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Top 5 Tips for Restoring Your Photos with Photoshop

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If you're keen to restore old photos, Photoshop is the right tool. Connect with Robert Correll, author of Photo Restoration: From Snapshots to Great Shots, as he shares some of his top photo restoration tips.
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Top 5 Tips for Restoring Your Photos with Photoshop

Restoring old photos with applications like Photoshop is a great way to preserve something of value and connect with the past. Although the process can be technically and artistically challenging, most people have the necessary abilities, especially in this age of "smart" phones, tablets, pads, glasses, and watches. In this article, I've jotted down a few pointers that I think are pretty important to keep in mind. Of course, I can't possibly cover all there is to learn about photo restoration, but this is a good place to start!

Tip 1: Follow a Consistent Restoration Plan

I know, I know—this tip feels like the opposite of fun. We see a photo that needs repair and want to dive right in, restoring this, fixing that, and experimenting with another thing. But if you start without a goal and a plan for accomplishing it, you're soon hip-deep in a muddled Photoshop file, forgetting how you got there.

Think of this tip as an encouragement to leave a trail of bread crumbs. (Or maybe a reminder to take your super-GPS phone with you.)

So here's the official tip: When you restore photos, work according to a structured plan of attack. Let me briefly share with you my usual approach.

After scanning the photo (see Figure 1) and then creating a Photoshop file (see Figure 2), the general workflow that I use (after a bit of brainstorming) begins with locking in repairs that aren't likely to change. This stage includes using the Clone Stamp to digitally "clean" the photo's surface of lint, dust, debris, marks, and other blemishes. After I clean the surface, I repair any damage. This step includes covering scratches, repairing bent corners, reconstructing missing corners or sides, fixing tears, hiding holes, and many other types of problems.

Figure 1 An unrestored photo.

Figure 2 The Photoshop file is prepared and ready for action.

With the photo cleaned and repaired, I can adjust color, brightness, and contrast without fearing that any change I make will cause hours of reconstruction. These types of corrections are more subjective than fixing a corner. Sometimes you want to brighten a little, sometimes a lot. It depends on the final look you want to achieve—moody, for example, or bright and friendly.

With those changes locked in place, I refine the photo and make final corrections and enhancements. This phase includes reducing noise, sharpening, straightening, cropping, dodging and burning, colorizing, and other fun stuff. Figure 3 shows how the Layers panel has captured my workflow for this photo.

Figure 3 The final Layers panel reveals how I restored the photo.

Aside from any technical benefits, I think you'll find this approach will improve your consistency and help guide your focus. Before you know it, even though the photos are different, working on the same types of problems in the same order will greatly improve how well you evaluate and restore photos. Figure 4 shows my final result. Figure 5 shows the initial scan and finished photo as a single image for quick comparison.

Figure 4 The finished photo.

Figure 5 This finished photo is clearer, cleaner, brighter, and better.

Tip 2: Master the Clone Stamp

For this tip, I shall become your sensei. Read the next few sentences as if Master Splinter of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fame were speaking to you:

"Many photos come to you blemished, damaged, and in need of repair. You must master the Clone Stamp, my student, if you want to restore them. You will see beautiful photos unfolding before you when you use the Clone Stamp. You are what gives this tool purpose. It is an extension of your will. Be delicate, but also be bold and without fear. Now go!"

Yes. That's exactly it.

When you scan in photos, slides, or negatives, they will be blemished or damaged one way or another (see Figure 6). You may not be able to spot the small imperfections with the naked eye, but when you see photos magnified in Photoshop, the problems become clear. You'll see all sorts of lint, dust, dirt, stains, spots, splotches, gunk, creases, scratches, holes, marks, writing, and other things that detract from the photo. As a photo restorer, your job is to clean and repair the entire photo.

Figure 6 This photo has a number of blemishes that need to be removed.

The Clone Stamp (see Figure 7) is just the right tool for the job. It's so helpful I use it on just about every photo—and not just once or twice, either. I can spend hours removing small blemishes with the Clone Stamp. Each blemish may not be important, but when you remove as many as practical (don't give up eating, sleeping, throwing the Frisbee, and walking the dog), the overall effect is to breathe new life into photos.

Figure 7 The Clone Stamp is located toward the middle of the toolbar.

