Make Your Photos Pop with Colorize

If you scan the features page on the Adobe Photoshop CS5 website, you’ll find descriptions for almost 70 different features, everything from “Automatic lens correction” to “Fluid canvas rotation” to “Puppet warp.” But anyone who’s ever used Photoshop knows that 70 features is just the tip of the iceberg, and when you start to add the various options for each of those features, you’re talking about such a beastly bit of software that it sinks the hopes of any amateur who dares open it.

That’s where the Mac App Store comes in. With the Mac App Store’s democratization of the Mac software market, image-editing amateurs like me have access to a whole new range of “one trick ponies,” niche software that will do the one thing you’re looking for, and not a darn thing else.

Colorize is one such one-trick pony.


Rather than try to explain Colorize in a single sentence, I’ll just show you what it does.

(Creative Commons Flickr photo by kT LindSAy)

Colorize turns your full-color photo into a grayscale canvas so you can “paint” your selected colors back in. You can’t add any color information that isn’t in your original photo; all you can do is paint the colors back in.

Getting Started

When you launch Colorize, you get a friendly, hand-sketched sign that asks you to either drop your image onto the sketch or import a photo from iPhoto or Aperture.

A welcoming start-screen

I was pleasantly surprised by this sign because it signaled that the developers at iApe had gone the extra mile. The developer could have just used a standard-style “Open” or “New” dialogue box, but no, they put time and effort into crafting something welcoming instead.

Anyway, as a good Mac user, I chose to drag and drop my images. The biggest image I used was 2048 x 2048, and Colorize loaded it in less than a second on my Macbook. Most users should be able to open pretty much any image they want.

From the user’s perspective, the loading process is basically one step: Colorize takes your photo and turns it grayscale. That’s when the fun begins.

Colorizing Your Photo

The Colorize interface is reduced to a single toolbar with seven tools, three of which (Save, Undo, and Redo) will rarely be used by anyone with a keyboard.

A minimal toolbar tells you everything you need to know

The other four tools you’ll use a lot. The first, Colorize, is what you’ll use to add your color(s) back into the photo. The second, Uncolor, is how you’ll clean up the edges of the things you want colorized. The third will adjust your brush size, and the fourth will zoom in or out on the photo.

You can anchor the toolbar to either the top or bottom of your window, and depending on where you’re at in the colorizing process, you’ll adjust it often.

Adding color back in to your photo is as easy as selecting a brush size and dragging your mouse across the screen.

Read that bit again, because it’s key: Colorize does not magically discover the colors in your photo and allow you to choose the objects that remain in color; you have to actually “paint back in” the color(s) you want. This is annoying, until you realize it’s fun.

Paint color back into your photo

Anyway, when colorizing, you can make your brush smaller to do the edges of each object, then make the brush bigger to color “between the lines.” Or you can use a big brush to colorize the general area you want, and then use a little brush plus the “Uncolor” option to uncolor around the edges.

After playing with a few photos, I preferred the latter option. I found it easier to see the colors I didn’t want than to find the edge of the colors I did.

Add more than one color

Because Colorize is just adding back in the color information that’s already there, you can add back more than one color.

(Creative Commons Flickr photo by Zach Klein)

I think it’s more difficult to make the colors “pop” when you work with more than one, but with the right photo and the right colors, I’m sure someone better than me could make it work.

Some Flaws

As much as I enjoyed playing with Colorize, it does have a few annoying flaws. The first is that closing the window closes the whole application. In most instances, this probably won’t be a big deal, since you’ll usually only be colorizing one photo, but if for some reason you get on a colorizing roll, this “Close to Quit” feature gets real annoying right around the third photo you’re trying to colorize.

Another little annoyance I found was that just clicking with my brush didn’t do anything; to get the color to show up (or uncolor), I had to click and drag. Again, this isn’t something you’ll notice very often, but when you’re working on the edges of your object and you get your brush lined up just right, only to click and find nothing happen, which means you have to move your caffeine-shaking hand just a hair before the color appears (or uncolors), well, it can make you want to scream.

Some Suggestions

Besides fixing those annoyances, the developers could make Colorize an even better app by adding some kind of “smart brush” that can automatically detect the edges between two colors. This would make it easier for amateurs like myself — people who aren’t gifted (or cursed) with a graphic designer’s sense of perfectionism — to have nice, colorized edges in our photos.

While the above suggestion might take a hefty bit of programming to implement, my next suggestion should be simple enough: add basic keyboard shortcuts for zooming in and out of the photo. The zooming function works with the standard “Pinch to Zoom” gestures on the trackpad, but mouse & keyboard users like me are forced to use the toolbar. It’d be nice if the developers implemented some standard zooming shortcuts for us.

Final Thoughts

If you are an amateur photographer who does little more than point and shoot and upload, then Colorize probably isn’t for you. But if you spend any time editing photos in iPhoto or messing around with Instagram filters, then Colorize will be a welcome addition to your image-editing toolset.

Colorize is easy to use, and with only one trick up its sleeve, you’ll know exactly when to use it.


Colorize turns your full-color photo into a grayscale canvas so you can "paint" your selected colors back in.