How to Restore Old Family Photos


As a species, we humans treasure family photos. We cling to pictures of great-grandma's wedding, the homestead, and the horrifyingly cheesy and awkward 8th-grade hair cut. Good or bad, pictures help tell our family stories and remind us of who we are.

Fires, floods, wars and hurricanes -- whether the disasters are human-made or the wrath of a very ticked-off Mother Nature, there's no shortage of ways your photographs can be destroyed. It's a credit to the value we place on photographic images that so many examples of this craft endure for generations in spite of it. And even when they're properly stored, all sorts of awful fates await photos: staining, warping, discoloration and fading, rips, tears, and cracks. That's when those images call for restoration.

Photo restoration is a hobby for many amateur photographers. It's also a full-time career for preservation professionals, who are called photographic conservators.

If you have a box of old photos that need some love, you'll want to have an overview of exactly what your restoration options are. If you're paranoid about messing with photos that you consider very valuable, you can send your photos to a restoration professional, who might charge as little as $5 for minor repairs or as much as $80 per hour or more to reconstruct a badly damaged picture. Or you can take a do-it-yourself approach and work on the images yourself with photo-editing software that will let you manipulate and repair many facets of your pictures.

Regardless of the restoration option you choose, there is one vital tip we'll share now and reiterate throughout this article: Handle the original image as if it were the last remaining shred of evidence of a particular time, place or person. If your grandson's chocolate-smeared hands crumble an irreplaceable Civil War photo, there's nothing anyone can do to salvage that bit of history.

Take care of your originals. Don't stack or smash them. Place them gingerly in a rigid, airtight plastic box and keep them in a cool, dark place. Light, heat and excessive humidity (and grabby kiddies' hands) are the enemies of antique pictures.

With those warnings in mind, you can consider a range of restoration possibilities. Keep reading to see how you can bring your aging pictures back to life.

Family Photo Restoration Tips

Great-great grandma's face has gone AWOL. But some innovative restoration processes might be able to salvage a few facial features.
Great-great grandma's face has gone AWOL. But some innovative restoration processes might be able to salvage a few facial features.

Throughout the long history of photography, there have been many different mediums for images. In the 1830s, there were daguerreotypes, in the 1880s there were gelatin prints, and nowadays, many photographers shoot digital images and make hard copies with inkjet printers. Similarly, there are multiple processes you can use to restore these pictures.

This brings up a similar subject and the cardinal rule of a print's rehabilitation - never, ever work directly on the original photo. If you make the mistake of altering an original print and accidentally cause more blemishes, you destroy visual information that no one - not even a professional - can ever reproduce perfectly.

The most common and cost-effective types of picture renewal involve digital reconstruction and duplication using image capture devices and associated software (more on that later in this article). For now, we'll review a few other options that may help save your pictures.

Copy reproduction is one way to touch up pictures and make copies if you happen to have access to precious transparent negatives or positives, both of which can be used to make new prints. A professional lab can even copy the transparencies as an extra safeguard.

If you don't have transparent originals, you might try airbrush restoration. This is a true art form, and, as such, you have to hire an artist to do it. The artist will copy your image and then use special pens and paints to recreate missing parts of the image and fix cracks and color inconsistencies.

Electronic restoration is what amounts to Photoshop on steroids. Imaging technology professionals use very powerful hardware paired with complex software algorithms to make fine-tuned, super-detailed adjustments to the picture. You could hire someone for this kind of work, but the costs would be exorbitant.

Chemical restoration involves reworking the original image with either developer fluid or a bleaching process. As such, this process can ruin your original image, and you should never try this at home. Only a conservator has the knowledge to properly rescue images using this technique.

The same goes for physical restoration, which uses nuclear science and autoradiography to extract image information from old pictures. You won't find this kind of specialized equipment at your local pharmacy's photo lab. Instead, you'd have to pay big bucks to a professional or find a very nice friend at a university equipped with the right facilities.

Not all picture-rescue projects are as complicated as the aforementioned techniques might make it seem. Some of the most effective tools are at your disposal. Keep reading to find out how to make those tools work for you.

