Blue Mountains Photographer ~ How to restore old photographs

This week, I’m restoring some older photographs for a client and I’ll explain how I do it below.

Firstly, dealing with other people’s precious photographs is a serious business.  Sometimes photographs can be so badly damaged that it’s nearly impossible to restore them, and I always explain how good a job we can do of a shot before we start.  However, as long as most of the detail is in the shot, then usually we can clean them up really well.   If you’re going to do this for someone, just don’t promise miracles you can’t deliver.  Whilst hair is easier to replace, faces are not, though I have taken faces from photographs and put them in others.  There’s a bit of skill required to do that and it’s something you can learn if you’re patient.

This is only a tiny wallet-sized photograph so first, I’ve scanned it in at 300 dpi, which will make it much bigger on my computer.  It’ll also give me more control over the restoration.

When I restore old photographs, I like to do it sympathetically.  You can ‘clean’ a photograph until it looks brand new, but I feel it takes away some of the charm and age of the shot.   It’s an old photograph so try not to make it look like a new one.  Don’t fix what isn’t broken.  That’s just my preference.  You may want to do it differently.

So here’s our shot and you can see that it has quite a number of scratches over the surface of it.   Most of them are vertical, which would show that the photograph was probably kept in a wallet for many years, being taken in and out.  It’s got quite a lot of speckling on it and a little dirt, plus some folds which aren’t so pretty.


I opened the shot in Photoshop.  I’m using CS5, which is the latest version.

I create a duplicate layer immediately and click to make the underneath layer invisible.  I’ll use this lower layer as my ‘original reference’ and only change the top layer.

I usually start cleaning the outside of the frame first using the clone tool.  Pick the colour nearest and start cloning the marks around the outside. You can see there’s a fold and some other marks around the outside, which I clone out.  Use a small soft brush, zooming in to the area you are cleaning.  Don’t ‘over clean’ or it will look odd.

Once that’s done, I move to the bottom right of the photograph and start to clean from the bottom right to the left.  This way I find I don’t miss anything.

I use the clone tool, spot healing tool and the healing brush tool, referring to the original every few edits to see that I’m not changing the original structure of the photograph.

To keep the work accurate, I zoom in and out of the shot by nearly 600% to give me some control over the detail.

Save as you go.  There is nothing more frustrating than having your software crash on you after you’ve worked for an hour.  I save every few minutes when I’m doing this detailed work.

With the scratches on the water area, I use a very small, soft brush and zoom right in, sample the pixel next to the scratch and use that to replace the scratch.  It’s really important that water still looks like water when you’re finished.  You don’t want to lose detail or clarity.  If you are unsure, make one small edit and see how it looks.  Don’t go in with a big brush, cloning the heck out of it, otherwise you’ll be spending more time correcting your errors than you will making them.  Photoshop can do that to you.  😀

Whilst there are filters in CS5 which can do some of this work for you, I find that they also remove some of the detail and clarity and they really don’t save me any time at all.  However, you might want to play with them and see what they do for you.

Go to Filters>Noise>Despeckle

There’s also Filters>Noise>Dust and Scratches

Personally, I may only use ‘Despeckle’ right at the end of the restoration to see whether it adds anything to the final outcome or picks up on a pixel or two which hasn’t been located by my eye.  They can remove clarity though… not what you want in an older photograph.

The end result is pretty nice.   After cloning and healing all the scratches, I boost the clarity and levels, add a little sharpness to the features and I’m done.  I’m not going to be as picky as I usually am and make the horizon straight.  It’s a family snap and I think it should stay as much as it was when it was taken.  I ditched the original layer and saved the duplicate layer as a PNG or TIFF.  Or you can save as a high quality JPEG.


If you want to do this yourself, and you don’t have Photoshop, or can’t fork out for expensive software, then you can download GIMP, which is FREE!  Yay!  GIMP has many of the features of Photoshop and is a powerful editing tool.

This blog post took me a few minutes to write, the photograph took a few hours to restore, so if you’re going to have a go yourself, go slow and be patient.  You can’t rush a good thing.

I’ll be restoring a few more this week, so if my client gives permission, I’ll share a couple more.

Got questions about technique or anything else I did, just ask below or drop me a line.   Always happy to help.