Restore Your Memories

By Roger (24 April 2014)

Be warned – I'm still meandering down memory lane this week, but I'm doing it with old photographs.

In the past, when I receive old photographs from friends and family, I'd scan them, into TIFs, at the highest resolution possible. I like to get them into my family database, so they don't get destroyed or thrown out by folks who don't put any value on them. Once they are digitized, they can be repaired and shared.

Lately, I've switched to my macro lens to make the copies. You can set up a tripod for a steady hold and the best sharpness. Make sure you use soft, gentle lighting, avoiding reflections on the surface of the photo.

Almost always, these old photos will be scratched, discolored, and faded.

Thomas T.jpg

In less than a minute, with Lightroon, you can get rid of the yellowing of this old black and white. This photo was kept in an album, so most of the damage is just age. I just converted it to black and white; adjusted the blacks; and added some contrast.

Thomas S. Atkins

Thomas S. Atkins

This wasn't the final result – I went into Photoshop to clean up the background and make some very minor fixes.

This is Thomas S. Atkins. He fought with the Confederacy during the Civil War, with the 14th Virginia Regiment. He survived many battles, and, at Gettysburg, he was in Armistead's Brigade during Pickett's charge. He was wounded at Drewry's Bluff, on May 16, 1864, but survived the war. His photograph is now in our family genealogy and preserved for any of his descendants who wish a copy. One of his descendants is my wife.

Scratches and tears are usually the major problem in repairing old black and whites. To fix those, you are going to need something that can bend pixels. Keep the original digitized file, so, as technology and your skills improve, you can make a copy and revisit them and make them even better.

This next photo is really not that bad. (I've had some that I had to replace limbs, amputated by tears in the photo.) In the close-up, you can see multiple scratches and spots.

Scratches and spots

Scratches and spots

My workflow is pretty standard: make the copy (I now prefer a macro lens over the scanner); catalog in Lightroom; and move, directly, into Photoshop with a copy of the file, always leaving an original. Have I repeated that enough?

On a separate layers, I use the Clone Stamp and Healing Brush to fix the spots. I'll merge that down and create a new layer for the scratches. If I need to replace major items, I'll do that on another layer. For those who espouse completely non-destructive editing, you can perform each step and create a flattened layer without deleting the layers beneath it; the shortcut is Shift+Ctrl+Altjust+E (Shift+Command+Option+E on a Mac). You'll have lots of layers and big file sizes. I don't foresee myself needing to go back and change those layers, so I merge them down.

After I've repaired the file, I'll add contrast and sharpening.

Here's the final repair.


Many times, some one else does the capture and kindly sends them your way. Today, these usually come as JPGs. In past blogs, we've discussed some of the problems with heavy manipulation of JPGs, so I won't go over them again. As I said back then, I'll take whatever files I can get, since I would not have them otherwise.

Since these scans tend to be more recent, you get the added challenge of faded colors to join the scratches and tears.

I just received a goldmine of old photos (almost 250) that are dear to my heart. Thanks, Jim and Brian. They are snapshots, taken with inexpensive cameras and scanned into JPGs, so they aren't in great shape, but they hold lots of meaning for me. These are from my past, 1977, when I worked at Camp Chanco for Charlie Hughes. Charlie was a kind soul who took a chance on me and backed me while I was the camp medic. He recently passed away and will be dearly missed by his family and thousands of campers and staff members.

There are many ways to restore vibrancy to faded photos. I'll explain a Lightroom method here and save the Photoshop method for another blog down the line.

So, here I am, all faded, standing at the keyboards, as we played in our fake band, Alderaan. (The first Star Wars movie was just out.)

The lighting wasn't great and the background's a mess with sound equipment, but Jim got the shot. You can tell from the shadows and the slant of light from the flash bulb, he was at the bottom left of the photo.

I cropped the photo to remove the round edges. I set a black and white point to even out the photo and brought the shadows up a little. Then, I added some contrast to and a touch of vibrancy for the color pop. To even out the flash, I put in a negative exposure gradient from the bottom left to about midway through the keyboards. I used the brush to darken the keyboards. Finally, I sharpened the photo, but masked heavily to try to keep down the digital noise. Your photos will be different, so my exact setting on the Lightroom sliders won't help you; adjust them to your taste.

The small JPG is suffering from all the adjustments. The colors are looking a little muddy. Lightroom isn't the best for lots of corrections, but for a five minute job, it looks ok. I'll see if I can get it better.

The last one is done in Photoshop. It is my favorite from the files I received. I remember this meal very clearly. My wife and I met while we were staff members at the camp. (Thanks, again, Charlie.)

My favorite photo from Camp Chanco.

My favorite photo from Camp Chanco.

Using LAB and layers in Photoshop, I can get the colors more natural looking, and the file holds up much better (I converted it to TIF).

I'm trying to adjust to a method I got, at Photoshop World from Vincent Versace, who credits much of it to Dan Margulis. (I'm not dropping names – I just don't want anyone to think I'm claiming I discovered this.) I need to work on it a little more, but, this blog has got to get up before the sun rises, so it's time to quit.

Please, don't let your old photos go to the dumpster; get out there and copy and repair them. It will bring back fun memories.