ponting
  • Getty Images

”Grotto in an ice berg” was photographed 5th January 1911 by Herbert George Ponting during the British Antarctic (“Terra Nova”) Expedition (1910-1913).

This picture shows scientists T Griffith Taylor and Charles S Wright at the entrance, and the Terra Nova in the distance. ”About a dozen references were used for the ice, and the yellow coat is sourced from a museum sample. What is striking about the image is how saturated the colour is, for a landscape that most people think is very bleak” he explains.

1922: The Antechamber in the Tomb of Tutankhamun


  • Valley of the Kings, Egypt

  • by Harry Burton© Griffith Institute,
  • University of Oxford / SC Exhibitions

In 1907, Egyptologist and archaeologist Howard Carter was hired by George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon to oversee excavations in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. Carter had built a reputation for scrupulously recording and preserving discoveries. Carter searched the valley for years with little to show for it, which drew the ire of his employer.

In 1922, Lord Carnarvon told Carter that he had only one more season of digging before his funding would be ended. Revisiting a previously abandoned dig site at a group of huts, Carter started digging again, desperate for a breakthrough. On Nov. 4, 1922, his crew discovered a step carved into the rock. By the end of the next day, a whole staircase had been uncovered. Carter wired Carnarvon, imploring him to come at once.

On Nov. 26, with Carnarvon at his side, Carter chipped open a small breach in the corner of the doorway at the end of the stairs. Holding a candle, he peered inside. “At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold — everywhere the glint of gold.” – Howard Carter

In this photograph by Harry Burton taken in December 1922, there are objects piled up floor to ceiling in the southern end of the antechamber, ranging from disassembled chariots, camping beds, jewellery boxes, and even food, which are contained in the white egg shaped objects on the right of the photograph. There are more iconic photographs in the series, but the sheer technical challenge was astounding and very laborious. Every single one of the dozens of items were researched; cross-referencing Carter’s handwritten inventory notes and the restored artefacts from museums. “The definition of Burton’s images was so good, that you can keep zooming in until you see individual mosaic decorations on the inside of the chariot right at the back of the antechamber – there are no shortcuts in this craft, but the results are utterly convincing. I am pleased to say that there were no major revisions required from either the Griffith Institute or the two Egyptologists who looked at the set of photographs!”


2 thoughts on “The complexity of re-colouring photos”

  1. some good work here but i think the flesh tones are still only about 80% convincing.

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