As you work with the Clone Stamp, vary your brush size to fit what you want to cover, and keep the brush soft. Pay close attention to matching the tone, color, and texture of the source area with the target area you want to cover. Paint with small strokes or dabs, depending on the object you're covering. I always clean and repair on a newly created layer above the photo and turn on the Sample setting to Current & Below. This technique lets me keep my work separate from the photo, which in turn makes undoing mistakes easier. The end results are often astonishing (see Figure 8). Figure 9 shows the entire photo as it was originally scanned and after I finished working on it.

Figure 8 Removing the dust, lint, and other debris makes a world of difference.

Figure 9 Good cloning combines with other improvements to produce a dramatically better final photo.

Tip 3: Make Infinitely Variable Changes with Adjustment Layers

Photoshop offers two types of adjustments; both do the same work, but in different ways. Standard (permanent) adjustments are located in the Image > Adjustments menu. Variable adjustments are found in the Layers > New Adjustment Layer menu (as well as via a button on the Layers panel). Both kinds of adjustments affect brightness/contrast, levels, curves, vibrance, and other settings, and all of these features are very helpful when restoring photos, slides, and negatives.

The difference between the two adjustment types is how you apply them, and to what. I'll use the photo in Figure 10 to illustrate adjustment layers.

Figure 10 This photo has been cleaned and is ready for color and brightness adjustments.

Standard adjustments work on normal, pixel-based layers. You select a layer and apply a given adjustment to that layer. This action changes the pixels in that layer to reflect the settings you choose in the adjustment dialog box. Once you click OK, those settings can't be changed.

By contrast, adjustment layers alter the appearance of visible layers beneath them. Think of adjustment layers as transparent overlays that enable you to affect properties such as color, brightness, and contrast. They aren't applied to pixel-based layers; rather, they are applied on top of those layers (see Figure 11). Adjustment layers are non-destructive, meaning that they don't directly alter the pixels of the layers beneath them. As visible pixels "pass through" the adjustment layers on top of them, their appearance is changed.

Figure 11 The three adjustment layers here correct the color cast and brighten the photo.

Amazingly, you can also keep working on pixel-based layers beneath adjustment layers, and everything meshes together perfectly. I routinely use temporary adjustment layers on top of my cleaning and repair layers to help me see the photo better as I work. I then turn off or delete the adjustment layers when I'm ready to make my final (permanent) brightness and contrast adjustments. Figure 12 shows the effect of the three adjustment layers on the example photo. Figure 13 shows a comparison between the original photo and the finished restoration.

Figure 12 The restored photo is brighter and no longer plagued by a yellow color cast.

Figure 13 No contest: The finished photo is far better than the original.

Another nice feature of adjustment layers is that you can continue to tweak the layer's settings as needed (see Figure 14). In effect, you can alter the adjustment layer's strength by using the Opacity property, or mask out areas you don't want to change. You can stack multiple adjustment layers on top of each other, whether repeating the same adjustment or adding other types of adjustments.

Figure 14 Edit adjustment layer properties repeatedly until you're happy with the result.

The list of great things about adjustment layers just goes on and on. They are vastly superior to simply making standard adjustments. Use them!

Tip 4: Harness Smart Objects and Smart Filters for Powerful Pixel Control

Smart Objects are another type of special layer in Photoshop (not available in Photoshop Elements). Smart Objects are essentially super-powered layers. Normal layers have pixels; adjustment layers don't. Smart Object layers have pixels, but their pixels are smarter than the average pixel. The Smart Object pixels allow you to apply Smart Filter effects to them, which are non-destructive filters that you can edit and change even after you create them. (It's sort of a timey-wimey thing, for all you Doctor Who fans.)

For example, when you use a traditional filter to sharpen a photo, you sharpen a pixel-based layer, and that's that. You can't change your mind about how much or how little sharpening you want after the fact. You're stuck with what you've already done.

If you use a Smart Filter as part of a Smart Object layer, you get a chance to mull things over. You can reopen the Filter dialog box and change the settings, accept them, think some more, and then change the settings again. It's wonderful to be able to apply sharpening and noise reduction this way!

Figure 15 shows a portion of a photo that could use some work. In this case, I want to focus on using the High Pass filter to sharpen it.

Figure 15 This photo has a bevy of problems, such as needing some sharpening.

Create Smart Objects from normal content layers by right-clicking the layer and selecting Convert to Smart Object (see Figure 16) from the Layers panel. Then select an adjustment or filter to try it.

