How to Restore Old, Damaged Photos

How to Restore Old, Damaged Photos

Perhaps one of the most important things we do as portrait photographers is preserve memories.  While the digital era and its ever-evolving technology have made it easier to ensure that the photos we take today will last longer than their analog counterparts, there are still things we can do to help preserve memories captured before the advent of the pixel.  Several years ago, I came across a sizable collection of very old family photos and started scanning them.  Unfortunately, some had already been damaged to one degree or another.  Fading, creasing, staining, and tearing had all left their marks, and the fact that some of these photos were close to 100 years old did not help their cause.  At first I wasn’t sure what to do about them, but closer inspection made it clear that restoring many of these photos would not be as difficult as I initially thought.  With the help of only three or four Photoshop tools, I was able to bring this photo of my great grandparents back to life.


Once the image has been scanned, open it in Photoshop to assess the damage and formulate a plan.  A good rule of thumb when editing any sort of photo is to tackle your global edits first, before worrying about specific target areas.  I like to make overall tonal adjustments first.  If I clean up dust, rips, and creases first, I run the high risk of those imperfections reappearing later when I adjust tone and contrast to the entire image.

Step 1.  Open the image in Photoshop and assess the damage.

Open the image in Photoshop and assess the damage.


As with almost everything in Photoshop, there are so many ways of doing just about everything.  When I first started doing this kind of work I used the Levels adjustment.  I prefer using the Curves adjustment, though, because it lets me set the levels and adjust the contrast from within the same dialog.  By using the droppers below the graph, you can do a quick Levels adjustment, bringing the tone of the image back under control.  Using the black dropper, I click on what I see as one of the darkest points in the image.  You’ll see an immediate improvement in the overall appearance of the photo.  For purposes of fixing this photo, I don’t need the white or gray droppers.   Once I’ve adjusted the levels by setting the black point, I tweak the contrast of the entire image by creating a slight “S” curve.  Don’t panic if you push the adjustment too far.  You can turn the “Cancel” button into a “Reset” button in any Photoshop dialog box by holding down the ALT/OPTION key.

Select the black dropper on the left and click on the darkest part of the image to adjust the levels.

Select the black dropper on the left and click on the darkest part of the image to adjust the levels.

Adding a slight “S” curve will add some needed contrast.


As far as global adjustments go, this particular image really only needed a small levels and curves adjustment.  Once that’s been addressed, we can zoom in on the image and start addressing the details.  For this photo, the next step is dealing with that big tear at the top.  For this part of the repair I’m relying on the Clone Stamp tool (keyboard shortcut: S).  Be sure to zoom in kind of tight to make sure you have a good view of the area.  You’ll be using the tool to sample similar nearby pixels to copy and fill in the damaged area.  Start with the edges and work your way in towards the middle and then up towards the top.  Be sure to change your sample area as you cover more of the tear in order to ensure that the tones and shading are consistent.  Don’t worry about keeping a straight edge at the top of the photo.  We’ll be cropping that out later.

006-Repair Rip1007-Repair Rip2

Now it’s time to zoom in really tight and deal with small things like dust, scratches, stains, and creases.  In earlier versions of Photoshop, the best tool for this part of the job was the Clone Stamp, and in some situations that might still be your best bet.  Ever since the introduction of the Spot Healing Brush, however, cleaning up dust and scratches has never been easier.  The spot healing brush reads the surrounding pixels and uses that information to cover up and repair minor damage.  As with all detail adjustments, be sure to zoom in pretty tight.  This will let you make the repair with fewer and– more importantly– less noticeable clicks.

Use the zoom tool to make sure you get rid of the small imperfections.

Use the zoom tool to make sure you catch all of the small imperfections.

010-Dust Cleanup


Once we’ve addressed the damage we’ll zoom back out and use the Marquee tool to crop out the extraneous edges of the original scanned photo, creating new, clean edges.

013-Crop Image


Rescuing a memory is always gratifying.  I never knew the people in this photo, but I know that without them I wouldn’t be here.  That alone makes the time spent restoring this photo well worth it.  With a little practice, edits like this will become a streamlined process.  Don’t be afraid to try it.

015-Before & Aftercopy

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Jeff Guyer is a commercial/portrait photographer based in Atlanta, GA. Still an avid street photographer and film shooter, Jeff also launched a kids photography class called: Digital Photo Challenges.

Some Older Comments

  • Mike S. September 19, 2013 07:31 am

    I used Adobe Photoshop Elements for a long time, then I found a copy of Microsoft Digital Image Pro 9. This, to me, is a much better photo-editing software than Photoshop Elements. It allows me to do more, and is much more user friendly.

