Giving new life to old photos


PHOTO FIXED: with careful work, the magenta colour cast has been removed and the contrast adjusted to be more realistic. Some targeted adjustments have also boosted the saturation of certain colours.

We show you how to fix old, damaged and faded photos and even add colour to black-and-white images

DO YOU have precious old photos that have faded or been badly damaged?

Thing is, over time, photographs degrade, either due to mishandling (scratches, tears, folds) or humidity and sunlight which can result in strong colour casts in your old photos.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could restore some of these photos to their former glory?

In the old days, there really was little you could do to fix damaged or faded photos, especially if you didn’t have the original negatives to make a reprint.

The situation is quite different today – with the power of Adobe Photoshop, there’s a lot you can do to restore your old photos to nearly pristine condition.

In this article, we’ll show you how to use Photoshop CC to perform a number of fixes on your photos and produce a print that looks almost as good as when it was new.

As a bonus, we’ll also go one step further and show you how to add colour to black and white photos – while it’s easy to overdo such a thing, subtle addition of colour to monochrome images can produce an interesting photo.

Before you proceed, here are a few things you need to make sure you have:

1. The photo you want to fix (of course)

2. Flatbed scanner – any modern model will do the job

3. DSLR or mirrorless interchangeable lens camera if your old photo is in a frame

4. Photoshop CC which is relatively affordable nowadays with a monthly subscription as low as RM29.90.

Step 1: Into the digital realm

Before anything can be done to restore your photos, the first thing you need to do is digitise your photos.

For small snapshots and photos up to A4 in size, the easiest way is to copy them into your PC is with a scanner.

Unless you’re scanning negatives (which requires a higher resolution ­scanner because of the tiny size) any commercially available flatbed scanner will do the job and even ones found on 3-in-1 ­multifunction printers.

Before you scan, make sure the print is clean – use a soft, dry, lint-free antistatic cloth to gently wipe away as much ­surface dust as possible.

FIXED: after careful cloning, healing and colour balancing, in Photoshop, this monochrome photo looks almost as good as new.
FIXED: After careful cloning, healing and colour balancing, in Photoshop, this monochrome photo looks almost as good as new.

There are quite a few options in the scanner to colour-­correct the image as well as to ­automatically remove dust.

With my scanner, I chose automatic colour correction and dust removal but at the lowest setting to preserve detail.

These two options alone will produce a much cleaner, more balanced colour image than the original, scratched photo.

However, there are situations where scanning is not possible. For example, when the print is too large to fit into a scanner or, more likely, when the original photo is inside a sealed frame.

In these cases, you’ll have to resort to setting up a camera on a tripod and taking a photo of the photo.

To produce the best copy possible, you have to make sure the camera is square on to the print and there are no ­reflections.

I used two flashes in softboxes, and after much trial and error, I got little to no reflections when I took the shot.

If you don’t have a flash, you can shoot in daylight, although you need to take extra care to avoid reflections and ­shadows.

If you are using a ­scanner, save your file in TIFF as it’s a lossless format. Saving in JPEG will degrade your image every time you edit and save because it’s a “lossy” format that discards detail in favour of smaller file sizes.

For images shot with a digital camera, save it in the camera’s native RAW format and then convert it to TIFF using the camera’s RAW file converter.

Step 2: Cleaning up

Once you have the images in your computer, the next step is to fix any tears, scratches or other blemishes.

This step is the most time consuming and there really aren’t any shortcuts.

In Photoshop, press Ctrl + J to make a copy of the photo which will be overlaid on top of the original as a new layer.

This ensures that whatever changes you make to the image happens on a copy of the image instead of the original.

HEAL ME: Photoshops Healing Tool is particularly useful for removing spots on the photo.
HEAL ME: Photoshop's Healing Tool is particularly useful for removing spots on the photo.

Next, bring up the Healing Tool by hitting J on the keyboard – adjust the size of the Healing Tool by pressing [ or ] on the keyboard. It should be just big enough to cover the spot you want to remove but not too large.

Click on every spot and Photoshop should be able to remove the spots and replace it with the appropriate ­background.

For very large areas, you need to use the Clone Stamp Tool, which is ­accessible by hitting S on the keyboard.

The Clone Stamp Tool requires that you specify an area from which to clone texture by ALT-clicking on it and then clicking on the area you want to fix.

The best results are obtained when you use a combination of the Clone Stamp and Healing Tool – sometimes once you remove the spots, you may need to go at it again with the Clone Stamp.

Yes, it’s very slow and tedious work, but a well-done restoration depends largely on how carefully you remove the dirt and scratch marks so it’s best to take the time to do it right in this step.

Once you’re done, save your work as a PSD file if you want to continue working on it in Photoshop, otherwise save it as TIFF.

Step 3: Adjusting colour

Now, this next part is where you finally fix and rebalance the colours to make the image look closer to its original ­colours.

If you scanned your image, chances are the colours have been automatically ­corrected already but you can still tweak the image if the colour is still not what you want.

Once you open the image in Photoshop, there are a few ways to fix the colour balance in your images.

Before you do anything, press CTRL + J on the keyboard to make a copy of the image so you don’t make any accidental adjustments to the original.

