Restoring Faded Color Photos

By Roger (26 July 2015)

When you're restoring really old photographs, you spend most of your time repairing rips, scratches, and faded monochrome tones. It can be tedious work, but most people can do it without too much trouble.

People seem to stumble, however, when confronted with an old color photo. It has been exposed to light for decades and has faded significantly.

A faded, color photo from 1971

A faded, color photo from 1971

This photo is pretty typical. How can you get those colors back? You can do a pretty good job in Lightroom if you're patient. I would spend time in the HSL/Color/BW sliders of the Develop module, if you want to use just Lightroom.

There are several good methods to try. You can find a variety of them on the web. My preferred method is using a Levels and a Threshold Layer, inside of Photoshop. This is a tried and true method that has been used for a long time (at least, in computer years).

Open the photo as a copy, so you keep your original scan. I always retouch the image, first, before I fix the colors. You can see the scratches better when you zoom in. Yikes.

Zooming shows the magnitude of the repair needed

Zooming shows the magnitude of the repair needed

We've talked about how to fix those, so let's jump ahead to the problem of faded colors.

Open a Levels layer and, then, a Threshold layer. Highlight the Levels layer.Move the White's slider (on the right) until the screen is all white. Now, slowly move it until you see some blocks of black. The top eyedropper in the Levels properties panel is to set the black point. Use it to sample the the middle of the black blocks. The image on your screen will shift; don't worry about it. The image, below, shows the these two points.

photoshop close-up

Now, just move the black slider so the screen is completely black and slowly move it until you see the first blocks of white. Use the whites eyedropper (bottom of the three eyedroppers in the Levels panel) to sample that point. The screen will change, again.

You don't need the Threshold layer anymore, so pull it into the trash can. Use the center eyedropper to sample a gray point, and your photo's color should be restored.

The difference is significant

The difference is significant

The difference is pretty dramatic. You can save the file and make further adjustments in Photoshop – maybe use your favorite plug-ins. Or take it back into Lightroom to make final changes. I would want to crop it a little to make the subject a little more prominent. With practice, you can make these color corrections in less than five minutes.

Thanks for the question, Allan.