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Restoring old photographs

Scanning and editing

Old photos suffer from flaws which may be due to a variety of causes, the main problem being age and the way the salts oxidise to produce off-colour prints. Prints also are subject to unfortunate physical mistreatment and this can be extensive. In other ways also, old photos from the album and elsewhere may deteriorate from their original pristine state. Now, a decent scanner and then Photoshop can retrieve some of the faded glories.

There is a craft in repairing old prints and it is one which I am trying to learn, albeit mostly by trial and error. I divide them into three groups:

  1. Photos from the Victorian era and later, almost all of which were taken and staged in a photographer's studio,
  2. Later pictures taken most probably as snapshots by amateurs to fill the family album, and
  3. Fairly recent photos (with colour) which may have similar blemishes plus perhaps colour problems.

The images below are all of original photo prints which have been scanned. It is best to scan at as high a definition as possible depending on the capacity of the scanner and the amount of memory available in the computer. I use a minimum of 600 ppi but usually much more: 1200 ppi or even up to 2400 ppi, depending on the size of the original picture and how large one wishes to print the repaired version. Once the final dimensions have been determined, then the filesize may be reduced.


This is an example of a Victorian era family group, carefully posed in the photographer's studio. Any attempted improvement in composition or framing would be impertinent and the only work to be done is to try to restore the photo to its original state. The sepia cast needs turning back to true gray-scale tones and in doing so, we can lift the shadow areas to see more detail (see for instance the clothing on the figure at far left). Other adjustments include changing the lighting levels, contrast and then the essential sharpening of features.

The picture is of my paternal grandparents and their children, probably taken at Ballarat in Australia to which the family had migrated in the late 1800s. The small person in long curls at centre-right is my father - yes, father.

This old portrait has many of the problems from age (of the print not the subject). Apart from its sepia tint, it has also become blotched and with a few scratches. In addition, the oval image itself appears to have been mounted on a backing board which has similarly suffered. So, I have re-mounted the image on a clean backboard, outlining the image and applying an outer shadow to lift it from its setting. Then all I needed to do was convert the picture to true mono, clean the background and tidy up the blotches and dust and scratches using various Photoshop tools and procedures, and then suitably sharpening the outlines.

In making adjustments, it is always something of a compromise between wanting to remove extraneous material and the need to retain the authenticity and character of the original.

Another old studio picture, this time with several long cracks showing. These are usually dealt with quite easily by cloning adjacent sections over the offending areas. Then a standard procedure is used to get to a true monochrome version - done by adjusting the values of each of the composite red, green and blue channels which even a faded gray-scale picture like this provides. The picture has been sharpened and adjusted for contrast, but opened up also to show more of the detail.

Most people refer to pictures being in "black and white" but that is not strictly accurate. "B&W" is really just that: only black or white (the paper colour) is shown and this is akin to a line drawing. A monochrome ("mono") picture uses all the range from white to black in shades of grey, and this is termed "grayscale" (using American spelling).

There was little to be done to the image of this elegant lady herself, apart from removing all of the dust and scratches which plague nearly every old picture (particularly those which have been scanned). Most of these can only be seen when the image has been magnified and even more so when the lighting levels are reduced. All of these need to be removed, or as much as possible without destroying detail.

The scan was not quite square on, so I extracted the picture and relaid it on to a new back-board, also cleaning, sharpening and intensifying the lettering.

This is a picture of my old school in Hobart: "Hutchins", taken in 1875 which was just under 30 years after it was founded. The (low resolution) picture has been downloaded from the website of the Tasmanian Library - my compliments to them and I hope there is no objection to my having done so. It is of very good quality, especially considering the date, but I have made a number of changes as may be seen, such as converting, not to grayscale monochrome, but to a soft duotone.

In particular, the left side needed attention, it being rather faded and also sporting an advertising sign, now removed. The horizon on that side is one of the foothills to nearby Mount Wellington but for some reason on the original, the lines of the tree below were cut off along that line, and I have now drawn in some short twigs above it for a more natural look.

I really like this one because it is full of detail and evocative of the 1920s era (see the lady sporting her box camera). It is also typical of the amateur snapshot in that it has been presumably taken by one of the group and then sent off to the camera shop for developing and printing. So the photographer had no opportunity to correct any blemishes or make any improvements. In this case, but not in many other quick snaps, it is all level and the verticals upright. However, there is too much material extraneous to the central group and the flivver (which might have been better framed with more room showing to the front of the vehicle), so I've cropped the image in from all but the right side.

Of course in addition, the cracks have been repaired and a few items painted in, as well as the other usual adjustments of conversion to mono, sharpening and contrast.

Here's another snapshot which could have benefitted from some post camera adjustments but which would not have been available to the photographer at the time. First the picture needs straightening, then zoomed in to eliminate unnecessary surrounding distractions, and also removal of the garden hose.

The picture was taken in about 1938 in the bright sunshine of Western Australia and is of my three elder brothers and myself, with two of the family's friends. Guess which is me!

A fairly recent picture taken by a professional. The print has been displayed and left for some time in sunlight and in consequence has faded almost to white, with other colours changing hue. The correct way to tackle this is to address the various colour channels (red, green, blue) but I fumbled around amateurishly with other procedures and despite that, am quite pleased with the result.

Although the picture looks mainly white, this is not "specular" white (meaning that it has burned back to the colour of the photographic paper) and the traces of original colour can be restored more or less in full.

A studio picture of a soldier from the first world war. It has been badly mauled and required considerable infilling and some imaginative paintwork. Not completely successful (the plant-bowl looks a little "wonky") but it's surely an improvement!

The original photo, although faded to sepia, was initially in colour and it retained some of the colouring which I was able to recover to some extent. Not all however, and the sky in the restored picture has been dropped in from another source. Of course as may be seen, it needed much other attention also: redimensioning, cleaning, sharpening and filling in the cracks.

In presenting these pictures, I thank my friends for their kind permission in allowing me to use their original photographs.

If you have any thoughts or tips, please let me know - by e-mail E-mail HMT.