Next choose Auto Color by hitting Shift + Ctrl + B on the keyboard. Most of the time, doing this will rebalance the colour to nearly normal levels.

QUICK FIX: the Auto Tone and Auto Color settings in Photoshop largely fixed the strong colour cast in this photo. Time taken to fix was only about five minutes
QUICK FIX: The Auto Tone and Auto Color settings in Photoshop largely fixed the strong colour cast in this photo. Time taken to fix was only about five minutes.

If not, you can undo the changes and try the other option which is Auto Tone. Choosing Auto Tone can also correct colour cast and sometimes choosing both Auto Tone and Auto Color will do a better job.

If this still doesn’t get you the results you’re looking for, then you need to manually adjust the colour balance.

To correct colour manually, choose Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Color Balance from the menu.

This will open up a Color Balance Adjustment layer, which will allow you to tweak the colour balance as much as you like without permanently affecting the image.

The Color Balance tool is very ­powerful and allows you to adjust the colour of the midtones, highlights or shadows – you will have to adjust the tone of each part in turn until you get a more or less neutral result.

ADJUSTING COLOR BALANCE: when using the Color Balance tool, its best to take a break and come back to it a few times as it gives you the opportunity to see the image with fresh eyes.
ADJUSTING COLOR BALANCE: when using the Color Balance tool, its best to take a break and come back to it a few times as it gives you the opportunity to see the image with fresh eyes.

Once you’re satisfied with the result, save your work and keep it as a PSD file, take a much-needed break and come back again later to re-evaluate the image.

It often helps if you take a break, as you will be able to better detect if the image is too green or too red when you’ve had some time away.

If you’re satisfied with the final result, you need to “flatten” the image, as Photoshop will have one or more Adjustment Layers on top of your image. Do this by going to the menu and choosing Layers > Flatten Image.

Once flattened you can finally save it as a JPEG or TIFF file and print the result.

Bonus: Adding colour

While we’ve only been concerned with restoring photos so far, there is actually another fun thing you can try doing with black and white images, and that’s to add colour.

Adding colour to monochrome images is actually easier than it seems and can be quite fun to do.

Some artists, like Sanna Dullaway (www.sannadullaway.com), produce amazingly realistic colourised work from black and white images that look like they were originally shot in colour.

Of course, for most of us, that amount of painstaking artistic work is beyond our capabilities, but there is a way to produce a pretty good one without too much work.

STEP 1: Using the colour photo on the right, we sampled colours from the image and applied it onto a new layer in the monochrome image on the left, applying darker colours in the shadow areas and lighter colours in the brighter areas
STEP 1: Using the colour photo on the right, we sampled colours from the image and applied it onto a new layer in the monochrome image on the left, applying darker colours in the shadow areas and lighter colours in the brighter areas.

First, open up the monochrome image you want to colourise in Photoshop.

Next, open up another photo – a colour photo containing images of roughly the same subjects, or at least subjects with the colours that you want to use.

STEP 3: Using the Gaussian Blur tool, we blurred the colour layer to blend the colours smoothly together.
STEP 2: Using the Gaussian Blur tool, we blurred the colour layer to blend the colours smoothly together.

The reason you do this is to make choosing colours easier – think of the colour photo as your colour palette, where you can sample colour from to save yourself the trouble of mixing or choosing your own colours.

In the monochrome shot, create a new transparent layer by hitting Shift + Ctrl + N.

Next, use the Lasso tool (L on the keyboard) and choose the polygonal lasso and carefully mark out the area you want to cover then right click the selection and choose Feather and put in a value of two – this ensures that the edges aren’t too obvious.

Now choose the Eyedropper tool by pressing I on your keyboard and take a sample from the colour photo. For example, take a sample of the darkest skintone from the colour image.

BLEND IT: there are several blending modes available to merge your painted colours with the photo. This is how it looks when you choose Multiply as the blending mode
BLEND IT: There are several blending modes available to merge your painted colours with the photo. This is how it looks when you choose Multiply as the blending mode.

Make sure that you have the transparent layer selected (instead of the background) before choosing the Brush tool (B on the keyboard) and then brush the dark tone on the areas of the photo that are the darkest in the monochrome image.

Then pick a lighter colour and continue painting the next lightest tone and so on.

Don’t worry if the paint is obscuring your photo – we’ll fix that in the next few steps.

What you will end up with will look very rough and cartoonish but now go to the menu, choose Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur and pick a value that will blur and blend the colours you have just painted. Between three and 20 will usually do the trick.

This blurring will create a smooth transition between the tones but it still won’t look like a colorised photo yet.

Now go to the Layers toolbar on the right side of Photoshop and from the small drop-down menu, choose Overlay and the colours will blend with the original image.

If you find the colours too strong, lower the opacity of the colour layer until you get a pleasing result, in the same toolbar.

OVERLAY: We finally decided to choose Overlay as the blending mode, since it produces the most natural looking image.
OVERLAY: We finally decided to choose Overlay as the blending mode, since it produces the most natural looking image.

Alternatively, you can try using Multiply instead of Overlay, but we generally found Overlay to work best.

Repeat the same for all the parts you want to colorise – it’s best to create a new transparent layer for each colour so that you can control or adjust each element individually.

Finally, once you’re satisfied, flatten the image and save it as a TIFF or JPEG file.

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