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Digitally coloured photos and some history

The internet is full of digitally coloured historic photos these days, like its a new trend! Adding colour to black and white photos has been around since photos were made. Changing it up to digital just makes the process easier and more precise.

You may have seen WW1 photos in the spotlight and famous faces in digitally coloured images splashed around the internet, in social media streams and on blogs as everyone fights to report the “latest trend”. In 1907 the first commercially available colour photography came about but it wasn’t until 1958 that the first rolls of 35mm colour film arrived. Coloured photos have been around even before 1907 but in various forms of hand colouring. Dyes and inks and colour washes were used to add colour to paper prints and before that “lantern slides” were made. In the 1840s, William and Frederick Langenheim, daguerreotypists in Philadelphia, first used a glass plate negative to print onto another sheet of glass, thus creating a transparent positive image that could be projected. These could also be painted with dyes to make them into colour images and projected.

So you see colour in photography has been around longer than you might think. Its only us barmy photo restoration types and those with the gift of a good eye and colour observation that colour these old photos. I like to tackle the less well know images. I think that these old images deserve a second chance in colour. If my work draws attention to otherwise unnoticed images then that’s all i ask. Sure it would be great to get recognized for producing good work but we all strive for that dont we?

New York Docs 1905 digitally coloured by Neil Rhodes

New York Docks 1905 digitally coloured by Neil Rhodes – the only colour references i could find were related to the building in centre at the back with the green top and a few references to funnel colours.

There are many artists around colouring old photos but i hope my take on the subject shows another side. I’m not trying to glorify the horrors of war or jump on the band wagon of famous faces getting the web hits. This is every day life in colour! I hope you like and please feel free to comment.

Ive found other images of the docks labelled 1907 and the look similar in their busy market atmosphere. In the image below they seem to stop and stare at the camera, perhaps even gather around for a closer look at the photographer. Less natural than the one i coloured but it gives a further sense of the occasion.

New York Banana Docks 1907

New York Banana Docks 1907

The docks must have been a noisy place to work. Those carts, horses, laborers shouting to one another as the loaded, foremen shouting to the laborers, ships and engine noise. The air looks reasonably clear though so It couldn’t have been all that bad. Maybe it was a chance to change jobs to work on ship or just fill up on bananas as this chap is doing here!

New York Banana Docks 1907 - A man stops for banana snack!

New York Banana Docks 1907 – A man stops for banana snack!

You can visit these image in super high resolution detail on the library of congress website and maybe you can find some interesting candid moments in these images. If you do let me know and ill include it here in the blog!

Photo restorations or reconstructions

Restoring a photo can sometimes be as much of a reconstruction than a restoration.

Working through these two restorations much reconstruction had to be done. Visually they work very well. If you are wondering why I’ve not described the restoration processes in these two images this post its just a show and tell and I’m working on some video Tutorials with a publisher as we speak so they should be live in the new year and i can tell you all about them then! Note: These can now be found  our photo restoration courses online blog post.

In the mean time the owners of these photos were very happy indeed. If you want to see a smile on someones face, why not get an image restored, they make great presents and even the tricky ones can be brought back to life. Get in touch! Or ask a question in the comments box below.


Old Polaroid Photo Restored

This old Polaroid was ready for the bin, certainly not a frame. Now its as good as new!

Old boating photo restored

With a replacement sky and some image reconstruction this old boating photo is ready for the wall again.

If you have tricky restoration I’m sure I can help. Currently with the busy festive season looming, its best to get in touch with us in advance to ensure we have time to restore badly damaged images such as these! For advice on emailing your orders and scanning see scanning and saving your photo for restoration.

I have many other help articles if you get stuck or need some advice.

Toning a black and white photo

Looking back at historical records, toning a photo chemically, had its benefits in both aesthetics and permanence of the print.

Toning photos to sepia or golden tints could have been thought as quaint or a trend. In fact there were some far more definitive reasons for doing so. Several methods of toning came about through the early photographic years but what was the actual process of tinting for?

In this fascinating exert from “Early Works in Photography” by W. ETHELBERT HENRY, C.E. he talk about the process and importance of toning.

The principle of the so-called u toning – “action may be simply described thus: After all the free nitrate of silver has been removed from the print (as it comes from the printing frame), by washing in several changes of water, it is then treated with a weak alkaline solution of gold chloride. In its alkaline state (and this is why an alkali should always be present in a toning bath) the gold present in solution is attracted by the metallic silver present in the print (which forms the picture) and becomes deposited upon it in a finely divided metallic state. These fine particles of gold, if collected as a precipitate, would be found to exist as a beautiful purple powder,  resembling that known to painters as u purple of cassius.”

The longer a print is immersed in such a toning bath, the deposition of gold of course becomes heavier, and causes a deepening of the tone until the print changes from red, or reddish brown, to a purple brown, then to purple, and finally to a blue black. The colour of the resultant photogram there- fore depends, to a great extent, upon the length of immersion in the gold toning bath, and it will be readily inferred that the permanence of the print will be much improved by receiving a deposit of gold, which is so little affected by atmospheric influences as compared with silver.

Toning, therefore, answers a two-fold purpose : it improves the colour of the silver print and increases its permanence. The action of the gold bath also exerts a pleasing influence upon the white parts of the print, changing the slight yellowish deposit of silver into almost invisible pale violet or purple, thus enhancing the brilliance of the high lights.


Today I want to talk about modern digital techniques to tone a photo to more your own, individual colour tone style.

Digital toning does nothing to preserve the print. Print life is governed today by the correct choice of archive photo paper. Toning is purely for aesthetics. Digital toning means we can chose more or less any tone we wish and to colour the dark, mid range and highlights separately.

Methods using Photoshop

Tinting or Toning a photo with gradient map

Tinting or Toning a photo with gradient map


  • Tone with a Gradient Map – see “default Photoshop actions” in your actions pallet and select and play the Photoshop action “gradient maps”. Have fun here lost to experiment with. Gradient maps affect the tones in the photos dark to light. these tones are affected by a colour map. Choose a blend of colours!
  • Tone with several Overlay layers” – choose your own colours, make new layers and set overlay mode to “colour” and adjust highlights and dark tones as you wish.
  • Tone with a Photo filter – go to image/adjustsments/photofilter and select and experiment.
  • Tone with Default Photoshop Action – “sepia toning layer” in your actions pallet. Adjust the slider where needed.

For further information with step by step of these processes go to my post on 3 ways to sepia tint a photo, the principals are the same but you choose different colours.

Using these techniques you can develop your own colour tint or colour toned style to add to your restored old photos.

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