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.

Colorize Your Old Black and White Photos

By Roger (14 July 2015)

Both of us enjoy photo restoration projects now and then. We've done several blogs on this topic, in the past: restore your memories; repair the scan; and restoring in detail. Please, check them out for a quick reminder of how much fun this can be.

However, over the last couple of weeks, I've gotten comments and questions about how to colorize old monochrome photos. There have been several recent articles showing the results of others' work along these lines. I knew the basics of how to go about this, but I'd never tried it. I've turned lots of color photos to monochrome, but never really thought of going the other way around.

So, I looked into some specifics and several different methods. I found the easiest one to be the simple use of multiple color layers in Photoshop. It was a fun, little project and taught me a few new tricks. Although it is quick and easy, I don't think this is something I'm going to dedicate massive amounts of time to. Here is my first attempt.

Original scan of a fading photo

Original scan of a fading photo

I started with an easy photo that was in pretty good shape. You can see the photo is changing color with age, but there are only a few spots and scratches to repair. I took the photo into Photoshop; returned it to black and white; and fixed the flaws, using the basic techniques we wrote about in the blogs I linked to, above.

Restored photo

Restored photo

Once you are happy with the restoration in black and white, you should save the photo back to Lightroom. You can make some further adjustments in Lightroom if you need them. I might add some clarity or contrast and, maybe, tweak the blacks and whites. You now have the original and repaired photos in your database. I don't delete the old, scratched image because you never know when you will learn new techniques to improve your original repair.

Select the final, repaired image; right-click on it; and select “Edit in Photoshop.” When the dialog box opens, you should choose “Edit a copy with the Lightroom adjustments”, so Photoshop will create another copy of the photo.

Go to the Layer menu and select New Fill Layer ->Solid Color and pick a color for the first object you want colorize. Then add a black mask (Alt-click on the layer mask tool), and use a soft, white brush on the layer mask to reveal the color on the object. If you look at some of my layer masks, below, you'll see one labeled “white.” I created this layer using this method. I would recommend using this for small areas only, but you could continue this way until you've got a new color layer for each individual portion of the photo.

Lots of individual layers

Lots of individual layers

An easier method uses the the Quick Selection tool to select the portion of the photo you want to colorize. When you have the selection, right-click inside the selection and choose Refine Edge. Make sure you have a selection you want, and Output to: Selection when you're satisfied.

Now, just add a new color layer by selecting the Add a New Layer tool at the bottom, right of your Photoshop menu, and pick your color.

Click here for a new color layer

Click here for a new color layer

Refine Edge dialog box

Refine Edge dialog box

Photoshop creates the new layer, complete with a mask for the unselected portion of the photo. Easy. Just repeat these steps for all the items in the photo. As you can see in the screen capture of the layers, above, this is my preferred method.

For refining the effect, I used tried several different blending modes until I got the effect I liked best. By far, the most used blending modes, for me, were Overlay, Soft Light, or Color. If you want to adjust the color you chose, previously, just double click on the Color Layer icon, and pick a new color. I label each layer and keep them all separate, so I can go back to make further adjustments.

As you might imagine, the skin is the most difficult part. I used four separate color layers, with a couple of different blending modes, to get this tone. I, also, varied the opacity on the layers to fine-tune it. I'm not sure I got it perfectly correct, but I'm pretty satisfied with this first effort. There are free sample palettes of skin tones available on the internet.

My final image looks like this:

Colorized Black and White

Colorized Black and White

The baby's daughter was quite happy with the rendition, so I guess it was ok. I may try this another time. As I said, it was quite an interesting project. It took about 45 minutes, but I'm sure I could get that down to five minutes with some practice. It is a pretty easy task and lots of fun.

Gentle Reminder: Tomorrow, Amazon is having a big sale. We'd be thrilled if you hit our Amazon link on your way to their site. It won't cost you anything, but will help pay for this blog. Thanks.

Can You Make Art?

By Roger (29 May 2014)

Many (most?) photographers get a little kick out of learning the technology in today's cameras. We like the “secret” world of setting apertures, shutter speeds, and ISOs. We get a thrill from figuring out all the buttons and make a big show of putting the camera on “Program” when we hand the camera to a non-photographer to allow them a chance to take a snap with our “professional” camera. There is a tiny bit of justification for this snobbery because we have learned more about the camera than the vast majority of people who take photos. We're proud of that accomplishment. “Real photography” is more than just point and shoot, right?

