“They lived their experiences in color,” Peter Jackson says in an interview extra from his They Shall Not Grow Old documentary. It sounds pretty obvious, but when we look at the people in old, black and white historical photographs, they seem oddly removed from reality. They don’t feel “real” the way that you or I feel “real.”
Colorizing images that were taken hundreds of years ago allows us to see distant history in a new light, which is naturally as divisive as it is intriguing. Though some point out that viewing history through the lens of relatability could be doing it a disservice, there’s no denying that it adds a completely different layer of perspective.
I’ve had people tell me they never considered having an old black and white image colorized, but when they see it done, they’re amazed at how different it looks. Photo colorization isn’t intended to replace the original black and white photo, but to complement it. Placing the original side-by-side with the colorized version is especially effective at inspiring a “wow” moment.
Finding Good Information
The first step for accuracy in colorizing an image is to do historical research. If you’re colorizing a landmark, it will be more recognizable if the colors are accurate, and it’s especially important to do your due diligence to military uniforms and equipment.
Of course, it’s helpful if the photo is dated, but often that’s not the case. I find that Google is terrific for this as you can start with a pretty generic search and refine it until you find what you’re looking for. It can take a while to find a specific uniform color of the day, what style bow ties men wore during certain time periods, and so forth, but it’s worth the time spent in the end when you have a product that does justice to its historical roots.
There are two books containing photos and descriptions of clothing worn during certain time periods that I recommend. The first is More Dating Old Photographs 1840–1929 by Halvor Moorshead, which discusses men’s and women’s clothing and hairstyles of the time. The second is 20th Century Photographs KwikGuide by Gary W. Clark. It discusses changes to photographs at the turn of the century, men’s and women’s hairstyles, introduction of color film and slides (Kodacolor), and 20th century cars, among other things.
Another option is speaking to family, veterans, or anyone else who can tell you what something was at the time. Always try to fact check secondhand information. it’s a great starting point, but memories are colored by more than… well, color. Emotions and events that hold significance for your source may impact their recollection of certain elements.
Another step I strongly recommend before colorizing an image is to calibrate your computer monitor (also recommended for modern images). It’s important to calibrate monitors regularly – typically every 2-4 weeks – for accurate colors. If you have an i1Profiler calibrator, you can download the free app ColorTRUE, which also supports iPad Pro.