  • Kathy Wesserling September 4, 2013 06:27 pm

    Not having a scanner presents its own problems. Recently, several elderly residents in our Senior apartment building asked me to copy some old pictures of their parents and other older relatives. They wanted to send them back to the Ukraine to their siblings. So I laid their prints down on black poster board and shot a picture of their pictures. Surprisingly enough, the shots came out fairly well, were easy (sort of) to edit, and resulted in some decent prints. My fellow residents were happy about them. Btw, one of the prints looked like your example - that was the hardest one to work with.

  • Nathan C September 3, 2013 09:31 pm

    @ Mark Wolfe: thanks, I was thinking the same thing, light reflections from textured paper. Changing the DPI hasn't made any difference on the spots, just the quality of details in the picture itself, which provides some corroboration. Using the Photoshop filter remove dust and scratches eliminates the majority of them and then spot healing in Lightroom easily gets rid of the rest. It's just a pain to spend 10-30 minutes/ photo removing them when they look brand new in physical form.

  • September 3, 2013 05:06 am

    Jeff is there any less expensive software you recommend that can do the same photo repairs as Photoshop?

  • Mark Wolfe August 30, 2013 11:52 am

    @ nathan c : first of all, unless you are planning to enlarge the photos, you don't need to scan at 1200 dpi. If you're keeping them at the original size then 300 dpi should be fine. Sometimes scanning at very high resolution adds to problems that wouldn't otherwise be so bad. I know some might disagree, but that's what I've found to be the case. By the way, I am a professional custom picture framer who does photo restoration as an added service (and I sell some of my original photography as well.) Although I wouldn't say I'm an expert. There's always more to learn.

    As far as the "tons of white spots", I have a feeling the photos you are scanning are printed on a textured photo paper. When you look at the photo with the naked eye, your mind sort of ignores the texture and just sees the image. But when the scanner light hits the hills and valleys of the texture, then you get white spots or dark spots or both. I"ve been surprised by that when working on a customer's photo. It's like "where did all these spots come from?" One thing to try (of course you first make a duplicate layer and do your work on that, not on the original background layer, just an fyi. I usually make a new duplicate layer for each major thing that I do to a photo. The screen shots here look like the work was done on the background layer.) You can try blurring the photo just barely enough to get rid of the white spots and then sharpen it back up again. It usually won't end up as sharp as you would like it to be, but it's a compromise that's better than having a ton of white spots. And some photos work better than others. Hope that helps.

  • Lakhyajyoti August 24, 2013 08:54 pm

    Great post. I have several old damage photographs. I'll follow your tutorial to restore all of them. Thanks for the share.

  • Jeff Guyer August 24, 2013 03:33 am

    That's kind of a new one to me, Nathan. Does your scanner allow to select different resolution settings? If so, see what happens if you adjust it down to 300 dpi.

  • Nathan C August 23, 2013 09:59 pm

    Do you have any issues with spots appearing from the scanning process?

    I've been trying to scan in old photos that are in fine shape, but the colors are fading. There is no dust or scratches on the photos themselves. The scanner is a HP business class multifunction, brand new. I don't see any dust on either side of the glass scanner bed. But when the photos are scanned in, they have tons of white spots, which are annoying to remove on every single photo. I think they were scanned in with photographic paper settings @ 1200 dpi. Any recommendations for getting more accurate scans?

  • Dave Unger August 23, 2013 03:15 am

    For those of us who do not have Photoshop there is an app for the MAC called Inpaint that really does a great maybe even better job than Photoshop. The app is very user friendly with a quick learning curve.

  • Karen Hayes August 23, 2013 02:58 am

    I use an Epson Perfection 4490 Photo scanner. Does a great job on 35mm and oldee type like from Brownie. This model is about 6 years old I made my own holder for family photo from 1900 and did a good job on them as well. I'm sure the new modeks can do even more. I paid approx. 200.00 when I purchased.

  • Jeff Guyer August 23, 2013 02:01 am

    I don't really have a recommendation for a specific model of scanner, but you certainly want to find something with high resolution. Scanners on the whole are one of those peripherals that have been seeing great improvements in quality while actually coming down in price. If this is strictly for personal use you should have no problem finding something affordable with high-quality output. I'd also stick with a name you know.

  • scott August 23, 2013 01:54 am

    Do you have a recommendation for a scanner? I'm preferably looking for one that will work for both photos and negatives/slides. Certainly don't need pro level, but I'd like to digitize old photos of my grandparents, as well as some of my better film shots.