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Restoring Your Old Photos

Andrew Vezina offers step-by-step instructions for photo restoration.

Fig 1. The original photograph.
Searching through old family photos and memorabilia, I came across a photo of my ggrandmother’s family. Taken in Scotland in 1904, it is a portrait of my gggrandfather, D. McLeod, and his six children after the death of his wife. Seeing as this photo provides an important piece of my family history and the traditional clothing is an excellent portrayal of my Scottish heritage, I decided to restore the photo’s cracks and tears, making it suitable for display.

To start this restoration I scanned in the photo using an Agfa Duoscan flatbed scanner. Since the printer I would be using to output prints at 300 dpi (dots per inch) and I would be doubling the size of my original, I scanned at 600 dpi. By doing this and using the low sharpen adjustment (medium or high tends to cause an excessively grainy result), I ensured that the end result would be of equal or better quality than the original. I also enabled the brighten midtones and shadows adjustment on the scanner options to ensure that the dark areas in the photo did not fill in with black.

The next step in photo restoration is to open up the scanned image in the application of your choice. Although too expensive for casual users, the industry standard for photo retouching over the past several years has been Adobe Photoshop. Most scanners come packaged with a limited edition of this application, or other comparable programs. Although they may lack some of the filters or options of high-end imaging software, programs like Adobe Photodeluxe, Picture It!, Photopaint, and Printhouse have the basic tools required for retouching family photos.

While you’re working on an image, contend with one problem at a time and follow it through to completion before beginning another. Assess your retouching at intervals and take breaks when you find you’re losing patience.

Fig 2.1 A proper clone.
Fig 2.2. A repeating pattern.
Fig 2.3. Brush too large.

Your primary concerns when starting a photo should be to confirm that you’ve scanned the photo at a high enough resolution and to ensure that you are only retouching areas you will print in the final image. If the photo is black and white and you’ve scanned it in color, applying Mode~Grayscale will cut your file size by 75 percent thereby making it smaller and quicker to work on. Your first step should be to crop the photo down to size by using the crop tool and sizing it with the Image Size command.

The next step to retouching this image would be to complete missing areas by filling in the torn corners. By using the clone (or rubber stamp) tool you can “drag” existing areas out to the corners. A properly cloned area (figure 2.1) will have no signs of retouching, where the patterns and textures appear realistic. Make sure not to create a repeating pattern (figure 2.2) by cloning from a source area too close to the target. Using too small a brush will take you a long time to complete the area, while you must ensure not too use so large a brush that details become overlapped and blurry (figure 2.3). The clone tool is by far the most useful tool for restoring photos, but it can be an extremely tedious task to use it in the removal of the scores of dust spots you will encounter on your photo.

Fig 3. Dust and Scratches removes spots.
Fig 4. Select the smudged area and add noise.
Most image-editing applications contain a dust and scratches filter which will, when set to the appropriate level, remove most small spots while maintaining sharpness and detail (figure 3). If this filter is not available, often a blur filter will do the trick. Play around with different filters at different settings until you reach the desired effect, remembering that you’re not going to remove larger spots with a filter, just most of the smaller dust spots. The key areas to watch for sharpness when gauging your filter are the subjects’ eyes and clothing fabric.

Now the photo is ready for its most tedious and time-consuming, yet visually rewarding, retouching sequence. Using the clone tool you should individually remove every blemish on the photo. Start by retouching the background while gradually moving inward onto the subjects, leaving the hardest maneuvers for the end. Replace damaged areas with detail from nearby and experiment with different brush sizes. Remember to avoid repeating patterns and try to maintain the attributes and proportions of the original. Sometimes an area that is heavily retouched will look unrealistic because it does not have the same level of graininess as the surrounding area. You can remedy this problem by selecting the area with the lasso tool (at a feather of 10) and applying Filter~Noise~Add Noise to the area (figure 4). This will not make a perfect match, but it will permit a consistent grain across surrounding areas.

Fig 5.1. A scrape covers the right eye.
Fig 5.2. Copy the right eye over the left.
Fig 5.3. Merge the two layers.

If you encounter an area that is completely missing, or is so heavily damaged that it seems beyond repair, the clone tool may not suffice. You then must re-create that area through one of three methods. Most commonly, the damaged area is replaceable with a compatible piece from the same photo. Figure 5.1 shows a close-up of my ggrandmother’s face, which has a large blemish over her left eye. To repair this, you would make a selection around the right eye socket using the lasso tool, then copy and paste this area onto another layer displaying at 40-50 percent. Apply Layer~Free Transform; then scale, flip, and rotate the copied eye so that it eclipses where the left eye would be (figure 5.2). Turn the layer opacity back to 100 percent and use the eraser tool with a soft brush (35-45 pixels) to remove any outside or unrealistic areas, and smooth the overall look of the transformation. Layer~Merge Down will apply the copied eye onto the previous image, where you can assess the finished product (figure 5.3). If you do not have a compatible area in the same photo to copy from, you may need to “steal” from another photo. Often replacing someone’s face with one from another image is a more time-efficient option than retouching a heavily-damaged face. Although the procedure is different for every picture depending on the angle, lighting, sharpness, et cetera; the basic method is to copy the selected area from the donor image onto the damaged photo, then to follow the steps outlined above for the eye replacement. A third, yet rarely necessary option, is to entirely create the missing pieces of the photo. This method usually requires several attempts by an artistic person who pays attention to lighting, shadows, texture, and grain; while carefully using the paintbrush, clone, gradient, dodge, burn, and other tools.

Fig 6.1. The original photo.
Fig 6.2. Increase the contrast slightly.
Fig 6.3. Too much contrast.

Fig 7. Apply the sharpen filter.
Fig 8. Sepia toning a gray image.
Now that all of the blemishes and imperfections are removed from the photo, you want to improve the overall quality of the image. Since the photo appears a little gray (figure 6.1), you should use the Image~Brightness/Contrast command to increase the contrast slightly, while lightening it to keep the dark areas from filling in black (figure 6.2). Too strong of a contrast adjustment will create too many black and white areas as opposed to a wide range of gray tones (figure 6.3). In order to sharpen the final image, you should apply a mild sharpen filter that is intended to whet the details of the image, not drastically change its appeal (figure 7). If you want to make the photo a sepia tone, you can add red and yellow to the image by applying Image~Color Balance (figure 8) to the desired setting. Your end result should be a blemish-free photo with greater sharpness and detail than the original (figure 9); a wonderful conversation piece for the mantle or family room wall.

At the end of retouching your photo and at intervals during the process, you will need to save your image. Saving your image as a TIFF file will maintain all file attributes including the full file size; TIFF with LZW Compression is nearly half the file size with wonderful detail; while JPEG files maintain moderate quality at 5-7 percent of the working file size. Output of digital images has been made easier with the prevalence of personal ink-jet printers that can print on photo quality glossy paper at high resolutions that appear photo-realistic. Most full service labs and photographic bureaus offer a digital output service where your digital image can be printed as a continuous tone photograph in a variety of sizes for a reasonable price. Hopefully, through experimentation of various tools and brush sizes, as well as careful attention to detail, you can restore your photos with the greatest of quality.
Fig 9. The fully restored photograph.


This article originally appeared in the November/December 1999 issue of Family Chronicle.


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