Restoring Old Photos in Adobe Photoshop

By Dr. Robert Berdan
December 18, 2011

Photo restoration by Robert Berdan ©


In the image above I was able to remove the dirt, scratches and cracks and I also had to remove the chair on the left and create a new arm for the young girl. It's very satisfying for me to be able to repair these old photographs that are so valuable to many families - in this article I share how I use photoshop to fix old images. Some images can be repaired in 5 minutes, others like the one above can require several hours. The original image was 2 x 3 inches, the final image was 8.5 x 12 inches and it was provided as a black and white and sepia.

Have you ever rummaged through the attic, garage or basement and found a box of old photos?  These gems are windows to the past. Prior to each Christmas I usually get a few phone calls from customers looking to have some of their photos repaired so they can give them as gifts to their loved ones. If you would like to learn how to do this yourself - read on.

Old image with cracks

Original image the most difficult part were the scratches that appeared over the pattern couch on the top right.

The process of restoring old photos is simple if you own Adobe Photoshop but it takes time and care.  More recent versions of Photoshop have more tools making it easier to repaired old photos, but any of the CS versions will work great. You will also need a good scanner (I use an Epson Flatbed scanner that scans up to 3200 dpi).  For large photos I sometimes scan the print in sections and then stitch them together in Photoshop.  If the image is really big I  re-photograph the image with my digital camera, a macro lens and a tripod. If the prints are enclosed behind glass I ask permission to remove the glass to get a better scan or picture – if there is a chance the print will stick to the glass I may try to steam them free.  Most of the time my clients simply bring me an envelope of old damaged prints. 

Old image repaired in Adobe Photoshop

Due to the fine detail in this photograph it took two hours to repair and remove all the cracks and spots

I can’t fix every image my customers bring me – I can't put a head back on if its gone, but I can take one eye and flip it over and put it on the other side of the face if  I have to.  Sometimes prints are so badly damaged that it's not worth fixing them.  I have even been asked to take web images and scale them up and there are limits to this, but if that's the only photo of a particular person I will do my best to achieve a reasonable 8 x 10 inch print.

Before and after restoration of  images
On the left the photo has been stained and damaged by water, by converting the image to Black and white in Photoshop and a yellow filter those yellow stains can be removed (Watch the movie).

Below I describe some of the basic procedures I use to fix old photos using Adobe Photoshop – there is a movie clip that will show you basic process of repairing an old photo. I am so fond of old photos that I even created tutorials on how to age them in Photoshop - the reverse of what I show here.  

Women before restoration and after resotoration in Photoshop

Basic Workflow Summary  

  1. Scan the image at 600-1200 dpi  (higher if you want to enlarge the photo more than 4X)
  2. Open the image in Photoshop and crop to remove borders or parts of the image that can’t be repaired
  3. Resize the image to the preferred size and set the resolution to 300 dpi for printing
  4. Adjust the levels histogram so you have the best tones  possible
  5. If the image is Black and White with yellow  or red stains – convert it to black and white (tinting optional) – if the image is in colour – use auto colour or adjust colours by the numbers to correct (shown in my Potoshop I online course)
  6. Zoom in and check for dust, scratches and small particles of dust embedded and then apply dust & scratches filter (max radius setting of 1 or 2).
  7. Use the patch, spot healing and clone tools to repair and restore the photo.
  8. Use the Burn and Dodge Tools to darken or lighten parts of the print
  9. If the image is in colour you might adjust colour saturation globally or locally use the saturation brush tool
  10. Use the unsharp Mask to sharpen the image and check once more for spots that might appear after sharpening and fix with the spot healing tool.
  11. Save the print as .TIF, and Max quality .JPG and finally also make 72 dpi .JPG for sending by email or for a web page. Watch the video below.

