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Pro Tips for Photo Restoration in Photoshop

Rehabilitation of old photos revives memories and generates gratitude.

By Sara Frances | December 20, 2012

Photoshop’s tools for quality, fast acting corrections are now so easy and plentiful. I hope to add a few insider tips to your tool bag

and some common sense to help make your results both dramatic and seamlessly real, not forced or artificial.

My 4-part approach to restorations: Scan, Standard Image Corrections, Restoration of Defects, Final Color and Sizing.

Here’s my client’s only existing picture of her uncle, on the right in the hat. The content is an unusual studio shot of the uncle and an unknown man doing a magic trick or perhaps acting out a skit. Check out what they are holding! This photo is a great candidate for restoration, because not too much is physically missing, and the story being told will become a topic of much speculation and reminiscence.

original old photo for restoration job

Scanning Tips

I always scan at greater resolution than one to one, in order to have extra pixel information to work with. The original was close to 5x7 dimension and the desired output was the same. Since I print with Epson 4800 on Enhanced Matte (for most reproductions that have a slightly ivory paper tone, something like Kodak’s Ektalure paper) and use 360DPI, I usually scan at 600 or 800 resolution. About double what is needed without the printer interpolating up or discarding information. Another reason to scan large is that many clients’ once they see what you’ve achieved, want to buy a bigger enlargement. $$$ Do the math for your own size and print requirements.

I work with an Epson Perfection V750 Pro (not a new model by any stretch, but very serviceable). I like scanners with various color and contrast adjustments, along with a color restoration check box. However, I’ve not found a magic formula for which setting adjustment works best every time. Sometimes I scan in monochrome, rather than color; sometimes just with the color restore box checked; sometimes using the manual correction sliders (either color or black white). This is a visual, and a matter of taste and preferences.

scan panel for old photo restoration

In this case I used the color restore box and the manual adjustment panel to retain some of the original color info, but still help with the very yellow chemical/age splotches. 

Basic Photographic Corrections

Contrast, brightness and density correction define the success of the restoration. Your judgement here is key; these manipulations are essential, but often overlooked in favor of the sexy magic you can perform in fixing cracks and blemishes.

Opening the JPEG scan in RAW Converter is the big secret - or in Lightroom, before even going into Photoshop. Either utility gives you the full range of adjustments and selective, brush-on corrections.

JPEG opened in RAW Converter window layout

Old photo blacks most often need to be darker and highlights clearer and cleaner.Increase the contrast, black point and possibly the exposure sliders. Typical contrast-lacking hoistogram shownWatch how the histogram pulls both left and right: that’s just what you want. Suddenly your restoration will snap.

typical old photo scan histogram shows lack of contrast

Shadow Density:

The Fill Light slider is an amazing tool that helps blocked up shadows.

Highlight Density and Brightness:
Grey tones predominate in most antique processes; highlights and upper middle range tones are rarely bright enough by contemporary standards. Face tones particularly seem dull and unnaturally dark. Just a little pull on the Brightness slider in RAW converter slider will help faces, as well as clothing to be lighter and more open. You may find that you’ll need to further correct highlights in Levels or Curves later on.

Irregular Density:

Address patchy density or flares with brush-on corrections in RAW converter, which have the added advantage of the adjustable, erasable slider after you’ve done the brushing. This tool may not complete the task of evening out the image overall, but it’s a good start.

Refinement Tip in Photoshop for selective lightening and darkening:
Burn and Dodge tools (this includes the ones in RAW converter) can add and subtract unwanted color tone in the image. This can be extra annoying when working on a restoration, as you may get really obnoxious color shifts. Remember the easy solution to avoid color contamination: In Photoshop add a blank layer and fill it with middle tone grey (such as 125/125/125), and set the Mode to Soft Light. Then use the Brush tool, not the Burn and Dodge, with white to lighten or black to darken. I set this adjustment method up in an action so I don’t have to think about it when the function is needed.

