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  Old Photo Restoration

New technologies make restoring old memories easier

  Isn’t it great when new technology can improve on old traditions? Most families have a collection of old family photographs, and for some families, the collection can date back almost 100 years. Of course, old photos tend to fade, wear, tear or worse. Fortunately, the digital darkroom can come to the rescue of these damaged images, restoring them to conditions better than new!  


There have been several breakthroughs in software this past year that make the task of repairing damaged photographs easier. Adobe Photoshop 7 and a new plug-in from Alien Skin Software (, Image Doctor, have been a boost to photo-retouchers, both professional and amateur alike.

This old photo of a boy had a variety of defects that needed to be fixed. The image was covered in stains from the old chemicals reacting to time and the environment—unfortunately, not an unusual situation.

To start, after opening the photo in an image-processing program, I duplicated it to a new layer (background layer) and renamed the layers “Original” and “Copy1.” I like to make a copy layer of the original in case I make any large mistakes. This is a good procedure to follow with any program where you can create layers.

There are two major problems with this picture—spots and color shift. I usually attack spots first. To do this, I borrow a trick I learned from Jack Davis, author of the Photoshop Wow! series of books. I used Photoshop 7 for this example; however, you can do the same effect with any layered program (points 1 and 5).

1 On the Copy1 layer, I ran the Dust & Scratches filter (Filter>Noise>Dust & Scratches). In the filter dialog box, the radius slider controls the amount of blur the filter produces and the threshold maintains your original grain. Slide the radius up from zero and find the smallest number that will eliminate the majority of your spots. This becomes the Radius setting. Now, adjust the threshold to preserve your original grain pattern. Clicking the preview on and off, move the Threshold slider up from zero and look to see the first number where you see no difference in grain structure.

If you don’t have Dust & Scratches (or something similar—many programs do), you can also try using a Gaussian blur, following the first part of the instructions.

2 In Photoshop 7, open the History Palette (I’ll mention an alternative with other programs in a moment). Go to the pull-down menu on that palette (accessed from the triangle, upper right), and select New Snapshot. Name the new snapshot “D&S” (Dust and Scratches), and in the box where it says From, choose Merged Layers.

3 Back on the History Palette, check to the left of the D&S snapshot to get the History Brush icon. Examine the history of your work on the image and select the point just above Dust & Scratches as your active “state” (the History Palette steps are called states).

4 Using the History Brush (on the toolbar), paint over all the dust and spots in the background and watch them disappear! Or, if you have a large area with problems and not a lot of detail in the area, such as this photo, you can make a selection and go to the Edit>Fill menu, choose fill with History and remove all the dust in one move. In this case, I drew a large lasso selection around the boy, inverted the selection and then filled with the History (Edit>Fill>History).

5 If you don’t have a History Palette, you need to add an extra layer and apply Dust & Scratches (or even a Gaussian blur) to remove defects on it. Then, you copy or clone the cleaned-up parts of the image from this layer to the unaffected photo layer. For big areas like this photo, you can simply select around the boy on the D&S layer, add a feather, then delete the boy to reveal the unaffected layer underneath where the boy is. That makes him unaffected, while keeping the changed background.

6 This picture also had lots of really large spots and stains that this technique couldn’t remove. To remove these stains, I used the Spot Lifter in Image Doctor (a plug-in that works with all programs that accept Photoshop-type plug-ins, including Photoshop Elements, Jasc Paint Shop Pro and Ulead PhotoImpact). I find this tool gives excellent control over the blending of the texture patterns. Once I have a setting that works well, I just go to each spot, make a lasso selection and hit Cmd/Ctrl F (Mac/Windows) to replay the filter.

7 Once all the spots were removed, I needed to tackle the problem of the overall color stain. I realized I could remove the stain by removing the color from the image since the original was a black-and-white. To do this, I made an adjustment layer using Channel Mixer and checked the monochrome box. I adjusted the color sliders to get the best contrast. This gives a little more control over the tones than simply using Desaturate, but that’s also a tool to try.

8 In addition, I used a Curve Adjustment Layer to boost the contrast on the floor and the lower part of the wall. I adjusted the curve until I got the look I wanted on the floor and wall. Since an adjustment layer includes a mask, I filled the layer mask with black (hiding the effect) and painted with white to reveal the adjustment layer’s changes. I did the same thing on another layer to adjust the amount of detail I could see in the boy’s jacket.

9 My last two problems were the uneven tonality around the edges of the picture and the fact the image wasn’t level. I fixed these the easy way. Using the Crop tool, I made a selection of the image that cropped out the unevenness. Then, I rotated the crop boundary (by placing the cursor outside of a corner) so that one edge was parallel to the line where the wall and floor meet. Then, when I cropped the image, it rotated, too!

Finally, I was done! While the steps were many and also somewhat time-consuming, it was all so much easier to do than it would have been just a year ago. The new Healing Brush and Patch tools of Photoshop 7 and the new plug-in Image Doctor make this work so much easier. It’s nice when we can use today’s technology to repair yesterday’s memories.


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