How to Restore Damaged Family Photos

Slick, easy-to-use software can help you restore pictures at home, even when the images are cracked and faded.
Slick, easy-to-use software can help you restore pictures at home, even when the images are cracked and faded.

You don't have to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars for professional photo restoration. And you don't need a lot of fancy equipment to do the job yourself.

What you do need is the patience to learn a few basic features of a photo-editing program. You can invest in programs such as Adobe Photoshop Elements or PaintShop Photo Pro, or try a free program like GIMP. If you plan to restore more than one or two pictures, you should probably have access to a flatbed scanner and a digital camera, too.

Before you begin, keep in mind the first rule of restoration -- don't work directly on your original picture. Make a copy. If the picture is too fragile for scanning, that's OK. Find a bright, evenly lit area and use your camera to take a picture of your original. Use your camera's highest resolution setting and turn off the flash.

Once you have a digital copy, set aside your original picture and load your image-editing program. No matter which photo-editing software you choose, it will come with some common features that work well for repairing some types of photo damage. Note that the names of these commands vary slightly depending on the program.

Because they're the fastest way to improve your picture, first try automatic correction features.

With one click, auto color correction may well modify color and contrast to your liking. Similarly, the auto levels feature adjusts overall contrast and often affects color, too. The auto contrast feature, however, leaves color intact and adjusts only contrast.

Auto sharpen will identify edges in your picture and make them more defined, accentuating small details and giving the overall image a crisper look. And the dust and scratches command will eliminate minor imperfections in the picture. This particular feature is great for quickly smoothing out a lot of small problems with one click.

Not all picture fixing goes this smoothly or easily, though. Keep reading to see which software features can help you make more advanced repairs.

Advanced Fixes and Photo Storage

After you fix your family pictures, it's important to store them properly. A safe-deposit box is a great option.
After you fix your family pictures, it's important to store them properly. A safe-deposit box is a great option.

One-click photo fixes are wondrous to behold. However, with pictures that have any significant damage, you'll eventually have to pull out more powerful features like the healing brush tool.

With this tool, you can paint over cracks or blemishes and watch them disappear, but you'll have to experiment with brush size, opacity and hardness before you achieve just the right look. This brush uses advanced software algorithms to analyze color and detail adjacent to the area you want to repair, and it restores similar tones and details to the damaged portion.

You may also want to experiment with the clone stamp tool. This tool lets you manually copy a portion of the image and then stamp the same pattern or color to parts of the image that are in disrepair. Like the healing brush, this tool takes some practice to master. You can make things easier for yourself by magnifying the area you're working on. Save often and give yourself breaks if the work becomes frustrating.

Image-editing programs such as these take a bit of practice to learn. Fortunately, if you search for tutorials on the Internet, you'll find all sorts of advice and specific instructions for fixing old photos.

Once you've fixed a photo and made new prints, it only makes sense to store them properly. Extreme temperatures and humidity, along with light, water and insects, destroy many pictures.

You'll want to store your pictures in a rigid box in a dark location at a temperature of 70 degrees, with relative humidity of 35 percent. A tough plastic box with a hard lid can do the trick, but, for maximum protection, a fireproof box is an even better bet for long-term storage. The downside is that quality safes cost hundreds of dollars.

If you don't want to drop that much cash on a safe, consider a safe-deposit box at your local bank. You won't have immediate access to your pictures at all times, but the big benefit is that your precious photos are about as safe as they can be.

Picture restoration projects can be very time-consuming, but they're also very rewarding. Once you practice your techniques on a few images, you'll see how just a bit of editing can reap huge dividends in the form of improved picture quality. And in the end, you'll have the satisfaction of knowing that you're helping to retain important parts of your family's history, too.

Related Articles


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  • Genealogy. "Protecting Family Memories from Time." (Feb. 28, 2011)
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  • Library of Congress. "Care, Handling, and Storage of Photographs." October 18, 2006. (Feb. 28, 2011.)
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