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Photoshop ER: Restoring Critically Damaged Photos

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To trash or not to trash? At first glance, some photos are all-too-obvious candidates for your computer's recycle bin. Anyone else would trash them, but should you? Before you give up, with some Photoshop tricks you can have a go at recovering the essence of the photo. Helen Bradley shows you some techniques for fixing images that might otherwise be unusable.
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To trash or not to trash? At first glance, some photos are all-too-obvious candidates for your computer's recycle bin. Anyone else would trash them, but should you? What if it's the only photo you have of a person or something else you treasure? Before you give up, get out your box of Photoshop tricks (with some I'm about to show you) and have a go at recovering some of the essence of the photo. You might be surprised at what you can achieve in just a few well-planned steps.

In this article, I'll show you some techniques for fixing images that might otherwise be unusable. You'll see a sequence for making the fixes that will ensure that you're not making changes early in your edits that you'll undo in later steps. You'll also learn some techniques for ensuring that the changes can be undone or edited whenever possible so that you can reverse or tweak the results later on.

Starting Out Right

The first step to fix a badly damaged photograph is to identify its problems. The photo might be damaged because of age and abuse, or the exposure was wrong so there is detail lost in the shadows or highlights.

Make a note of the problems with the image, particularly when there are multiple things to fix. Determine the order in which the tasks should be performed. There are some edits that should be performed in a certain order—for example, you should always sharpen and crop an image last. The editing process tends to leave the image somewhat soft, so you'll want to sharpen the image after you've softened it, not before. Sharpening too early in the editing process will destroy some of the image data at a time when you need all the image data you can get, and it won't avoid the need to sharpen later, anyway.

Tasks that should be performed early in the editing process include cloning distracting elements from the image, restoring any missing pieces, and adjusting levels to improve the image's tonal range. You can use the Shadow/Highlight tool to restore data from an over- or underexposed image by dragging detail out of deep shadows and blown-out highlights—it's another fix you'll perform early on. If an image suffers from color damage—or if its white balance is off—adjusting the colors to a more natural look early on will reveal other color issues that still need to be repaired.

If you need to reduce noise, do this early in the process as well so you can address any softening of the image caused by the noise-reduction process. On the other hand, if you plan to add noise to an image, this process is best done later in the process after other tasks have been performed (for example, after cloning or applying a blur because blurring will distort the noise).

When an image suffers damage from dust, scratches, or blemishes, these fixes should be performed early in the editing process because they will soften the image. As a final step, you'll sharpen and crop the image to focus attention on the subject.

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