How you can and why you should restore old photos

Posted on Posted in Photography

If you are old enough to remember the age of pre-digital photography you may well have an attic full of travel memories in the form of old photos. Prints which you once thought were great but now look decidedly jaded or even worse. Even if you are younger I’m sure you will find some never to be repeated old photos, your parents took, which you can restore and transform into colourful pictures like this one below using new age photo editing software. (I must have done something wrong in the photo retouching as the final image shrunk. ( Just click it to open up larger image)

The Mara river – re-engineered 2014

98-copy How you can and why you should restore old photos

The picture above is an example of how you can restore old photos from a lifeless scanned in print like this one below.

98-copy How you can and why you should restore old photos
The Mara river – 1980 original print

As I started learning about modern-day photography, post-processing and photo editing, I realized what good results can be achieved with not much more than a basic understanding of Photomatix, GIMP or Photoshop. I am still a novice when it comes to this sort of stuff and it has taken a fair amount of hard graft and copious amounts of patience to get to the point where I almost feel comfortable in the modern photo-art world.

Why did I do it?

The rationale behind restoring old photos is that I have wonderful memories of my 20th-century travel experiences. But unfortunately the photos I have are old, mainly poor quality, prints and I can never recapture them again. After sorting through mountains of old photos going back to My experience in The Gambia 1979, and discarding most of them, I ended up with around 200 which I thought may be usable. I found a photographic shop with a decent scanner and paid the guy $30 to scan them all for me. Even the best ones didn’t look too good so I was sceptical as to whether I could do anything to them. Most were all grainy with washed out colour, like this aggravated elephant which charged, just after I took this shot, while on safari in Kenya in 1980.

I wasn’t too confident that I would be able to make anything out of the elephant and I ended up going through 6 stages in the metamorphosis. I also added a canvas to help. Now he looks much more like I remember but could still be improved. This was quite a difficult one, because of the detail, which I couldn’t have managed until I’d had plenty of practice. It’s best to start with simple images; those with not too much detail.


First, you want to establish that the old photos have enough clarity, focus and colour and, if not, don’t waste time, discard it. I was surprised that I managed to find virtually all the colour I needed already in every picture in this post. I added only very slight touches.

Here’s what I do, after first running a quick Tone mapping through Photomatix (which may not be the best way but works ok), then using GIMP for the main work :

  1. Open the image in GIMP – File – Open. Then go to View – Zoom – Fit image in window.
  2. You may find that Photomatix has done the best that can be done but its worth checking – Colours – Levels – Down the page on the right are 3 pickers. Choose the first picker which says ‘Pick black point’. Then point it to any completely BLACK part of the image and click. Then choose the ‘Pick white point’ and find a pure WHITE point and do same. If there is no clear white point, either ignore or just use the middle grey point. This process should raise the colour levels so you can see if there is a possibility of producing a better image.
  3. Then Filters – Enhance – Unsharp mask. Don’t change the standard settings, just click OK and see if the clarity is better. If not click OK again. Use your eye to determine.

I must say at this point that you will need to understand the basic photo editing tools needed and practice (on a copy image) using them to get a feel for it. I list the tools a bit later and point to some of the better tutorials I have found which helped me. I’m sorry to say there is no shortcut and you will have to invest time, even to master the basics. If you are familiar with the tools already that’s great. 


When I am working on the old photos, retouching, I never think of them as photographs. I see them as rough sketches of the paintings I want to create. I visualise being an apprentice impressionist painter learning about brushes, brush strokes and colour mixes to capture light and natural forms. The advantage I have is that I am not starting with a blank canvas. Some of the results still look like photos but most of them resemble paintings or photo-art if you like. You need to love this as it can be tedious at times. I do and have to admit to being a little self-indulgent about it.


The Masai Mara Sunset (left) is the sort of quality I start my real photo retouching with in Stage 2 and progress to the finished image (right).

The first thing I do is remove all the major blemishes visible on the image using the Clone tool (Tools – Paint tools – Clone) Move your cursor to the image, hold down Ctrl and then left click. Go to the left sidebar turn Opacity down to 40 or 50 and adjust the tool size to the size you think is right for the job depending on the size of the blemishes. (You’ll need to assess this with each part of the image). Then go down and click smooth stroke. Go back to the image and increase the size by View – Zoom out until all the blemishes show up well.

Now you are set up get to work removing the blemishes by Ctrl – Click near the blemish then left click 1 to 4 times on and/or smooth over the blemish until it has gone. The feel will come with practice so persevere and take your time. If you make a mistake or aren’t happy go to Edit – Undo until you are happy it looks ok.

Once this is done you will need to bring the colours up and you can use a few tools here under Colors (Color balance – Hue saturation – Curves). These are the ones I use most. Make sure you don’t over saturate colours so they look unnatural.

Now you are going to start painting unless the image is how you want it already.

Go to Tools – Paint Tools and select the tools, one by one, you need. (you need to use the tools to understand them so trial and error is required) The ones I use mainly (which should be sufficient) for this kind of retouching job are:

  • Paintbrush or Airbrush –Is what it says and you can set the size of the brush, choose the paint colour, opacity and pressure.
  • Clone – Is a very flexible tool which allows you to copy and paste small or large sections of the image to another point
  • Dodge and Burn – Is a simple but valuable tool whereby you can lighten or darken parts of the image.
  • Smudge – Is a favourite tool of mine which allows you too smooth out rough or grainy areas and blemishes giving a real paint look. (Masai Mara sunset is a good example) Here you are really operating as a painter so patience and touch are essential.

You may need to isolate areas of the old photos by using ‘selection’ tools or ‘layer masks’. I am in the early stages of understanding and working with these tools so don’t propose covering that here.

Here are Paint tool tutorials which helped me a lot:

The possibilities are only limited by your imagination and the amount of time you are prepared to spend. As I am not starting with good photographs my pictures will not win awards. But, in a way, that makes it even more challenging and enjoyable to be able to bring these old photos to life in a different form. I feel like a ‘photo-archaeologist’ who has stumbled upon a bunch of fossils. The process has probably helped me to learn more about areas of post processing than I would learn if I started with high quality raw information from my new Canon T3i.

The re-engineering of some of my old 20th century pre-digital photo prints has enabled me to recreate some memorable experiences from my travels. I have already posted The Gambia 1979  and am soon to post my 1980 Safari in the Masai Mara – Kenya and 1984 Carnival in Trinidad. Here’s a few more examples of re-touched photos turned into paintings.

I hope you have enjoyed sharing my little blast from the past and will soon be scrabbling around in the attic for buried treasure. I look forward to your comments.

Your comments are welcome