Secrets of taking good pictures: Restoration

Here’s some tips about how to deal with faded family photographs that we’d all like to transfer to our computers.

Before picture (photo credit: Courtesy)
Before picture
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Tom Langford is a commercial photographer, professional retoucher, and a website designer.
Years ago I took a short Documentary Video course. It was easy for me to use a video camera, but editing was something I knew absolutely nothing about. The most useful part of the course was when the teacher sat with me for five minutes and edited a short sequence of quick cuts. I was amazed and relieved that she did it all so quickly and intuitively – if it looked right it was right – which is just the way I like to operate. It was a “So that’s how it’s done!” moment that I remember well.
In the same spirit I’d like to show you my simple, visual approach to restoring an old picture. There must be millions of faded family photographs that we’d all like to transfer to our computers, so here’s some tips about how to deal with them.
The simplest way of turning old photographs into digital images is to have them scanned at a photo lab. If you are fortunate enough to have a modern flat-bed scanner you can do this yourself. If you have any larger prints you can also take a photograph of them, then crop this in the computer. Many programs can help you here: Picasa is a fee to download and can be recommended.
When they are in the computer I use Photoshop to restore them. For me it’s the best program both to restore old pictures and to improve digital pictures taken with my camera.
Below is a picture sent for constructive criticism by an anonymous reader. This was an old transparency that as scanned, was difficult to know if the strong magenta cast is because it had faded, or was the result of a poor quality scan. I’ll need to restore it before I give any feedback.
First I opened the picture in Photoshop. In the layers palette (usually located on the lower right corner of the screen) I added a curves adjustment layer to the picture. This has a highlight dropper that allows you to select an area of the picture you think should be white. It makes this area white and adjusts all the other colors accordingly to give a basic white balance. Then I removed the magenta cast by adding a color balance adjustment layer and played with the magenta sliders until the picture looked about right. Here’s the result:
As you can see, the man’s face is still far too red, so I added a hue/saturation adjustment layer and adjusted the red saturation/hue sliders to make the skin look as natural as I could. The whole picture was affected but every adjustment layer has an attached “layer mask” that when filled with black completely hides the adjustment. I then used a soft-edged white brush to paint over the masked area of the face: This allows the adjustment to affect only the face so it now had a natural tone.
Next I perked up the contrast over the whole of the picture with another curves adjustment layer. The shirt now looked too bright so I finished off by adding a further curves adjustment layer to selectively darken areas of the picture using a white, soft-edged brush again. Here’s the final picture:
This took much longer to write than to do and sounds far more complicated than it actually is. There are many on-line tutorials about how to use adjustment layers and their layer masks that will help you make sense of it all. Here’s a screenshot of the layers palette to help you if you are interested.
The original color has not been perfectly restored because the magenta cast had destroyed some of the color information: This is the best we can do with simple means.
Years ago we used to do all this work in the wet darkroom and it was a great relief when we could switch over to the convenience of working with the computer. We had to do everything manually in the wet darkroom and this is still how I operate using a computer. Fancy filters and automation are useful but need to be used with care. Technology has changed buy my standards haven’t.
I almost forgot to mention that this is an excellent shot. It tells a story: The primary focal point is, of course, the man’s face, but then the angle of the camera and dynamic composition draws our gaze down to what he is doing. After looking at the apparatus and clutter our eye is pulled up to the bicycle wheel in the top corner - perhaps he cycles around doing his job? When your eye moves around a picture like this it gives a sense of movement and life to the scene. It’s like a short video telling a fraction of a story that our mind tries to fill in. On other words, it’s interesting: It’s an excellent shot.

Constructive Feedback
If you are aspiring to develop your photography skills, send me a picture and I may use in one in my articles with some constructive feedback.Send one picture only, at a small size to suitable for emails to [email protected]

If you don’t know how to send a photo by email at a small size please look at my Brief Guide to Picasa:

Tom Langford is an Event and Commercial photographer, website designer, and professional retoucher. He teaches photography courses for beginners and improvers. Details of his courses and field trips at: