Old Photo Restoration Techniques

old photo restorationWith the advent of the digital camera, many people have come to treasure having numerous photographs right at their fingertips. Unfortunately, this wasn’t always the way things were, which makes the few photos we may have of grandparents and ancestors all the more precious. When an old photo has suffered damage like scratches, tearing, or fading there’s often no way to get another copy. Old photo restoration techniques help repair and recover these old photos so that they can continue to be treasured by future generations.

What Kinds of Photo Damage Can Be Restored?

Depending on the age of your photos and how they’ve been stored over the years, you may find a variety of different kinds of damage. Some is relatively mild and at first glance won’t detract too much from the photo; other damage can be severe and can really compromise the quality of the print.

Using your home computer, a scanner, and maybe a course in Photo restoration or photo editing with other software, you can restore just about any type of damage, including:

  • Fading
  • “Silvering”
  • Scratches
  • Water spots
  • Dust
  • Creases
  • Rips
  • Tears
  • Mold and mildew

With just a little patience and practice using some different techniques, you can restore and repair just about any old or damaged photograph. Once you’re done, you can print out the results on archival paper right at home, or upload the picture to any photo printing site to frame and display. You’ll also have the finished digital copy so that you don’t have to worry about potential future damage as well.

Old Photo Restoration

You don’t need to be a Photoshop master to restore your old photos. Any photo editing software can make a big difference, particularly with photos whose biggest problem is fading and minor scratches. For heavily damaged photos, however, you may want to consider taking a course in photo retouching to help improve your skills before you begin.

Scan or Photograph

The best way to work on an old photo, while ensuring that you can tinker without worrying about the results, is to make a copy of the photo you need to restore. You can do this in one of two ways; scan it or photograph it.

If you choose to scan it, make sure that you use a high quality scanner designed for photos. Scan at 100% the size of the photo or smaller; going larger than 100% will lose you some of your detail, particularly in smaller prints.

If you choose to photograph the original, use a high-powered lens to capture as much detail as possible. Make sure there is good light, but don’t use a direct light source, as this could cause glare in the photo, which you will later need to remove.

Once you’ve made a digital copy of your photo, whether through scanning or photographing, make sure you save it as a .TIFF file, rather than as a .GIF or .JPEG. This will ensure that you capture as much detail of the original image as possible.

Rotate, Resize, and Crop

Sometimes your scan or photo will be slightly off center, or maybe the original photograph was slightly off center due to the subject or camera moving. You may also have extraneous detail on the edges of the photo that you don’t want or need. Therefore, before you begin restoring the photo, take the time to line the image up so it’s square, and crop in the edges slightly if needed.

To rotate the image:

Select “Image” and highlight “Rotate”.

Select “Custom” and input the percentage you want to rotate the photo by. Start at 1% and move up gradually until your subjects are straight. Don’t worry about the excess screen that may show up on the edges of your photo; you can either fill those in later, or crop them out now.

If you want to crop the image, either to get rid of the edges or to focus more on the subjects, grab the marquee tool and drag an outline around where you want the finished image to be. Hit enter to crop.

Your photo will now have clean, square edges with a centered subject.

Adjust the Color

Part of old photo restoration is adjusting the color. Photos can fade over time, and many are subject to what is known as “silvering” when the silver in the prints begins to discolor them with age.

Make your color adjustments in “Curves” adjustment. Change the contrast of the photo by deepening the shadows and brightening the highlights. This will perk up your photo and restore the details lost to fading.

Next, adjust the colors slightly, either by converting directly to black and white, or by removing a slight tint that can show up in older photos by sliding the bar to remove the most dominant color.

Make sure you save each color adjustment separately; this will enable you to compare your changes and select the color you like the most.

Remember to adjust your color before going in and fixing scratches or missing areas. If you were to fix these spots first, they may show up later on when you adjust the color.

Fixing Light Scratches

There are two types of scratches that cover an old photograph: those that are fairly thin or confined to the background of the photo, and those that are heavier or that are placed on the subject or more detailed sections of a photo.

For lighter scratches and scratches that are in the background of the photo, you’ll probably have good luck cleaning them up with the spot healing tool. The spot healing tool takes a look at the pixels on either side of the scratch and blends them together over the scratched area to hide it. You can select the size of the brush to match the size of the scratch. Work in small areas at a time to see how it looks; if at any time it isn’t working, switch to the technique to fix larger scratches.

Fixing Deeper Scratches

If the scratches are too large to be successfully fixed with the spot healing tool, it’s time to try the clone stamp tool instead. The clone stamp tool lets you choose the area and size of shape you want to clone, then copies it to the scratched area. When you use this tool, start at the smallest section of the scratch and work on the edges of sides first, then move into the middle. Don’t try to cover the whole scratch at once; the key is to zoom in and clone very small areas at a time until the scratch blends in with the background.

This technique can also be used to fill in ripped or missing sections of the photo, provided that they are contained to the background. Just make sure you keep duplicating similar sections of the background, or sections from the opposite side of the photo that may have more detail to get the best results.

Fixing Faces

If a section of a face is missing, or there’s been a large scratch or water damage to one area of a person’s face, you may be able to fix some of it with the clone tool, but often the feature is so obliterated there isn’t enough of it to clone.

Luckily, people’s faces are fairly symmetrical, meaning that there is often a matching feature on the other side. The idea is to clone this shape as a new layer, then flip it over and rotate its angle until it can be fitted into the missing space.

Do to this, select the section with the marquee tool, and create a new layer with the selected area. This will prevent the space below it from being affected. Flip over the new layer and move it to the new place. Tweak its rotation until it matches up with the damaged area. Now you can go in and spot heal or clone the edges to tweak the color or shadow and blend the new feature in as if it was always there.

If the entire face or a portion of the head has been obliterated and you have nothing to clone, see if you can find another photo of the same person. Often you can copy the face from the new photo and move it to the old photo, cloning and spot healing until you can blend the face into the photo that it was missing from. This particular technique does rely on your having another photo of the person, as well as a certain amount of patience and skill to work.


Many old photos were hand tinted to give them a little bit of color on the clothing, hair, and skin of the subjects. You can tint your old photos the same way by applying a new layer on top of the photo and reducing its opacity to 50%. Then use a brush to apply the color of your choice to the skin, hair, or clothing of the subjects. When you are done, just merge all your layers together into one photo.

Start Restoring Your Photos

Old photo restoration takes a lot of time, as well as a lot of trial and error. You may find that one technique works well on a specific photograph, while another doesn’t work at all. Be sure to stay patient and save your photo each time you get a technique to work so you can revert to this state if your next trick falls flat.

Once you get the process started, you may want to take a class in photo retouching, or in photo colorization to help complete your pictures. Start retouching and restoring your photos today to preserve them for tomorrow.