Bringing Colour and Life to Black and White Photos

A Different Universe

Although colourised photos have technically existed for a century or more (Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky and Piotr Vedenisov, pioneers of colour photography, traveled around Imperial Russia documenting it in full colour), the majority of the 20th century was documented in black and white. Even later in the century, much of the world did not have the luxury of colour film- my father was developing his own black and white photos into the 1980s-90s in Soviet Ukraine, and while Americans recorded full colour footage of the Vietnam War, the North’s perspective seems to be relegated to black and white photography.

Colorizing Photos With AI

Color restoration can be done manually and laboriously. Machine learned models offer a quick and inexpensive way to colourize photos, but they have their limitations, as we will discuss later in this post. I did not train my own model for this purpose. Others have already invested thousands of hours into developing and training models to do exactly that. I found an existing model that does a very good job.

export DL_API_KEY=<your-deep-ai-key>
python3 main.py /path/to/images

My Family Photos

Here are some examples of the results on our family photos.

My mother holding my brother in early ’90s Kherson, Ukraine. Courtesy of the Kuznetsov family.
Now in colour.
My grandmother, Allarkadina, likely sometime in the ’50s, on her way to university. She graduated from multiple institutes, specializing in electrical engineering, and had a successful career as a marine electrical engineer.
In colour.

Photos From the Vietnam War

A couple weeks after preparing a bulk colourising script for my family photos, a post titled “The Vietnam War from the North Vietnamese Side” made it to the top of Hacker News. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to apply the script, and offer a new perspective on historical footage. Just as “They Shall Not Grow Old” made the horrors of WW1 living and real, so did I aim to make the characters and scenes from the perspective of North Vietnam.

Destruction of the jungle wrought by Agent Orange.
In colour.
Locals inspecting a downed American aircraft piloted by Lt. Stephen Owen Musselman. The pilot did not survive- war is hell.
In colour.

Response on Hacker News

My efforts were met with both praise

Too bad about the [flagged] comment, because it raised an interesting point. The comment read something like ‘Please don’t do this.’

Limitations

There were two aspects of the discussion that stood out to me. First, was the reminder of the limitations of AI.

A white Golden Gate? It was white- but not when this picture was taken.
The model can’t tell that the ground is asphalt and not grass.
I don’t think clothes in the past were as often as purple as this model makes it out to be.

Ethical Considerations

Now that some of the limitations are clear, we are in a good position to consider the ethical ramifications of a colourising AI. This is was the second aspect of discussion that stood out to me. Ethics did not occur to me when I undertook the project, but some of the feedback I received spurred me to reflect, and for that I am thankful.

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Sasha Kuznetsov

Sasha Kuznetsov

23 Followers

Software engineer at Google, engineering physicist by training. Builder by passion. https://skz.dev