How to Digitally Restore an Old Photo in Photoshop
A Step by Step Guide to Simple Photo Restoration
One of my favorite hobbies is the art of digital photo restoration. It's thrilling to take an old photo and give it new life again and to preserve our history for future generations. Over the years, old photographs deteriorate and fading, speckling, cracking, and creasing are common.
If your grandma was like mine, she loved to record every event in ink on the back of all of her photographs. Although this probably seemed like a stellar record keeping idea at the time, one of the most common damages I see is ink bleed through. It can be so disheartening to see ink and other issues wreak havoc on an otherwise fantastic old photograph. Fortunately, it is getting easier to repair this damage digitally and revive photos.
Today's photo papers are much better than in the past. Advancements like Photoshop allow us to digitally repair damaged photographs and then reprint them on archival quality papers that will last at least 100 years. For this project I am using Photoshop version CS5, however CS6 is expected to have even more "content aware" tools that will be even better for this type of work. Digital imaging has already come such a long way and restored photographs make people's hearts melt – especially ones they thought were beyond repair. There's nothing like the look in a loved one's eyes when they see a restored photograph – talk about “priceless”.
How to Restore a Photo In Photoshop CS5
So, what I am going to attempt to do in this hub is show others how to do some very basic photo restoration techniques. These tips are great for faded photos with minor damage. Things with missing pieces, major damage, mildew etc. are a whole different project and hopefully I'll learn more about making video tutorials for the more advanced stuff. In the meantime – enjoy this simple photo restoration (my lovely mother when she was a little girl) and try some of the tips and techniques yourself.
For this project I am using Photoshop CS5 – I realize not everyone has this kind of software, but many of the tools and techniques I am using can be replicated in other software’s to a degree.
The first thing you want to do is digitally photograph or get a very high quality scan of your original photograph. I do not have a high powered enough scanner so for my projects I do a high quality DSLR photograph of the original. If you plan to scan your photos you need to have at absolute minimum a 300 dpi scanner – the higher the dpi the better so that you can avoid as much loss of detail as possible.
Save an original copy of the original with the highest quality jpeg setting! If you totally screw up, have a major meltdown, or some other unforeseen catastrophe you have a backup to start working on again. So save yourself an original in case disaster strikes – or you simply want to practice and try different techniques on the same picture later on.
With your original copy in place create a new layer – this will be the layer you start working on. Lock the original layer and turn off the “eyeball” to hide it – you don't want to alter your original layer.
This is a good standard practice in any Photoshop project.
The first thing we want to do in this picture is to remove some dust and scratches using the dust and scratch filter. In Photoshop you go to Filter-Noise-Dust & Scratches. Keep the settings low so as not to lose a lot of detail. You will still have to manually remove a lot of it, but this is a good start. I set the radius at 1px and the threshold at 3 levels. Use the preview feature and adjust levels accordingly being careful to not remove too much detail.
The next step is to remove some speckles and noise from this photograph. You do this in Photoshop by going to Filter – Noise – Reduce Noise. Here your settings will depend entirely on your photograph and how “speckled” it appears etc. My photo was quite grainy so I did this filter at full strength and sharpened the details. Use the preview feature and adjust your settings accordingly.
The remaining touch ups – fixing specks, repairing lines/creases can be done using the clone tool and the spot healing brush. The spot healing brush has become much more intuitive and useful in CS5 Photoshop over other versions and it cleans up specks/spots nicely. For my touch ups on this photo I used a round brush with 75% hardness – a hard brush will be very noticeable so soften it and use a brush size that is just slightly larger than the spot you are repairing.
Clone tool is great for fixing larger areas that need repair. In this photograph there was a fairly large spot of discoloration in her gown. I used the clone tool to repair this by placing the tool directly above the spot I want to repair. Hold alt and click to pick up the sample, move down to the spot to be repaired and left click and voila – a new patch is seamlessly placed and blends in perfectly. **Update 2015** The newer versions of Photoshop (6 and up) have great "content aware" settings for various tools making this process a whole heck of a lot easier now!
*HINT* When repairing marks, scratches etc. have your picture blown up at 100 – 200% so you can catch all the details. **
Create another new layer from this one. As we did originally we will work on this new layer and hide/lock the previous one. The new layer is what we are going to use to create our new photograph. The first thing here is to adjust your brightness and contrast. For this photo I really bumped up the contrast to bring out the details in the photograph.
This is another area where every photo will be different – if your original photograph is “washed out” looking – you will want to adjust the exposure (image – adjustments – exposure) and increase contrast / decrease brightness. Some photos are very dark – and then you would do the opposite. This is an area where it's great to experiment. (also why you saved your previous layers if you screw up just go back ;) ) You can also try the “auto tone” feature – or experiment with the different settings by going to Image – adjustments – and then you'll have all sorts of options.
This photo was very easy because it already had great details, very little damage and fading etc. I went to image – adjustments – saturation and desaturated the color from the image a bit before going on to my final step.
For my final step – I wanted to give this photograph a nice sepia tone. The light sepia tone (instead of the dark one from the original) adds warmth and a soft glow to this picture that I really love. To do this I went to Image – Adjustments – Photo Filter from here you are given a drop down menu and I chose the “Sepia” option and placed it around 15%. Again, you can use your preview option and try different filters on for size and see what you like. This setting gave my photo a great finishing touch.
Once my photo was finished I resized it to be the same size as the original actual photograph and that is what I will print out to give to my mom. You can save them and create larger images – however when you do that a lot of the image quality is lost. You typically want your photo restorations to be around the same size of the original.
**Some other things to consider**
I know a lot of people who restore photographs make them look “too perfect” and that isn't what people typically want either :) because old photos are ..well... old. You can leave a few little imperfections and the photo will look more authentic – what you are really after is to remove more serious flaws – you'll notice my photo still has some little flaws etc. Don't sweat the small stuff too much or your picture will look “fake”.
Also keep in mind this is designed to be a very basic beginner's project! There are much more advanced things we can do - like adjust highlights/contrast in specific areas - remove the girl and put her in a different background - bring out the details in the stuffed bunny she is holding etc. - This was designed as a basic picture overhaul
The best book I've ever read on the subject of photo restoration. Thorough detail, easy to follow and it taught me a lot of new tricks I didn't know previously. It's definitely worth the investment if you are taking on larger restoration projects or considering doing restorations as a sideline business.
View My Video Featuring Before and After Restorations
Questions & Answers
How do I get rid of cracks on an old photo?
I use the clone tool for cracks, and you can also apply filters. Use the clone tool to go through and clean up the cracks in larger areas. You can then apply a bit of a blur to the edges if you need to. Also, content aware healing tools are amazing things and do most of the work for you if you are using CS6 or newer versions of Photoshop.