Everyone has old family photos lying around. If they’ve been sitting in a box for a few decades, though, they’ll be discolored, faded, and probably scratched or bent. With Photoshop, you can make them look as good as new.
For this article, I’m going to assume you already have a basic understanding of Photoshop’s major tools and how to use them. I’m going to focus on strategies rather than the minutiae of the spot healing tool. If you don’t feel you’re at that level, you should check out some of these great Photoshop courses, they’ll quickly get you up to speed. Repairing old photos is a great way to improve your Photoshop skills; you’ll be using the same tools as normal, just in a slightly different way.
Let’s get started. The image I’m using comes from Flickr user SimpleInsomnia. It’s a shot of a family picnic in the woods from around 1920. You can use an image of your own or one you find online to practice with.
Identify the Problems
Before starting, you’ll need to digitize the photo you’re working with. If you’re using a photo of your own, you can either scan it or carefully take a photo. Once you have it on your computer, import it into Photoshop.
The first step is to make a plan. You need to inspect the image and work out what you can realistically do. You can only work with the data that’s already in the image; if a portion of the picture is missing, it’s very hard to add it back in. My plan is below.
This image is far from the worst I’ve seen but there’re quite a few issues. The biggest one is the crease right across the main subject. There are also dozens of small dots, flecks, and hairs scattered across the image that need to be cleaned up. I’m not a big fan of the border either. Finally, it’s faded and discolored which needs to be fixed.
Once you’ve got a plan, it’s time to start fixing things.
Fix the Small Details
Duplicate the Background layer so that you’re not working on the original pixels; it’s important to never do anything destructive to the image when you’re editing.
When you’re repairing an old image, the first thing to do is fix the small problems. All the little flecks of dust, small printing errors, and the like. There are two tools you’re going to use to do it:
The spot healing brush.
The healing brush.
The spot healing brush is better for removing small spots. It automatically selects it’s source area and blends it in with the surrounding pixels.
The regular healing brush is the same except you can set your own source area. This makes it better for removing anything that’s at a transition between two objects, or where you have to be more careful.
Work your way around the image removing any problems you see. If something looks like it’s going to need more than just a healing brush, ignore it for now. The aim is to get the easy stuff out of the way.
Fix the Big Issues
Once you’ve done that, it’s time to address the bigger issues that a quick pass with the healing brush couldn’t fix. These are going to be things like rips, tears, and creases that affect the main subjects of your image. For me, it’s the crease that runs right across the man in the center. To fix these you’re going to mainly use two tools:
The healing brush.
The clone stamp.
The healing brush, when used carefully, can go a long way towards removing big problems. It’s great on areas where there are simple or repeating patterns. It only comes up short when there are complex transitions or patterns.
The clone stamp takes one area and transfers it directly to another. This makes it the perfect tool for dealing with difficult areas. You have total control.
For fixing the big problems, the key is to work slowly. In the video that comes with this tutorial, you can see that I take my time with the big crease. When I don’t like how something I’ve done looks, I undo it and try again. The three strategies you’ll use are:
With the healing brush, sample an area of similar texture and paint over the problem. This is what I did with the crease where it covers the background.
With the clone stamp, copy pixels directly into place. This is what I did to fix the lapels of the man’s suit.
With the clone stamp, copy pixels to a new layer, transform them into place, and mask them in. This is what I did with the complex transitions like the man’s sleeves and tie.
With these three strategies you’ll be able to fix almost any problem. Watch them in action in the video:
Fix Tone and Contrast
Once all the spots, creases, rips, and tears have been dealt with, all that’s left to do is fix the color, tone, and contrast problems. For most images, you’re going to need to:
Convert the image to black and white.
Add contrast, set a new black point, and set a new white point.
Sharpen the image.
To convert the image, add a Black and White adjustment layer. Since the image was shot in black and white, it’s just that it’s yellowed with age, you don’t have to worry too much about the conversion. Next, add a Curves adjustment layer. Most old images are going to have faded blacks and darkened whites. You want pure black and pure white in most images so set your black and white points to whatever value adds them. You can also add a touch of contrast.
Finally, some details will have been lost over the years. Create a new layer and merge everything visible to it. Add some sharpening with a Smart Sharpen filter. You can mask it in so it only affects the main subjects. For my image, I added two sharpening layers: one strong one that affected the subjects and one lighter one that affected everything.
With that done, the only thing left to do is crop the image. I cropped mine to remove the border and minor flaws around the edge of the photo but you can crop yours where you like. Once you’re done, save the image and you’re finished.
Following the steps above will help you fix almost any old photo. When you’re working, there are also some general best practices:
Work zoomed into 100% when you’re cleaning spots but zoom out so that you can see the overall effect you’re having. If the problems are only noticeable when you’re zoomed all the way in, you can probably ignore them.
You’re repairing an image, not editing it for a magazine cover. It’s okay if it still looks like it was shot 50 years ago — it was! Don’t push things too far.
The most important part of the image is the subjects. Spend your time fixing the problems that affect them; fix the issues with the background quickly.
Don’t be afraid to undo something if it doesn’t look right. It normally takes a few tries to get a cloned section to fit perfectly.
Repairing old photos in Photoshop uses all the tools you’d use to edit a portrait, you just use them in a slightly different way. Fixing old photos is a great way to really come to terms with what they can do.
Once you get down to it, it’s surprisingly easy to take an old family photo and make it look as good as new. If you’ve found a box of old family photos — maybe from something like your parents’ wedding — it can be a great present to clean them up and get them printed.