Resuscitating Old Photos
Wednesday, July 18th, 2012 by Reed Hoffmann
Copying my old family pictures reminded me of a photo restoration I did for a friend. They can be surprisingly easy to do with the right tools, and many old photos need this sort of help. Especially if you want to make a nice print from one.
In this case it was a picture that had lost much of its color, which is not uncommon with old photographs. The color technology of that time was early-generation, and many of those prints have not aged well. There’s a pretty interesting story about one particular Kodak color print paper that simply faded away with time. There are literally no color photos from that time that still exist (in color) printed on that paper. But I digress…
To start your restoration, you need to make a good scan, although these days, I’m just as likely to photograph an old picture. With today’s cameras we’ve got more than enough resolution for good copy work, and as long as you keep the hard copy parallel to the camera, you can do a nice job. Plus, make sure you’re using the right white balance. I tend to use strobes, bounced off a white ceiling, or daylight.
Then bring that photo into your editing software. For this type of work I prefer to use layer-based software, like Photoshop Elements or Photoshop itself. That way I can keep the color and clean-up work (scratches and such) in separate layers. But I’ve also used non-layer software, like Nikon’s Capture NX 2 for work like this.
Most of these packages have white and black eyedroppers. These let you set a white point and black point in the image. That means you use an eyedropper to click on a part of the image that should be the brightest white with the white eyedropper, then darkest black with the black eyedropper. Normally you’re doing this to set the range of light you want to see in your photo, and the usual result is an increase in contrast. If you have a “flat” (low contrast) picture, these eyedroppers can be a lifesaver. However, in the early days of digital our images always had a color cast to them, and we used these to correct color. You see, when they adjust those white and black points, they’re also re-calculating color (making what you clicked white and black, and adjusting all other color the same amount). In many cases – and this is one of them – the before and after can be amazing.
Now that the color is fixed, it’s time to clean up other problems. And most of the time those also involve the aging of the photo, and the damage it’s gotten over the years. Look for a “Clone” tool, “Healing Brush,” or “Auto Retouch” tool in your editing software. Properly applied, that can repair creases, scratches, tears and more. In this case the photo had marks I wanted to remove, or hide, so I spent a few minutes, at 100% magnification or more, fixing the worst of them.
Our old photos are the visual history of our families. You have the equipment, software and ability to not just preserve them, but make them better. Take advantage of that.