My Adventures In Photography

A while back I started a photography column for my hometown's local newspaper — you'll find all of my columns from those pages here as well as new ones that I write.

To see all of my blog posts to date, click here.

Restoring faded memories

Old photos.

Everyone has old photos, and in times of boredom or nostalgia we are all drawn back to the dust riddled cupboard that holds all of the family photos that have been compiled in albums over the years.

At least, that has been the situation up until now.

With technology improving, photographic quality and creating new (less cluttery) ways of storing photos are definitely the future.

But what about the past?

My generation (and several others ahead of me as well as behind) have all of these old photos that we need to somehow be caretakers of.

The simple solution would be to just keep the albums the way they were made, however, time will take effect eventually and degrade the quality of those old film images as the years pass.

With the passing of my great-grandmother this year, many relatives tasked me with looking through old photos, digitizing them and creating a video slideshow for the funeral.

As painful as that was, it also reminded me that many of these wonderful pictorial memories will eventually fade if not taken care of.

So, my solution: grabbing a scanner and scanning high resolution copies of these images to my computer.

Now, to the subject of this post.

Having digital copies of these old photos is great, but where the flaws of film and old school printing have taken hold, there’s a unique opportunity to clean up those problematic photos using Adobe Photoshop.

I’ve included some examples of what this looks like as the main piece of art in this post.

Flipping through old albums, I noticed that a lot of the images were underexposed, the color was far from natural and the images were covered in what we photographers like to call “artifacts.”

An artifact is essentially a speck or piece of dust that no one really wants in their photo. Using Photoshop’s healing brush or clone stamp tool (either one works great) can clear these artifacts up nicely.

I always suggest zooming in on the photo so the area where the artifact you want to fix is nice and large. If you use either the healing brush or the clone stamp tool without being zoomed in, some pixels might get misplaced and you end up with a worse speck of dust than you started with. It’s rare, but it can happen. 

So make sure you can see by being zoomed in when you make edits like that.

Next up is color. Old film prints often don’t always represent how natural the color of the scene was.

How do I know what the natural white balance (photography term) of the room was?

Well, I obviously wasn’t there, but I know the 70s had the same sun we do now.

White light. Not orange.

So when correcting the white balance of a photo in Photoshop using either curves, levels or the color balance tool (my preferred tool other than using the camera raw plug-in), just adjust the photo to what you could imagine the scene looked like with nice clean light.

Last is exposure.

Some old photos are either too dark in some areas or too bright (hopefully the former: Overexposed photos are not fun to try and fix ...).

If you used either curves or levels in Photoshop to adjust the color balance in your scanned photo, you also can adjust the exposure. Make sure that when you do so the white areas of the photo don’t get blown out and the shadows are preserved as well.

There is such a thing as too much contrast in a photo: It’s not pretty.

Lastly, when saving these images be sure to save them either as .tif images or high resolution .jpgs. 

.tif images tend to be kind of large in file size as there is no compression done to these photos to make them more hard-drive-friendly. .jpg images are smaller, but the compression can sometimes make a photo ... well, not what you want quality-wise.

If you save as a .jpg, make sure that the PPI (pixels per inch) are at least 300 and that the overall image size of the photo is large enough that you’re OK with some image compression.

Obviously this is a fairly complicated topic, especially when trying to explain it using just type. There are a lot of tutorials online that delve deeper into how to fix up old photos. They can take you through it step by step so you can see the changes happen in real time.

If you’re new to Photoshop, I highly recommend looking up a how-to tutorial online.

If you read this post and totally grasped what I said, go forth and create a new family super album that future generations can enjoy!

It’ll take a lot of work, and your old photos may never be the same quality that a new camera can take, but improvements in clarity and color can be made. Really, it’s worth attempting to hang on to a cherished memory.