Repair & Restoration

Thank goodness we have so many tools to choose from; no single tools completes the job, nor does the same tool work every time, not even in the same way. The 4-way “band-aid”, patch and red-eye tool is better than a fairy wand. Fixes are so easy, particularly since the content-aware fill function actually works automatically with these tools behind the scenes. But it does take some cleverness with selections.

First off, scanning shows up so many spots, blemishes and fingerprints that weren’t prominent visually. Repairing cracks looks like the most difficult task, short of creating content where there is a hole in the original. Actually, cracks are some of the easiest repairs. But if the damage is extensive, the work can feel lengthy and tediously repetitive, in spite of how quickly the tools work.

My biggest tip is one I’ve often mentioned.

Work at minimum 200% magnification, and alternately reduce and enlarge to correct details and then review your work for errors, omissions or inauthentic appearance at 100%. Probably you’ve been accustomed to working carefully on layers to be able to go back and alter your work at will. The efficiency and accuracy of today’s tools has almost eliminated the need for preserving layers in my workflow.

Obviously no one who does this work regularly can do with out a Wacom tablet and stylus. Without my Wacom there would be no joy in this studio.

Blemishes and spots in RAW converter (or Lightroom)
I find it saves time and effort right away to use this functionality, which is applied to the file as instructions, not alteration. This is the second step after the basic photographic corrections. Take advantage of the straightening tool too. Almost everything you need is here at your fingertips in the selective adjustments palette.

Brush-on selective adjustments palette in RAW Converter

In the days before Content Aware Fill and the Spot Healing Brush, the Patch tool was my favorite. It still works quicker for cracks and messy splotches if used very carefully without circling much adjacent area to the blemish. While the tool is meant to pick up texture, I find a happy modest correction of color and density that can be clairvoyant perfection. Hold the shift key to select multiple blemishes and correct them all at once. This a great alternative way to fix spots in sky or and uniform or patterned area.

4 nested Photoshop

I find the Spot Healing Brush is quicker for cracks and about the same efficiency as Content Aware Fill, which I save for removing big, unwanted items against complex backgrounds. Many photographers haven’t used the paint functionality of the Spot Healing Brush. Just click, hold and draw - or just draw with the efficient stylus on your tablet. Try both of these tools against each other, and you’ll quickly see which one works best in what types of images.

Content Aware Fill has the advantage of allowing any selection tool to start the process: Lasso, Patch or Marquee. Also the tool’s ability to recreate complex backgrounds is as amazing in your own real-time work as the demonstration examples we’ve all seen. Edit>Fill>Content Aware FIll and let it rip!

Final Color Tweaking and Sizing

Your taste and the vision for the reproduction must be the guide, whether you want to stick pretty close to the original or create an new feel entirely. Mostly clients want the look of the original, but better.

Scanning these antique photos, I find that a green cast is prevalent, and most unattractive on faces. The place to correct this is (either early on or save and reopen) in RAW converter’s Hue, Saturation and Luminance palette. On this example I selectively desaturated the green, added +10 yellow, and back in White Balance I moved Temperature to +15 and Tint to +10. The HSL facility is one of the secrets that allows me to hone the tone to very fine tolerance.

Hue Saturation & Luminance selective adjustments in RAW Converter

Be sure to check sensitive color tone in different light sources. You won’t see much difference of tones in incandescent light, but daylight or full-spectrum edit lights will reveal if you nailed the color. Here's the final restoration.

While this example could be cropped satisfactorily to 5x7 without losing meaningful content, it’s often necessary to change the proportion of an antique photo to fit the contemporary frames or albums clients want. You may need to stretch or compress or maybe add content to fit. This is where you hope for a little luck with the subject matter and can exercise some creativity. I look for an area with nondescript or and overall pattern that can be stretched or squeezed a little. In this alternate example the “car” can stand the minor stretching needed to reformat to 5x7. Marquee the entire car up to the straight top line, transform the selection and pull the bottom tab just enough to fill the frame. Nobody will notice this one!

example of stretching image to fit standard photo sizes

Sara Frances for the RAW Report

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