DIY Photo Magic: How to Turn Black and White Photos into Full Color Images!

Extra photos for bloggers: 1, 2, 3

We love the ease of digital photography, but sometimes we get an itch for some experimentation.

We want to feel like old school photography masters: mixing chemicals in darkrooms and watching images as they slowly develop.

So, what did we do when we learned that some of the first color photographs were made almost 150 years ago, and they weren’t made with color film?

We learned how to use our digital cameras to party like it was 1909, of course!

Now we’re going to share everything we learned and show you how to bring out your inner mad-photo-scientist to make full color photographs using only black and white ones!

How to Use 3 Black and White Photographs to Make A Full Color Image!

p.s. You’re invited to join THRILLIST: the free email that delivers the one cool new thing you need to know about each day. Plus, sign up now to be entered to win a $1,000 Apple gift card!

Why’s it cool?

beforeThe first color photograph was made in 1861 by James Clark Maxwell (the handsome dude you see to the right).

Maxwell studied the human eye (our favorite lens!) to find that our eyes were sensitive only to red, green, and blue light.

Before long, Maxwell had developed a method (now called the Harris Shutter effect) to mimic our eyesight and make color photographs by making three black & white pictures: One with a red filter over his lens, one with a green filter, and one with a blue filter.

When he combined them together, photo magic happened and the color photograph was born!

It sounded like too good of an experiment for us to let pass by our photo-curiosities, so we gave it a try using our digital cameras on black and white mode, and guess what?! It worked!

What do I need?:


  • Any digital camera with black and white JPG mode
  • 3 color lens filters: red, green, and blue (We used our color lens and flash filters)
  • A tripod or flat surface
  • Photoshop or image editing software of your choice

If you don’t have color filters, or your camera doesn’t have black & white mode, you can still experiment with this awesome method!

We’ll be featuring a how-to guide on even more ways this method rocks soon!(Check out the take it further section for a sneak peek!)

Step 1: Setting up your camera

beforeSet your digital camera settings to:

  • JPG only (not RAW)
  • Black & white mode
  • White balance on correct setting for your lighting conditions (just make sure it isn’t on auto!)

Step 2: Setting up your shot

beforeSet your camera and tripod up in front of whatever it is you want to photograph. (Be sure that your camera can stay completely still for 3 separate pictures!)

Next, focus your camera. (And keep your camera on manual focus mode.)

Take a sample photo to make sure your photos look correctly exposed. (If not, adjust exposure settings until they look good).

Step 3: Red, Green, and Blue.

beforePhotograph your scene once with the red filter in front of the lens, once with the green filter in front of the lens, and one last time with the blue filter in front of the lens.

It’s best to always photograph in the same order: Red-Green-Blue. (This will help you figure out which photo came from which filter when you import your photos in the next step.)

Step 4: Download/Develop, Import/Open

Download images to your computer.

Open all three images in your image editing software, and make sure to keep them in the same order that they were shot (red, green, blue).

Each filter changes the way that your camera records the image, so the three photos will look a little different from each other. (For example, one might have a very dark background while the next looks very bright.)

Step 5: A fresh canvas.

What every artist needs to make their masterpiece: a blank canvas of course!

In your image editing software, make a new document that is the same resolution, width, and height as your black and white images. We’re going to be copying & pasting the black and white images into this document, so it’s important that they’re the same size. (Our photos were 5184×3456 pixels at 72dpi.)

Make sure to keep the other 3 images open! You should now have 4 documents open in your window.

Step 6: Channel Surfing!

To continue, you’ll have to know how to separate the different color channels in your image.
(In Photoshop, select “Window”, then “Channels”.)

You will then see a set of “Channels”. RGB – All channels combined, R – only the red information of an image, G – only green information, and B only blue information.

(You can familiarize yourself with channels by checking out our tutorial on black and white image conversion using channels, which is the opposite of this tutorial!)

Use the ‘copy’ command to copy your first black and white image – the one taken with the red filter.

Go to your blank canvas document.

Select only the “red” channel in your channel viewer, and paste your first black and white image into that channel.

Now repeat the process, only deselect “red” and select “green”, then paste in your 2nd black & white image – taken with green filter.

…You see where were going with this! Now select only the “blue” channel and paste in your 3rd black and white image.

Step 7: Finishing up

Now that you have all your black and white images pasted into the different channels of your new document, you’re almost done!

Under the channels window, select “RGB” to view all three channels at once.

If you already see a full color image, hurrah! It worked perfectly!

Sometimes the images don’t line up perfectly (as shown here), and you’ll see weird colored borders around your subject. To fix this, you can use the “move” tool to slightly nudge the images in each color channel around until they line up perfectly.

Step 8: Final adjustments & the finished product!

Now that all of your color channels are lined up, you should have a full color image that looks great!

If you’re not crazy about the way the color turned out, (our example came out a looking a little yellow) you can try adjusting the levels and curves of your image to correct any color imbalances.

Now that you’re a color photo pro, check out our take it further tips to make photos that will blow your friends away!

Take It Further:

  • If your camera doesn’t have black and white mode, or you don’t have any color filters, stay tuned! In January, we’re going to teach you how you can use this technique filter-free and get crazy results like the multicolored one you see above!
  • You may have noticed that certain things in your photo still have strange color borders around them. (in our finished product photo you can see some strange 3D-like color around the leaves) That’s because anything that moves during the three exposures will show up differently in each color channel. This can lead to some awesome effects, so once you’ve mastered the art of making a color photo, try again with a moving subject!
  • If you really want to get in touch with your photo history roots, try shooting this project on black & white film. (Just get your film scanned after processing, then follow steps 4-8!) Your friends will be amazed when you show them the black and white negatives you used to make your true-to-life color photos!
  • Browse the Prokudin-Gorskii Collection at the Library of Congress website to view thousands of full color images made with this method from 1905-1915 by photographer Prokudin-Gorskii.
  • Check out these great flickr groups for even more info & awesome examples of the three color process: “The Harris Shutter Effect” and “Trichromie-Trichromy, the three-color process”
  • As always, share your experiments with us in our flickr group! (We love being able to share cool experiments our readers have tried out on our blog, and we often search out our flickr pool for great examples!)