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Monday, 14 December 2020

Colourisation

I have been playing with colourisation tools. No, not paints and crayons, but software that colours black and white photographs automatically. It uses “artificial intelligence” and “deep learning” through “electronic neural networks” “trained” on millions of colour photographs. 

“Wow! Fantastic!” one might say, but having once worked on the periphery of a team of artificial intelligence researchers, I remain sceptical. I used to go from “Wow! Fantastic!” to “Is that all it is?” in the space of a forty-five minute seminar. 

Carried out manually, colourisation is a skilled, time-consuming, labour-intensive process. As well as expertise in tools such as Photoshop and a level of colour-sense I simply do not possess, it can also involve historical research to indicate what colours the photographer actually saw. Experts can spend a month on just one picture. 

So, it would be wonderful to be able to colour photographs automatically. I found these free resources (it may not be a complete list): 

With four of them you upload a black and white photograph to the web site and then download the colourised version. Pixbim is different in that you download and install a trial version on your computer and carry out the colourisation locally.

Are they any good? I tried them out on black and white photographs from earlier blog posts.

Bridlington c1929 - colourised by MyHeritage

Uncle Jimmys Bullnose Morris c1929 - colourised by photomyne

Bridlington 1955 - colourised by MyHeritage

Grandma 1963 - colourised by playback.fm

In general, the different tools gave different results and no one was consistently better than the others. I tried to pick the best result in each case but you might have chosen otherwise as I possess a different distribution of cone cells from most people. My choices might be a bit green, or a bit pink, I dont know, I wouldnt be able to tell. However, there were some truly awful ones, one of which seems to think I was wearing pissy underpants.
 
Colourised by Pixbim

Colourised by Algorithmia

Colourised by photomyne

Colourised by Algorithmia

Of course, we do not know what the colours really were, although I do feel fairly confident that the Bullnose Morris was not brandy coloured, and know for a fact that the Pratts petrol can on the running board was spruce green (#2e4a41), which none of them got right.
 
One test of colour accuracy would be to re-colourise an existing colour image after first reducing it to monochrome. MyHeritage does not seem too bad to me on the Abbey Road cover (I wonder if this was one of the pictures it was trained on), but they all struggled with scenery.   

The Beatles Abbey Road (left) recolourised from monochrome by MyHeritage (right)

Spring Polyanthus 2020 (left) recolourised from monochrome by MyHeritage (right)

Glacial deposits in Glen Roy 2020 (left) recolourised from monochrome by Pixbim (right)

Johnson and Trump (left) recolourised from monochrome by Pixbim (right)

It is pretty impressive that black and white photographs can be coloured automatically at all, even though the colours are by no means accurate and not a patch on the original. 

Colourisation does seem to add something, particularly depth. Perhaps it works better with cine film, as in Peter Jackson‘s painstakingly restored First World War films (They Shall Not Grow Old) in which the moving faces of young soldiers, poignantly grinning amidst the mud of the trenches, become living people like us. 

I am not as sceptical as I was, but find myself thinking that with photographs it is probably better to stick with the original black and white. 

It would be interesting to see your efforts (irrespective of whether you call it colourisation, colourization, colorization or colorisation). 


FURTHER NOTES

I usually preferred MyHeritage, photomyne or playback.fm, but some reviews speak highly of Pixbim, possibly because it allows control over the colours (see below).

The colourised photographs are not always the same size as you started with.

There are other limitations too. MyHeritage permits a limited number of free colourisations (I’m not sure what it is, maybe 10, but me, Mickey Mouse and Billy Liar have all used our quotas) before asking for a minimum £50 subscription to its genealogy services. One should also be aware that the uploaded photographs are retained and may be visible to others, but can be deleted.

Pixbim (the one you download and install) allows you to adjust various processing parameters, such as colour intensity and colour temperature (from reddish to blueish), and provides a brush tool for correcting incorrect colours, whereas with all the others you get what you are given. However, the trial version of Pixbim comes with only a 7-day licence after which it costs £40. Also, unless you buy it, the colourised photographs have “Trial Version” printed all over them, but you can get round this using PrintScreen to capture a smaller version of the coloured image.

I also found mention of two other tools: Colourise SG which now appears to have been withdrawn, and Colorize Photo (www.colorizephoto.com) which assists you in carrying out the colourisation yourself, which I have not tried. 


38 comments:

  1. That's pretty impressive. I will have to try it out. Normally, you would want to wash pissy underpants in the process, but maybe they were too far gone. Could you show us that one?

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    1. You can always count on a comment from you about underpants - although I've always thought it an amusing word too, ever since I was four. I thought the photomyne picture of me and my dad digging in the sand looked a bit that way, but as I say, what I see isn't always what others see. Perhaps it's just a guilty conscience.

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    2. I was distracted by your dad's tie-dyed jacked. Anyway, it was you who brought up the underpants word (snigger...).

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    3. Have you noticed what Pixbim thinks Boris and Trump have done on the end of their ties?

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  2. Love the Bridlington and Uncle Jimmy's Bullnose pictures. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. I think the Bridlington one in particular is difficult to improve on the black and white. It's as good as a Frank Meadow Sutcliffe photograph. Bigger scan in original post 19 March 2020.

