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How to retouch and renew your old pictures

Nancy Price co-founded SheKnows.com in 1999, and now serves as Executive Editor and CEM (Chief Executive of Miscellany). In the midst of growing several award-winning websites over the past decade (woo!), she also served as the editor-in...

Give old photos new life

Do your old photos look dingy, making it seem like you spent your childhood in an indistinct, bland world? Fortunately, with a few tech tools -- and even if you have little experience with photo editing software -- you can turn those olden days back into golden days in just a few minutes. Here's how to get started.

Before and after photos

Since every photograph is different -- both in original content and in terms damage -- there is a lot of trial and error involved with restoring old pictures. While that doesn't mean it's impossible or will take hours to fix each print, it does require some patience.

The degree of patience will, in part, be dictated by the photo editing software you have. Adobe Photoshop Elements is the program I use -- it's the more basic (thus simpler) and cheaper version of the Photoshop professionals use. There are also several free full-featured photo editing programs you can use -- find out more about those here.

What to expect

In the case of the snapshot above, first the contrast was boosted, and the brightness minimized. Next, some color was added, then another contrast and lighting alteration, and finally a return to the color controls. Here's a look at a few stages of this photo's restoration:

Stages of fixing a photograph

The end result isn't perfect -- there was just too much detail missing in certain areas for me to recover adequately. But as one of the few pictures I have of me with my great grandfather, I'm just glad to have been able to restore it this much.

How you can begin

You will definitely want to familiarize yourself with the following tools: select, sharpen, soften, smudge, heal, clone, burn, dodge, sponge.

The first step: Selectively adjust the lighting, meaning the shadows and brightness levels, and then boosting the contrast. (In Photoshop Elements, Enhance menu > Adjust lighting > Shadows & Highlights and > Brightness and contrast.)

This single step will bring out a surprising amount detail in your picture. Don't overdo, however -- you can reevaluate and alter these settings after making some other changes.

Restore old portraits

Some photos will be uneven, with some areas too dark and others too light. You can select certain areas of your picture and then apply these effects, or you can use the burn (darken) and dodge (lighten) tools by hand.

TIP: Save your work several times as you go. If you're not sure about a change you want to make, save a separate copy of the file with your changes so far, and then work on the newer file. If things don't work out, you can easily revert back to the previous version.

The second step: Play with the color controls -- particularly the saturation levels (intensity of color) and the options to remove any incorrect coloration (color casts) on the photo. This is where you ease the picture out of its aged yellowness and bring it back into a more normal tonal range.

Christmas in the 70s - two girls and a Christmas tree

Keep in mind that, particularly in terms of color, some old photos will never look quite like their modern day counterparts. Varying quality of film and processing, use of a flash or flashbulb, and camera quality all have an impact on what you can achieve from any original, even one kept in pristine condition.

The third step: Cleaning up dust, scratches and discolorations. This is where you need the most patience and attention to detail, as well as the willingness to experiment with the different editing tools and filters your software offers.

Magic wand to select background/non people areas, then apply the noise > dust & scratches filter. Adjust it carefully so you don't distort the image too much.

For bigger problem areas and for the faces and other important features, try a combination of the heal and clone tools, and then the smudge tool to gently buff out what's left or doesn't work well with the other tools.

Harvest the crop tool

Vintage photo - 1920s

How you crop your photo (use the computer to "cut" it to size) depends a lot on your goals. If you like the idea of maintaining the vintage look, you might want to keep the photo's original borders or recreate them after cropping by using the stroke (outline) option.

Sometimes the background will be too busy, and you will want to zoom in on the most important part of a photo. Do remember, however, that the background -- particularly in vintage photographs -- is often almost as important as the subject.

For example, the black & white photograph on the right is from the late 1920s, and the setting gives context to the picture as a whole, and can offer an interesting little glimpse of history.

You have the power...

Digital photo editing tools are more than just functional and fun -- they also allow you to experiment with photo restoration and enhancement like never before. In fact, with a little patience, even an amateur can get results that would compare with those of a trained expert in the 20th century.

Another bonus of the digital age is that once you have fixed up your pix, you can share them easily. Post them to places like Facebook or Flickr, email them to friends and family, and print them out as gifts or to share with older relatives.

There's no better time to begin, so take a little time now to honor your heritage and preserve your family's past for generations to come!

 

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