Figure 16 Normal layers can be converted to Smart Objects.

Figure 17 shows a Smart Object layer in this photo's Layers panel. I applied a High Pass filter to it, which shows up beneath the layer thumbnail in the effects area.

Figure 17 Ordinary filters become Smart Filters when applied to Smart Object layers.

Figure 18 shows the result of the High Pass filter, and Figure 19 compares the original photo and the finished restoration.

Figure 18 Smart Objects makes it easier to test filters and settings.

Figure 19 Using a Smart Object on this photo allowed me to experiment with how much sharpening I wanted, until I was happy with the result.

My favorite filters to use when restoring photos are Shadows/Highlights, the Camera Raw Filter, High Pass (be sure to change the Blend Mode to Overlay), and Reduce Noise. When I'm feeling artistic, I also use creative filters found in the Filter Gallery and elsewhere (for example, the Blur Gallery).

The Camera Raw Filter is particularly powerful, with tons of different adjustments and effects divided into several tabs. This filter includes settings to modify a photo's brightness, contrast, color, sharpness, noise level, hue and saturation, and other effects.

Smart Object layers have a depth of functionality that you should explore. You can stack multiple filters on a single Smart Object layer, toggle them on and off, and alter their relative strengths. You can change the Blend mode of the Smart Object layer as well as its opacity for blending with other layers. You can even mask the filters and the overall Smart Object layer. All of these features and functions make Smart Objects an indispensable tool for restoring photos.

Tip 5: Use Masks to Apply Adjustments and Effects Selectively

I encourage you to use Photoshop's awesome masks feature regularly. Here's why masks are so cool: When you make an adjustment and want to apply it to the entire photo—no problem. But what if you want the adjustment to modify only a limited portion of the photo? You need a way to block part of the image, and that's what masks do. Masks protect designated areas of a photo's canvas by hiding them from adjustments or filters—and even turning pixels invisible!

As you can imagine, being able to make selective adjustments and changes is a tremendously powerful feature when restoring photos. For example, Figure 20 shows a partially restored photo that had a green tint to it. When I removed the green color cast, the subject's dress, which should have been a light green, turned light gray.

Figure 20 When color corrections go wrong.

To bring color back to the dress, I created a Color Balance adjustment layer with the settings shown in Figure 21.

Figure 21 Boosting greens in the brighter portions of the photo.

Of course, that adjustment affected the entire photo. To preserve the areas of the photo where I don't want to reapply the green, I masked everything but the dress (see Figure 22).

Figure 22 Black areas of the mask thumbnail show where the mask is applied.

This technique worked out really well. Figure 23 shows the result. Figure 24 shows the dress before and after the color correction.

Figure 23 Now the dress is green again, but the rest of the photo isn't affected.

Figure 24 A close-up of the dress reveals the color difference.

You can use this trick to restore a photo with a bright sky and dark foreground. Create an adjustment layer to brighten the foreground while masking the sky.

You can also mask Smart Object layers and Smart Filters. Say you want to sharpen a small area of the photo. Apply the sharpening filter of your choice on a Smart Object layer, and then mask the areas you don't want altered.

To apply a mask, select the mask in the Layers panel (that part is very important) and then use a standard brush to paint black on the areas of the canvas you want to mask. To erase a mask, switch the foreground color to white and paint the black away. Masks are automatically created and linked to new adjustment layers and Smart Filters. If you want to mask a Smart Object or other type of layer, you must create it yourself. Select the layer and then click the Add Layer Mask icon on the Layers panel. Bam!

To show a mask as a rubylith (making it red and very easy to see), select the mask from the Layers panel and press the Backslash key. Figure 25 shows how effective this is. Bam! squared.

Figure 25 Visualizing masks is a breeze with the overlay enabled.

Final Thoughts

I hope you've seen how powerful photo restoration can be and you're excited to try the tips and techniques I've shared in this article.

As you work, continually remind yourself that your job is to save what you can. Don't get too discouraged by photos that resist restoration; do what's possible without forcing it, and then move on. Even if the transformation isn't eye-popping, you will have saved the image from further decay. Some old photos are just exceptionally difficult to improve.

For more information about how you can use Photoshop to restore your photos, look for my book Photo Restoration: From Snapshots to Great Shots. I go into much more depth in the book than is possible here, and I provide greater detail about all aspects of photo restoration, from start to finish. Hope to hear from you!

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