How to Restore Old Family Photos

Family Photo Restoration Tips

old photograph of woman with faded face
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.