How to colorize?

The first colored photos were developed around 1932, but most of the photographs were still in black and white. That's where I come in. Colorizing an old photo is not extremely complicated technically, but it is a long process that requires some restoration/cleaning, a lot of research, patience and adaptability. But it is a process which can't be considered 100% accurate.

- 01 -
The problem of Time

Before starting the colorization process, there is a long research work to do (uniforms, vehicles, buildings, clothes, landscapes...). I usually work from books, paintings, research on the internet or in museums.
It is always important to diversify the sources in order to avoid mistakes. It is relatively easy to fall into misinterpretation or stereotyping (with Native American photos for example).
But, obviously, many elements of the past no longer exist, which can make my research work more difficult in some cases and force me to make choices that are not always based on historical sources.
- 02 -
Case study

Let's take an example to understand how this happens: how to colorise this American vintage store from 1939. The real challenge here is to colorize all the ads and props correctly. Fortunately, many are archived and I was able to find most of the ads/props.
Some, hidden by elements of the house, would assume a different technique. The house is made of wood and the clothes (and ads without references) will be mostly guessed thanks to the shade of gray (I will explain it later).
When the main colors are painted, I will take into consideration all the little details: skin colors (like lips, eyes, veins...), dirt, rust, light reflections (in some cases) and also the diversity of colors (a color is never just a color, there is more complexity and diversity in it)
- 03 -
Shade of grey

It is obviously impossible to have a 100% historically correct colorized photo. It is very difficult to know exactly the colors of civilian clothing (dresses, hats, vests) of cars or commercial signs of 1850 (for example).
To compensate for the lack of color knowledge, I will use the shade of gray as a reference and make a choice on what I consider the most plausible color to use. A light gray means a light color (like a yellow); a dark gray means a darker color. The opposite would automatically and strongly alter the saturation of the photo and the result would be neither natural nor authentic.
But this technique has limits : it does not replace a historical source and therefore cannot be considered 100% accurate in terms of color selection and not all photos are well preserved or well printed (too much exposure, too much contrast...)
- 04 -
Final touches

When I am satisfied with the result, I can finally finish my work with the final touches. This means sharpening the images to get a better quality. Increasing the vibrancy of the colors, working on the contrast, highlights, shadows to get the right balance. Check if a color is missing and the picture is ready to be shared with the world.

Thank you for your time
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