Feb 23, 2020

Playing with My Heritage’s Photo Colorization Feature

February 23, 2020


Like a lot of other genealogists, I’ve spent the past couple of days uploading photos to My Heritage’s website. I have a large collection of black and white photos of my ancestors that I’ve always wished were in color. Naturally, when I heard that My Heritage had developed a simple way to add color to photos, I was intrigued by the idea. After playing with the My Heritage colorization for way longer than I should have, I have a few comments about it.

I have to admit that uploading black and white photos and having them almost instantly become colorized with the press of one button is a great way to spend an afternoon. I mean, who doesn’t wonder what that wedding photo of their great grandparents would look like in color? It turns out that the colorization process is pretty good, but certainly not perfect. The flesh tones, especially, turned out great on most of the photos I uploaded. They certainly added life to my pictures. A few of the photos did end up with what Randy Seaver called “zombie hands” on his blog. Probably due to shadows on the original picture, some of the hands (and arms and legs) were a dead gray color; apparently My Heritage has a process to cure the zombie hands that they will be implementing soon.

Hair color was a bit more problematic. I have a lot of redheads on both sides of my family tree, and I know, for example, that my maternal grandmother and a paternal aunt were both redheads. The colorization process gave my aunt blonde hair (her hair was a light strawberry blonde when she was young) and my grandmother ended up with a mousy brown hair color in her photos. I can understand that figuring out that someone was redheaded from a black and white photo is probably impossible, but it is a little shocking to see an aunt who I remember as being a redhead with blonde hair. For recent generations where hair color is known, a manual way to correct hair color would be nice.

Eye color is another problem area; my own colorized baby picture shows me with great big beautiful brown eyes. Since my eyes have always been blue, it was interesting to see myself as brown-eyed. Based on some old 35 mm slides which were in color and taken at about the same time, the colorized version of me shows my hair as darker and my skin as perhaps a little more olive-colored than it was. Not to mention the zombie right arm that the color photo gave me! I have heard that eye color is often determined on old black and white photos by looking at the darkness or lightness of the eyes in the photo. In my Scandinavian family, blue eyes were the norm, but many of them had dark blue eyes which may have thrown the computer program off because almost all of my family ended up with brown eyes in the colorized versions of their photos.

It’s easy to spot errors in the colorized photos of people you have known, but not so simple for photos of folks who lived generations ago. If these colorized versions of family photos become commonplace, they may show up on trees as if they were the original version of the picture. My Heritage has stated that the colorized versions of photos will carry a watermark stating that they are colorized to prevent that, which is a good thing since so many people just grab photos and add them to their trees.

I have to admit that it can get addictive to upload and colorize photos, just to see what they look like. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s important to remember that it really is just playing, and you still probably won’t know what color Great Uncle Fred’s hair was, if you didn’t know before.


Carol Stetser

Researcher/Director at Large