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  3. Grandma, 1963, gave me a bit of a wrench. She looked so like mine, then. I think we tend to dehumanise people who lived in the past and shrug at their tragedies and injustices. Good colourisation brings them alive. A good example, when you see colourised early photos of Native Americans it bring home the reality of the genocide they suffered - you realise it happened to real people, not just to distant historical figures.

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    1. Most of those historical colourisations have been done manually by specialists, and I agree they really do bring the people to life. It might be possible to get something as good usung a combination of automatic and manual, as is supported by Pixbim, but I suspect it would take a lot of practice.

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  4. The first ones are very good. They look realistic not artificial.

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    1. I used all the different packages on all the photographs and picked what I thought were the best ones. I bet though if it were possible to have an original colour picture it would look different. I also wonder what a professional colourisationist would produce.

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    1. It is incredible really. The colours all stay within the borders.

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  6. I liked the old Bridlington group 1929 in black and white best, better than either of the colour ones.

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    1. I do too, but I'd like to see how that superb group at the seaside that you posted would turn out. My guess is not as good.

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  7. This is fascinating TD. I will have a go at the process myself in the near future. Confidentially, did you have a problem in the waterworks department when you were a lad? It's not uncommon you know. Usually prevented with a sound thrashing.

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    1. You can't beat a good SM wee-wee joke. I'd be interested to see how others' pictures turn out.

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  8. I'm very interested too and I hope that I'll have a try before too long. Thanks for doing the research. I had no idea they were available and although I have Photoshop the tutorials are very time-consuming and often beyond my attention span (skill level!).

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    1. My (old) version of Photoshop does not have any automation in it, so you have to colourise things manually by vreating new layers and so on. It is not somethings I've practised.

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  9. That is amazing. Incidentally, in the picture of the bullnose Morris, the can does appear green. Perhaps not as dark green as you remember, but do you think perhaps the light on it made it not so vivid? The differences are fascinating.

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    1. It could have done. Not my strong point, as pointed out. I actually still have that can, but it is now entirely covered in rust with no original colour left. I think it was the Pratts adverts that described the colour as spruce green, and I found a hex definition for it somewhere.

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  10. I love the detail of the photos, aside from color. Bridlington -- at the seaside in hats, ties, jackets! The car looks like a source of pride, never saw that model before. These are great.

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    1. The Bridlington picture is a professional photograph probably from a glass plate negative. They are on a boat in Bridlington harbour about to go on a sea trip to Flamborough Head. I have earlier posts about both Bridlington and Uncle Jimmy. He was one of the first in the area to have both a car and a telephone when he set himself up as a courier.

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  11. I am no good a singing or at color. Don't hear notes and don't see color.

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  12. I used to play around a lot with photo editing programs but I have never used the colorization programs. Of the examples you have shown us I like the one of Bridlington c1929 done with MyHeritage. I can see where there could be some good uses for this but overall I prefer the original black and white photos. In most cases I would think the actual original colors would not be known and while that might not matter, I would always wonder about them. There are many old movies that have been colorized and it always kind of bothered me. But that's just me. I really enjoyed this post. I did not realize there were that many apps out there that could do this. I appreciate the information you have shared here.

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    1. Some would say does it matter? My view is that a good black and white photograph can be moving and evocative, but colour does seem to add something. I guess they give different interpretations of the same thing. But there is a difference between colourisation by professional artists automatic and colourisation, in that the artists say they at least try to research and match what the likely colours. I was also thinking about the old Kodachrome / Kodacolor or their Agfa/Fuji/etc. equivalents which did not give true colours because eveything depended on the dyes they used - e.g. Fuji had strong blues.

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  13. Interesting post. Like Bonnie I like black and white or the sepia of old Victorian photos. Running boards on old cars brought a memory back. One day riding down a narrow lane with high banks, a car came along with a running board and my horse went up the bank but as they passed she slowly slipped down onto the running board and bent it!

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    1. Monochrome seems to be just in front by a half a length after some late voting.

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  14. I am in two minds about this; while it is certainly fascinating (and I imagine one can spend HOURS with one of these new "toys") and undoubtedly brings places and people to live in a way a monochrome picture can't, I still think I prefer the original. It's a bit like with music - most cover version are nowehere near as good as the original (with very few expections).

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    1. You can spend hours trying it out on different photographs, but the process is a fairly quick upload-download. While it does bring life to a photograph when it works, it seems best to treat it with caution. Probably best to treat all photographs with caution - they are but an image, not the real thing.

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  15. Yes like Librarian, I have a feeling for the old black and white.

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    1. I picked four quite good black and white photographs to start with. Perhaps I should try it on some lesser black and white ones.

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  16. This is fascinating. I think the first set of blue-toned images are more successful than the warm ones that follow. I'm going to have a go!

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    1. It will be interesting to see how you get on, especially with your long involvement in art. The AI tools still need human input, so Pixbim might suit you best, although I did not find its automatic output as good as some of the others.

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  17. I think that the first set of family photos colorised look fairly natural and nice. I especially like the shot of your grandmother.

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    1. Grandma is probably the one it works best on. Having now had them for a few days they are beginning to grow on me.

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  18. That's very interesting. Aside from cropping I've never played with photos. It seems almost insurmountable and very time consuming, perhaps like learning Excel.

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    1. I tend to use Microsoft Paint for things like cropping, resizing, assembling images from bits of other images, adding text and so on. I had to play with it a lot in the early days to get the hang of it, but its simpler than Photoshop. Excel is just boring, but sometimes useful.

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