Digital photography has helped lots of people become avid photographers, people who may not have developed their interest in photography if they had to work with film. The ease of shooting quality pictures at minimal cost allows many to pursue their curiosity and take more pictures, which leads to improved skills and greater curiosity about what’s possible.
These are some of the great benefits of digital cameras. Digital photo tools offer even more options. With the computerized tools available now for working with digital images, methods of photo restoration are available that were never before possible for the amateur photographer. Learn a few editing techniques and you can restore old family photos or historic photos to a new clearness and clarity.
Start With a Scan
Restoring old photographs starts with creating a digital copy of the printed photo. The scanning step is important because the information that the digital editing tools will use to adjust the picture has to be captured in this step. The better the original scan, the more options you will have later on.
- Settings: It’s worth doing some experimentation at the scanning stage to find the best settings for your scanner. You can use modern photos for some of this process if your old prints are fragile and you don’t want to risk damaging them during multiple scans. The software that came with your scanner is probably fine, but other scanning software is also available. VueScan is a good, inexpensive option for scanning in printed photos, while a product called SilverFast is great if you scannable original negatives.
- Resolution: To scan your pictures, aim for a DPI (pixels per inch) resolution of at least 400-600 for prints. If you are scanning negatives, consider scanning at a much higher resolution, as much as 2,000-3,000 DPI. This will give you more options for printing larger photos if desired, as well as giving you the most information possible. There’s a tradeoff, though, in the scanned file size and how much grain shows up in the scanned file. Again, some experimentation will help you find the best solution.
- Bit Depth: Scan your photos with the highest bit depth possible to gather all available color information. This will help you make more adjustments to your scanned file without making it start to look over-processed. Use a TIFF file format or RAW if your scanner has those options.
Archive the Final Scan
Before you start editing your scanned photo, make a copy of it in a safe place that you won’t make any changes to, and make sure this file is also safely backed up. This way if you make a mistake with your digital adjustments, change your mind or simply want to try some new effects, you can start over from a copy of the original scan. This way you won’t need to repeat the scanning step or try to work with a file that has already been edited.
Common Digital Restoration Techniques
Old photographs tend to suffer from a similar range of problems. If you know how to fix the most common kinds of damage, you can restore many photos to a beautiful, refreshed state.
- Fading: Fading in photographs is essentially a loss of contrast. The darkest areas of a photo lighten and the lightest areas darken, until the whole photo loses its clearness and sharpness. The levels tool in your photo editing software can help counter this problem by increasing the contrast range of the photo to restore the dark and light areas of the photo. You may be able to adjust the contrast in a separate layer, which allows for careful fine-tuning of the photograph later on.
- Yellowing: Many photos take on a yellow cast as they age. There are a couple of possible solutions. If you have a color dropper tool and a photo with an appropriate clear area of white or light neutral gray that you can pick up with the dropper, you may be able to reduce the color cast all at once by replacing the yellow color with the correct color. Otherwise, you can use manual adjustments with your software’s color balancing tool or try the automatic color balancer if one is available.
- Damage: If your photo has localized damage such as spots, stains or tears, use the cloning and healing brush tools. The clone tool duplicates complete image information from one area to another area of the photo, and the healing brush copies only texture from one area to another. These tools need some practice and experimentation in order to learn how to use them most effectively, but when combined they can remove many imperfections.
An Art Form
Digital photo restoration is a form of art itself simply because of the number of subjective decisions that must be made in editing the scanned photo. Just like taking digital photographs, if you are willing to practice using the available tools, you can have gorgeous old photos that look just like new.