Restoring Old Photos

restoring old photos, example image of a damaged vintage print

Stash some snapshots in a photo album for a few generations, and something special happens: They transform into family heirlooms. These photos are memories made tangible, connections to ancestors unknown and loved ones long gone. It is with this mindset that thoughtful photographers can rescue precious prints from the ravages of time.

Here’s how to restore those photos by scanning and repairing damaged and faded family photos with Photoshop.  

Start With A Quality Digital Scan

The process of restoring old photos begins with a good scan made with a flatbed scanner. It’s not fast, particularly if you have several prints to scan, but it’s essential not to skimp on quality, as the scan lays the foundation for the rest of the process. (If your print doesn’t scan well or it’s too large to fit on a flatbed, consider setting up a copy stand to photograph it.)

While every scanner is different, the key to a good scan is universal: establish the correct resolution to ensure the file is output at an ideal size.

A great repair starts with the right scanner settings. Be sure to set the resolution based on the image size. A 300dpi scan will create a one-to-one image file, whereas a scan at 600, 1200 or even 2400dpi will increase the image size dramatically.

Using 300dpi as a guidepost, you can calculate the appropriate resolution for any scan. An 8×10-inch print scanned at 300dpi will produce a file that measures 2400×3000 pixels in total, and which itself will make for a nice 8×10. A smaller print, however, such as a 4×6-inch print, may benefit from a higher-resolution scan in order to be printed larger. At double the dpi—600dpi—the physical dimensions will double to 8×12 at 300dpi. Consider scanning an even smaller print at 1200dpi or more to ensure maximum quality and the ability to upsize.

In the antique portrait shown here, the original measured just 3.5 inches tall, but scanned at 2400dpi, it enlarges to a whopping 28 inches tall. That enables you to dig into the details and eliminate the tiniest scratches and scuffs for a quality repair.

As for other scanner settings, choose TIFF format for maximum image quality, and use the cropping tool to define the area to be scanned.

A color scan may be best, even for black-and-white images, because the color information can sometimes be helpful for accurately restoring sepia or otherwise toned black-and-white prints. If your scanner offers an automatic color adjustment or restoration feature, give it a try. But if the results look anything less than ideal, turn this setting off and plan to make all of the necessary color adjustments in Photoshop.

Restoring Old Photos: Repairing Visual Damage

Photographers are always on the lookout for automated shortcuts, but in most cases the best results can’t be achieved without human input. Nowhere is that truer than when it comes to removing the dust, debris and damage that sullies many old photos.

The original antique family photo in need of serious repair.

The best way to repair such damage is to open the image in Photoshop and zoom in close. Then, take your time using tools such as the clone stamp, spot healing brush, patch tool and content-aware fill in order to eliminate wrinkles, spots and rips. This is the most tedious, time-consuming portion of the process, but it’s also the one that can really make a ravaged old print look new.

Start with the face and work out from there. Because faces are the center of attention, they deserve the most help. If you can make the faces blemish-free, you can get away with less-aggressive repairs elsewhere.

The spot-healing brush is ideal for repairing small blemishes. Set the brush diameter to be easily larger than most of the spots you’ll aim for, but not much larger. Experiment with the type of brush, choosing between content-aware, create texture and proximity match to see what works best in a given scenario.

In general, I find content-aware to perform best in this type of repair, and in fact it did the majority of the heavy lifting on the damaged old portrait shown here.

In some cases, the spot-healing brush will create a blurry spot. These can stand out almost as much as the original damage, so instead switch to the clone-stamp tool in order to copy one area of the image onto another. To use it, again set a brush diameter slightly larger than the areas being repaired and alt-click (or option-click) on a neighboring area of “good” detail to be cloned, then click and drag (or use multiple clicks) to copy the good area over the damage.

I generally prefer a soft brush edge as well as a brush set at 100% opacity and flow, all because this will generally blend in more seamlessly with the surroundings. I also regularly use the fade control to dial back an overly aggressive edit.

To change the brush size, shape and hardness, control-click on the image to bring up a dialogue box that makes these changes easy.

The clone-stamp tool is also especially good for repairing areas with distinctive shapes, textures or patterns. A crease that runs through a jacket, for instance, needs to carry the image information through the repair in order to blend in better. A harder-edged clone stamp excels here, while the spot healing brush typically does not.

Another tool that works very well for making clone-style repairs is the patch tool. It can be used to grab a bad spot and replace it with a good one—especially useful for fixing a large swath of background or clothing. To use it, click on the patch tool (found under the spot healing brush) and ensure it’s set to “content aware” in the options bar, then click and draw a selection around the area to be repaired.

The patch tool works wonders on backgrounds to quickly and effectively repair large areas full of spots and scratches without obliterating detail.

Then, click inside the selection and drag to the area of the image you’d like to replace it with. It’s like a selection-based version of the spot-healing brush that blends repairs with their surroundings. For large areas of the background in this antique portrait, the patch tool easily speeds up the process while making effective repairs.

Another way I like to make slightly larger fixes is to use the content-aware fill tool. To use it, make a selection and then choose Content-Aware Fill from the Edit menu to open up the dialogue box, which allows for adjustments to the fill, but the default settings are a good place to start.

Remember that with all of these tools, when it comes to general spot removal and cleanup, it doesn’t have to be perfect the first time. You can always make further passes at later stages, getting smaller and finer details covered as you go. For starters, though, the approach is to simply take your time and eliminate the biggest, most eye-catching blemishes.

After a few hours of spot healing, clone stamping and patching—as well as the use of a curves adjustment layer—this family heirloom is restored nearly to its original state.