But what happens after we have a working knowledge of the buttons and all their functions? We can get a good exposure, and we can freeze the action or show motion. We've learned the rule of thirds and can discuss the merits of my camera versus yours. If you can look at a good photograph and figure out a likely camera setting to duplicate the work, you're still less than halfway “there.”

Proper exposure doesn't mean a photograph is interesting. The correct ISO can't put emotion in the photograph. And you need more than a proper shutter speed setting to tell a story with your photos.

This is the time when you face the internal fear that all your work and learning was a waste of time. Your photos don't evoke any emotions in you or your viewers. They look more like properly exposed captures of nothingness. Good photographs are more than a combination of technical settings.

You are facing one of the most confusing challenges for photographers: ART. You've heard of this beast, and you want to sally forth and tame ART to your commands, since you're sure this victory will bring meaning and creativity to your photographs. But – SPOILER ALERT – there is no definitive recipe to create ART!

A major part of the problem is the definition, itself. Art has a different meaning for everyone. Oh, sure, you can find some art reviewers out there who use all the proper fancy words and wax eloquently on this or that artist, but do you feel the same when you see the work? We have all seen works from people who were labeled as artists, and we didn't see any justification for that nice label. At the same time, you can't say that, just because you don't like something, it isn't art. Don't let the critics fool you into thinking they know more than you, but don't be so arrogant to ignore the fact they may know more than you.

See why this is confusing? One paragraph into trying to explain why the definition of art is ambiguous, and I've already wrapped myself up into knots. So, if we stipulate that we can't all agree on a single, precise definition of art, how do we ensure our own photographs are more art-sy and less snapshot-ty? How do you learn what art is?

The first thing to consider is whether you even care. When I'm taking snapshots, in the backyard, of the grandkids playing in the sprinklers, I'm not thinking of an artistic pursuit. This is a capture-the-moment photo. Why complicate things by trying to make it art?

Another similar approach: don't worry about it. Since you will never please everyone and the definition of art is all over the place, concentrate on doing your best work, every time, and leave it there. Make photos that please you. If there are themes you like, or trends in your work you've noticed and want to continue, explore all the different angles and approaches to that work.

I believe in a more proactive approach. For those who want more, I recommend education. Start with a library or used book store for some art books. We have a great used books store near us, and, since art books aren't in high demand, the books are inexpensive. Your reading will reveal contradictions and differences because the experts don't agree, either.

Objects in triplicate, a recurring artistic theme.  Is this artistic?  Boston, Ma.

Objects in triplicate, a recurring artistic theme.  Is this artistic?  Boston, Ma.

Don't limit yourself to just photography books. Books of classic paintings, sketching, sculpture, and critical essays on works of art will give you inspiration and help you understand the deeper concepts of composition, color, poses, etc. You can find much of this information on the internet, but I like to have it on my bookshelves for frequent referral and review to help it sink into the brain.

When you visit museums and art shows – and you should – give the displayed work more than a cursory glance. What do you like? Why do you like it? Was the artist's message clear and well-executed? Is this an idea or approach you want to pursue in your photography?

You can pursue these ideas and experiments in your personal projects. Some of these projects may never see the light of day, but they give you a chance to work through themes you want to expand on or new techniques. They can allow you to build up a body of work. After working over time, or completing it, you can choose to let others see and comment on it or just put the photos together on a wall at your house or delete them.

I'm still working my Civil War sesquicentennial project.  I love the artillery photos.  New Market, Va.

I'm still working my Civil War sesquicentennial project.  I love the artillery photos.  New Market, Va.

Many (most?) photographers won't expend the effort to go beyond the basics. That's alright, too. Your photos will be different than the rest if you go where they won't. The more you understand about traditional definitions, concepts, and expressions of art, the easier it will be for you to form your personal definition of your art and it's expression in your photographs. Remember, there is no single definition of art, so you have free reign to create your art, your way.

Also, keep in mind that your well-thought out definition will not guarantee acceptance. Whenever you try to be more creative and bring your photographs beyond the realm of the snapshot into a form of art, you expose yourself to criticism and rejection. But, if your goal is to build a body of work that expresses your point of view – your art – you have to accept that everyone may not see it as worthwhile or art.

It is confusing to define art, but you can make the decision for yourself how you'll define and express yours. Ask other photographers about their “art,” and you'll get different answers from them all. Some of them will be serious, considered responses, and I hope your answer is, too.

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.