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Watch Video showing main steps in repairing an old Photograph using Adobe Photoshop CS5

Capturing the Initial Image

Most of the time the best way to digitize the image is to scan it on a flatbed scanner. Some scanners offer the ability to adjust the exposure, focus, apply sharpening, a few even have a software program called digital ice that can remove dust. Before you scan brush or blow any dust off the photo and make sure your scanner is clean.  It’s also possible to fix slides or scan negatives if your scanner offers these options.  If the print is very large and might be damaged by scanning  on a flat bed scanner you can rephotograph the image with your digital camera on a tripod, use the sharpest lens you own set it to F8 – F11  (I use a 60 mm Macro lens). Use RAW files for the best quality and flexibility. Try to provide even flat lighting (e.g. from a north window, or go outside on an overcast day). A flash with a diffuser can also work. If you are photographing through glass you may need to use a polarizer to reduce reflections.  If you are photographing a colour photograph I also include a colour chart and grey scale chart at the edge of the picture as a reference for colour correction.  Also be sure the image does not display any key stoning and that the edges are parallel. The quality of the digital image you bring into Photoshop will determine the maximum quality of the final image you can produce. Strive to make the best scan or photograph of the original that you can.

colour image before restoration and after

Thi photo above required colour correction and the most difficult part was the reddish stains on the Firefighters uniform produced by water and mold. To get rid of the reddish spots I darkened the jacket which also meant that there is some loss of detail in the coat, but the final images is big improvement. I also often remove distracting highlights, note the bright area behind his moustache is no longer there. The most important element in old photographs of people is of course the face and I spend most of the time ensuring it's as good as I can make it.

Black and white and sepia versions of repaired images

Black and white and a sepia tone version of the Fire fighter are easy to create once the image is repaired.

Photo inside a watch

This photo was glued into the inside of an old Grandfathers watch - I couldn't remove the image or scan it so I rephotographed it and then repaired the digital photo in Photoshop.

repaired watch image

Repaired image from the watch above.

When using a flat bed scanner I usually scan the image at 2-4X the final print resolution. Most printers want the final digital file to be at 300 dpi (dots per inch).  By scanning the image at 600-1200 dpi I can double the image size later if I choose to. It takes about the same time to repair a higher resolution image as it does a lower resolution so always start with a higher resolution file – it provides more flexibility and the customer might decide later to have the image enlarged further.  

Repaire of image torn in half

In this example the top image was torn completely in half. I put the two halves as close as possible and scanned them, then using the clone, patch, spot healing brush repaired the image. I got rid of the yellow cast by converting the image to Black and White.

Before and after repair of images

With very small images as in the situation above where the image on the left was only about 2 inches wide - cracks can be repaired, but its not possible to add additional details to the repaired image and in this case the photo could not be enlarged more then about 2X , however I have been able to enlarge some wallet photos up to 8 x 10 inches if they are in good condition.

Removal of person from photo
In some instances I am asked to remove or add another person. Often to do this I extract the foreground subjects and create a new background as shown on the right. Depending on the version of photoshop you can remove a background using the extract filter (CS5 and earlier) or the quick selection tool (CS5\CS6).

On the left was a small 1.5 inch diameter photo button, after digital repair the image on the rightcould be printed up to 8 x 10 inches.


Restoring old war photos - if the photos are really wide, I treat them like a panorama, I scan them in sections then stitch them together.




Repaired image - original image was 8 inches tall by 34 inches wide




Panorama after stictching but before repair - zoom in to see image details and damage to the print



After repair - zoom in to see detail in solidiers faces.

The image above wasn't in too bad of shape - at least most of the faces were still clearly visible - it took my over 3 hours to repair the image. The original photographer who took the photo in 1941 did an excellent job.

Repairing the Image Digitally

Photoshop isn’t the only software program you can use for one thing you can use Adobe Photoshop LE which is significantly cheaper and there are other software programs, but none of them that I know of is better than Photoshop.  The movie above describes some of the basic repair techniques, but there are certainly other techniques that can be used for special circumstances and if this is something you would like to do I recommend reading some of the How to WOW Photoshop Series books.  The best way to learn is get an old photo and start – the more you do the faster you will get . You could even start up a small business restoring old images. RB


PS Have some old images you would like repaired and can't do it your self - you can email me at or call me at 403 247-2457 - I provide free estimates and would be happy to digitally repair you old photographs.

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