Erwin Zeemering: colourising the past

Erwin Zeemering is a digital artist and photographer who dedicates his spare time to colourising and restoring historic photographs. We chatted to him about his process and what he hopes people take away from seeing his work.
Erwin, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Hello, my name is Erwin, and I’m a part-time digital artist and photographer based in the beautiful city of Zwolle in the Netherlands. As long as I remember, I have been interested in history. I worked as a photographer, and trained as a digital artist, so why not combine the three? To me, colourising historic photos is the perfect cumulative of history and photography as hobbies and work as a digital artist.

What first got you interested in photo restoration and colourisation?

A while back, I made the transition from digital to film photography. To digitise my own work, I needed a good film scanner. It was only a matter of time before I started scanning my own historic photos which I had collected over the years.

About the same time, I was looking for an alternative for a well-known photo editing program. I signed up for the beta of Affinity Photo and started searching for tutorials. To master the new software, I needed a little project. I decided to colourise some of my own recent scanned photos. That came out surprisingly well, and I stuck to it.

How do you source historical photos?

Throughout the years, I have gathered a nice collection of historic photos and the beauty is that they have never been published. When I don’t have commissions, I tend to work on those. Archives are really busy digitising their collections nowadays, so they are a great place to find beautiful photos. Clients have their own means to source them, but they also tend to shop in public archives.

How do you decide which colours to use?

Before starting, I do some research on the known elements. Uniforms and insignia and the likes are pretty well-documented. Once that is blocked in, I start colouring in the rest. The latter is mostly based on experience, and of course, a bit of creative freedom. Dating the source also has an influence. Colours on a hot sunny day bounce differently than on a dreary autumn day, for example. Original colour photos back from the day also help as inspiration. My collection of historic books has since then grown exponentially.

On average, how much time does it take to restore and colourise a black and white photograph?

That depends. I like to work on print-ready files which understandably takes a bit longer. Another factor is the complexity of the image. A portrait has way fewer elements than a crowded city street, for example. On average, I tend to work on them a full day. That also includes research which can take up some time. But it varies a lot. Of course, experience pays off. The more you do it, the faster you become at it.

What is your usual process?

Most film negatives have dust and scratches. Glass plates may even have cracks. So the first thing to do is to clean the image up and to do some basic restoration. This is extremely important for printed media. Dust won’t show up in small resolutions, but the bigger you print, the more you will see.

The second step is blocking in all elements with vibrant colours, normally with masked colour adjustment layers. It looks very crude, but the process is very meditating. The choice of using vibrant colours is to just make sure the whole image is covered. After that is done each layer is processed separately to get the colour I want. As an analogue photographer myself, I like to pretend to know why the photographer has made certain decisions. The choices made in composition, the usage of light, etc. That helps a lot with determining the colours per layer. How does the light fall and react? Where are they cool and where are they warm? Etc.

“As an analogue photographer myself, I like to pretend to know why the photographer has made certain decisions. The choices made in composition, the usage of light, etc. That helps a lot with determining the colours per layer.”

I tend to make the image very soft in colour. To focus is to create believable gradients between different hues. The end result looks a bit like an even exposed RAW image. In the end, I process that file more like a photo retoucher. Contrast changes, balancing the entire image, colour filters and other tweaks. With an extra effort on the focus areas of the image. The final tweaking takes up the most time.

How did you discover Affinity Photo and what appealed to you most about the software?

Initially, I was looking for software to post-process my own scanned photos as I wanted to move away from our friends at Adobe. I still use that professionally in my day-time job, but I don’t need half the options they offer at home. Certainly not for that price. Affinity appealed to me because of its price and speed. Once I moved over to the iPad version, Affinity became a big game-changer. The ability to directly draw on the screen in an app, with no limits on its features, is massive. Not only has the quality and speed of colourising increased exponentially, but also my motivation. You can just pick it up anywhere, anytime and start working.

“Once I moved over to the iPad version, Affinity became a big game-changer. The ability to directly draw on the screen in an app, with no limits on its features, is massive. Not only has the quality and speed of colourising increased exponentially, but also my motivation. You can just pick it up anywhere, anytime and start working.”

What features do you use the most? Are there any that you couldn’t be without?

The basics are pretty simple, you need a lot of adjustment layers with masks, and any software can do that. In the later stages of the process, it becomes more interesting. The ability to switch between colour spaces in adjustment layers is a huge time saver in post. But one thing I can’t live without anymore is the layer blend options. A bit tricky to understand at first, but once you have mastered it, it is simply amazing!

Which are the most crucial elements to get right to achieve a realistic-looking image?

It sounds a bit strange, but one of the first things I noticed is that you don’t have to use that much colour. An object has local colour, but in the shadows and the highlights, the colour quickly becomes saturated. It’s important, especially in the shadow areas, to get that right. After I mastered the software, I quickly jumped into the colour theory. And I ended up watching tutorials for oil painters, and not on digital art. It’s fascinating to see how they play with contrasting colours and get a realistic effect quite quickly. I get a lot of inspiration from them. Especially from the old Dutch masters and luckily for me I can study their paintings in real life in the museums near to me.

What is the most challenging part of colourising a photograph?

Apart from getting that realistic look, there are two parts I’m always struggling with:

  1. In portraiture, hands are always tricky. I think painters and photo retouchers can confirm this. If you go too bold on them, they will quickly end up as balloons which are not very appealing. While still an important subject in a portrait photo, you need to go very soft on the edit.
  2. Secondly, skies are also tricky to get them right. Photographers will know that skies are often 3 to 5 stops lighter than the foreground. With the result that many photos are overexposed in that area. On top of that, most archives tend to use auto settings for scanning. So there’s not much room left to colour something that is not there. Even though the original negative might hold those details. The sky is a vital part of the overall look and feel. In real life, we tend not to pay too much attention to it, but if you get it wrong in a photo or illustration, it will look artificial.
Your work has appeared in a variety of magazines and exhibitions. Is there a dream publication or location you would like to see your photos displayed?

I just love printed media. It’s still magical when you hold your own work in your hands. My work is published nationally but I would love to see my work in international publications as well—National Geographic, like for many other artists, springs to mind. Of course, I wouldn’t mind doing the book cover of an international bestseller!

What would really make me happy is an exhibition in a national or international museum. Be it history or art. The nature of my art would most likely attract a history museum, but who knows what the future holds. If that moment ever comes, I would just buy a ticket and sit in that room for a whole day and enjoy it.

What do you hope people take away from seeing your work?

History is not black and white. The sun shined the same light (figuratively) back in the day, only the means to record the events have changed. And it’s not all that long ago really. For example, our grandparents, maybe even some of our parents have lived through World War 2. People tend to forget that the boots on the ground were just people like you and me, dragged into a complex conflict against their will.

With every photo, comes a story. Sometimes well known, mostly forgotten. By bringing back colour into those documents, it will bring them a bit closer to our modern times. By doing that I’m hoping that they and their stories won’t be forgotten.

“With every photo, comes a story. Sometimes well known, mostly forgotten. By bringing back colour into those documents, it will bring them a bit closer to our modern times. By doing that I’m hoping that they and their stories won’t be forgotten.”


You can see more of Erwin’s colourisation work on his website zeemering.nl, Instagram and Facebook.