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How to retouch and renew your old pictures

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.

Photo retouching - girl with dollhouse

This primer is for all of us regular people, who don’t know Photoshop from beginning to end, and don’t usually retouch our photos. While professional-level results shouldn’t be expected, you may be surprised what you actually can do!

Restore the past

Many old photographs have suffered the same fate, and now have faded or distorted color, a lack of detail, and are covered with dust and scratches. Typically, these problems come from improper storage and/or being exposed to light and other environmental factors (even if framed or in an album). While restoring damaged photos has long been a costly endeavor, with a little know-how, you can make a huge improvement and save these stills for posterity.

Also see: Trace your family tree: Online genealogy resources

The first step: Digitizing your photos

Before your photos are damaged any more, you should save them in a digital format. This means scanning them in, saving and editing them on your computer, and then uploading them to a picture storage site or saving them to a backup device. (Note: Vintage/antique photos should be handled with extreme care. Some of the old printing techniques are light-sensitive, meaning that the light from your scanner may damage them. In such cases, take a no-flash photograph instead, or consult a professional.)

1: Before you begin, adjust your scanner settings to make sure you will have enough of the picture to work with. Scan in your photos at at least 300 dpi (dots per inch — dpi refers to the amount of data stored in each linear inch of the image), and the smaller or more distorted the picture, the better it is to use a higher dpi (600 dpi and up), which will generate much larger files. Make sure your scanner’s set to produce high-quality scans, and is not in fast or preview mode.

2: Clean your scanner glass as recommended by the manufacturer — usually using a super soft cloth (such a camera-lens cleaning cloth) and no harsh chemical cleansers. Hold a flashlight to one side of the glass to help illuminate dust and streaks. Once you begin scanning photos, do your best not to touch the scanner glass. You might want to try wearing gloves — which offer the added bonus of protecting your pictures from fingerprint oils, too.

3: Gently dust off each photo before you place it on the scanner bed. Close the scanner top slowly, so you don’t disturb the photos below. (Many scanners come with software that will allow you to scan several photos at once, but will save each photo as a separate file.)

4: Save all of your original scans in a very high quality format (which will consume a lot of disk space). See below for some tips on choosing a file type.

Smart file types for photographs

There are lots of different ways to save your images. Here’s a look at some of the most common.

  • jpeg/jpg: Often used, but not a good choice for important scans. Every time you save an image in jpeg format, some of the data is lost in order to make the file smaller.
  • gif: Used to be quite common, but not a good choice for photographs. The gif format reduces all the colors in your photo to the basic 256 (or less), which typically leaves you with a dithered (dotty) picture.
  • bmp, tif/tiff: High quality files, but they tend to be very large, which makes them take up a lot of space on your hard drive and can slow your system during the editing/viewing process.
  • psd: A proprietary Photoshop format which works well to save your files, but those files can only be opened in Adobe software programs.

Safekeeping the new and old

After you have your original files saved, I suggest only editing copies of those images (either by copying the file before opening it, or opening an original file and immediately using “Save as” to give it a new name). Be sure to reference the above list of file formats you use while editing your pictures.

Since you’re going to be removing all of these photographs from their current locations in order to scan them, be sure not to just put them back when you’re done: put them in a safe place, using acid-free archival-quality materials to protect them for the future.

Next page: Editing your pictures

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