Quick photo tip: digitally restore old photos

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Does your family have old photo albums? Have you ever spent time looking at all the old pictures in black and white or vintage sepia color?

Old photos capture beautiful moments in time, like your serious-faced ancestors. They posed for their first photo with the family’s first Brownie or Polaroid camera. While it’s nice to browse through all of these snapshots, it’s sad to see how some can get faded, scratched, or torn.

But modern technology is fantastic and you can restore damaged photos to their former glory. Before moving on to the steps, this process requires photo editing skills and a program that uses layers, like Photoshop or GIMP.

Crop the bad

First of all. Don’t want to pay for Photoshop? GIMP is a free alternative that has all the functionality of Photoshop without the cost. Tap or click here to access direct download links. Now let’s move on to editing.

Since old photos come in different sizes and formats, your first step should be to crop them to the desired dimensions. This allows you to remove problematic areas such as messed up edges or bad vignette corners. It also helps you establish a focal point by allowing you to “zoom in” on the subject.

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Need help cropping and editing photos? Tap or click here to access five photo apps that enhance your photos without any Photoshop skills.

Adjust colors

Think about the final image. What do you want it to look like? If the original has that nice sepia tint, but you want black and white, add a black and white layer. If it’s black and white, but you want sepia, add a photo filter effect. To colorize a black and white image, see my recent post on the subject.

Tap or click here for our tech guide: Colorizing Old Black & White Photos.

Next, add adjustment layers for brightness and contrast, then adjust the overall exposure with a levels layer. When working with older photos you can lose definition, so it’s essential to use a color balance adjustment layer to change shadows, midtones, and highlights.

Remember to preserve the brightness as you go, then finish with a Hue and Saturation layer.

Repair damaged areas

Use a tool like Spot Heal in Photoshop to remove small dust spots or smudges. The clone stamp is great for large creases, but if much of your photo is missing entirely, try using the content-aware fill tool.

Depending on the extent of the damage, you may need to use all of these tools and fine-tune everything carefully until you get the results you want.

Adjust exposure levels

For sections of your photo that are slightly over or underexposed, use the Dodge tool to lighten it or the Burn tool to darken the offending areas.

Some images will be easier to restore digitally than others, depending on the extent of the damage they have suffered over the years. But using these simple techniques can help you breathe new life into those old photos, bringing joy to future generations. Have fun and good luck!


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