How you can and why you should restore old photos (II)

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In my first post on this subject I wrote: “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 prints your parents took. You can restore old photos like this and transform them into colourful pictures like this one below using new age photo editing software. “

In that post I go into some detail based on my early forays into the restoration process. As I started learning  about modern day photography, post processing and photo editing, I realised what good results could be achieved with not much more than a basic understanding of Photomatix, GIMP or Photoshop.

Since then, as I studied and became more proficient, buying a DSLR camera and investing in Lightroom and Topaz products I realised I could get even better results with less work. I am still a mere mortal 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 feel relatively comfortable in the modern photo-art world.

The rationale to restore old photos hasn’t changed since the first post. I have wonderful memories of my 20th-century travel experiences. But unfortunately, the photos I have are old, mainly poor quality prints which I can never recapture again. After sorting through mountains of old photos going back to my experiences in The Gambia 1979 and Kenya 1980, 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.

Now I have a greater understanding of the tools available I felt I should write this second post, explain my workflow and show some of the improved results – like this one from Trinidad Carnival 1982.

92 How you can and why you should restore old photos (II)
Fish Queen
My restore old photos summary workflow

First, to restore old photos you want to establish that the exposure is good enough to tweak, there is 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 in many of the pictures I had scanned in. I only added minimal colour, usually where the sky was blown out.

It seems that I can get the best results now by using Lightroom 5, Topaz Adjust, Topaz Clarity with occasional visits to Photoshop or GIMP if there is a lot of repair work needed.

Here’s a summary of my workflow to restore old photos which gets decent results most of the time:

  1. Open the image in Lightroom. Check the Lens correction settings and then go to Basics. Bring down the highlights and open the shadows and adjust the Whites and Blacks. See how your exposure is and what colours are in the print by playing with the other sliders. Clarity and vibrance usually finds what’s there. By now you will know if you have something or not.
  2. Next I blow the image up as high as it will go and start working on spot removal.
  3. Then I do local adjustments to tease out what else is there.
  4. If I need to do any smudging and colouring (particularly sky) I go to Photoshop or GIMP. I find this is the best way of brushing out blemishes. Smudge – Is a favourite tool of mine which allows you too smooth out rough or grainy areas and blemishes giving a real painterly look. (The Masai Mara sunset is a good example) Here you are really operating as a painter so patience and touch are essential.
  5. Finally I consider boosting and enhancing in Topaz Adjust or Clarity to give the image a fresh new look.

Even though the focus is out I couldn’t throw these two pictures away.

I repeat from the previous post:

Learn the basics

At this point 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.

In painter mode

When I am working on my old photo 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 many 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.

Use your imagination and be creative

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 Canon 600D 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, my 1980 Safari in the Masai Mara – Kenya and  Trinidad Carnival 1982.

 92 How you can and why you should restore old photos (II)


I hope these ideas will inspire you to rework old photo prints and get you in the attic looking for buried treasure. I look forward to your comments.

0 thoughts on “How you can and why you should restore old photos (II)

  1. Thank you for sharing your old and re-worked photo’s + the helpful information, I can see that you have aquired a lot of knowledge by the context and images displayed.

    I enjoy seeing images also that are blended and stitched together to create a wonderful and unique piece of work – however, I have no idea about the process or technicality involved, wish I did!

    1. Hi Sandy. It’s taken me months of study and research to get where I am. Yet I am still only scratching the surface. The real pro’s have been at it for years and watching their tutorials, whilst very educational and informative, makes me realise how much I don’t know. But it’s very rewarding and fun. Keep well. James

  2. my grandfather left me about 6,000 slides all great memories I scanned then on a good scanner that would scan 5 at a time most become yellow with age NO MATTER HOW THEY ARE Stored so yes a good idea to digital I even have some tin photos from my great grandfather Dont see this suggestion but if you copy to a DVD or DC buy the best that is archival quality and do not use a marker on the face unless it is made for writing on the surface of the CD or DVD will delaminate the CD or DVD there are some high quality CD that are rated for 200 years ??? very tine consuming but worth the effort

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