Filling Voids In Old Photos

If your photograph is unfortunately damaged by a large gap or hole, as in the missing corner shown in the image below, you’ll have to perform some reconstructive surgery. The larger the void and the more detail surrounding it, the trickier the reconstruction will be. You can certainly fall back on cropping as a crutch in order to minimize the opening—depending on its location, of course. But if you’re lucky, the missing area will be in a background or piece of clothing that is at least manageably repairable. 

This vintage photo is in generally good condition with the exception of one prominent crease through the center of the frame and a large hole where the corner has gone missing.

To start, make a selection from a nearby area that is appropriate to fill in the void. If you’re replacing with trees and shrubs, copy from an area of trees and shrubs. If you’re replacing part of a garment, select from another area of the garment. Copy the selection to a new layer, move it into place over the gap, and use the Transform tool (found under the Edit menu) to rotate, resize and shape the element to fit appropriately over the hole. Then, use the Patch tool (be sure it’s set to Content-Aware and Sample All Layers) overlapping the edges of the patch in order to make it blend seamlessly into the background. This generally does a great job of softening the hard edges from the copy/paste patch.

To repair the void in the corner, start by selecting an appropriate area nearby, then copying and pasting it over the void.
Using the patch tool set to sample all layers, the rectangular patch can be seamlessly blended into the image to cover up the hole.

Another way to fill gaps in the image is with the Paint Bucket. This approach works best if you’re repairing a portion of the image without many changes in shape, texture or detail.

To use it, start with the lasso tool to draw a selection around the void, then activate the Paint Bucket and option-click (or alt-click) to select an appropriate color from a nearby area of the image. Click inside the selection to fill it with the paint color, then again switch to the patch tool. Ensure it is still set to Content Aware mode in the Options bar. (If the Options bar does not show by default at the top of the Photoshop window, turn it on under the Window menu by clicking on Options so that a checkmark appears. Then, click and drag as before to choose an appropriate area nearby to fill in the texture of the patch and blend it with the previously established color.)

The hole repaired and the crease eliminated with diligent use of the clone stamp and spot healing brush, the image is restored to its original splendor.

Restoring Accurate Color

While very old black-and-white photos are more susceptible to damage than fading, color photos typically require a different type of restoration. Even when stored in ideal conditions, the organic dyes in color prints simply break down over time and cause color shifts. Not only are the colors typically not as vibrant as they once were, but also color shifts to magenta, blue or other colors also occur. And while working with color repairs can sometimes be frustrating, it can also be one of the simplest fixes as Photoshop’s automatic contrast and color controls can go a long way to making faded color photos look great.

This family photo is no antique, but it’s still in need of serious restoration—not due to damage but due to the fading that naturally happens to color prints over time.

The simplest fix is Auto Color, found under the Image menu. Click it, and Photoshop will analyze the scene and attempt to correct the color balance. In the best-case scenario, this fix looks great, and it’s all the repair that’s needed. In the worst-case scenario, though, it looks terrible and should be immediately undone (command+z). More often, it makes for some improvement, requiring further manual adjustment by eye.

Do note that in an image such as the example shown here, the white background of the scanner is interpreted by Photoshop to be the white level in the image. So, in order to make a more accurate automatic adjustment, select just the image area of the original with no white scanner background. This way Photoshop will establish the color and contrast based solely on the print.

To use Photoshop’s Auto Color adjustment more effectively, first make a selection to isolate the image area from the bright white edges of the scanner backing. This will tell Photoshop to establish the true white level based on the faded paper in the print.

To put the finishing touches on color, use the Color Balance and Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layers. For simple shifts, color balance is an easy way to adjust sliders to add or subtract from an overall cast. For more control, try the Hue/Saturation adjustment and choose Master in the dropdown of the Properties palette to change overall hue and saturation across the scene, or switch to one of the individual colors (reds, yellows, greens, cyans, blues, magentas) and adjust the saturation, luminosity and saturation of any specific color found in the scene. To eliminate a magenta cast, for instance, dial down the magenta saturation slider. If you’re unsure of exactly what slider might work best, click on the finger icon in the Properties palette to then click and drag on any color in the scene, and Photoshop will adjust the corresponding sliders.

The Curves adjustment layer makes tremendous strides in restoring not only color but contrast. Using the black point eyedropper, click on an area of the image that should be established as pure black. Then use the white point eyedropper for white and, should you choose to go further, the gray point eyedropper to set middle gray.

Finishing Touches When Restoring Old Photos

The image should now look all but perfect. For the finishing touches, consider adjusting the contrast with a Curves adjustment layer, whether you’re working with a color or black-and-white image. When the Properties palette opens (after clicking on the Curves adjustment layer icon in the Adjustments palette), click on the black point eyedropper near the top of the window. Then, click on the darkest area in the scene to tell Photoshop this tone should be black. Then, choose the white point eyedropper and click the lightest portion of the scene to set the white point. This will also help eliminate some color cast as well, and if these adjustments appear too heavy-handed, simply dial back the layer’s opacity in the Layers palette.

To help sharpen an image that wasn’t perfectly in focus in the first place, duplicate the color-corrected image onto a new layer and use the High Pass filter to create a map of the contrast edges in the scene, then change the layer mode to Overlay and use a layer mask to selectively add sharpness to only the areas most in need—such as the faces of the women shown here. Too much sharpening will amplify grain and other issues in the print, so it’s best to keep it subtle and isolate the sharpening to only the most necessary places.

If the image needs sharpening, try a high pass layer. Copy the image to a new layer and then choose Filter>Other>High Pass. Use the radius slider that appears to dial the resulting sharpness up or down, based on which edges become visible in the preview. Aim for the appearance of minimal detail in order to avoid oversharpening, click OK to render the filter, then change the layer mode of this high pass layer to Overlay. This hides all the gray portions of the layer and effectively sharpens the edges. Dialing down the layer’s opacity pulls back on this sharpening effect.

The final image after color correction and sharpening.

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