Top Tips for Restoring  Photographs

I love my job as a photo restorer.  It is such gratifying work. It can also however be very time consuming and sometimes even a little stressful.  Following are just a few useful tips to guide you with your photo restoration tasks.

1. Begin with the best digital copy possible.

Whether scanning or re-photographing, it is worth taking the time to ensure that the digital copy of the image you wish to restore is the best quality possible.  If you start with a poor copy of the original, no amount of retouching will lead to fabulous results.

The scan quality from one scanner to another can vary dramatically so if the image is worth restoring it is generally worth using the best scanner available to copy your image. On the left you can see an image I scanned at the default 300ppi with a portable scanner which is convenient and quick but not ideal if planning to restore the image.  You will notice the poor quality, especially when zoomed in at 400%.  On the right, is the same image, also scanned at 300ppi but using a better quality scanner.  This is a much better scan.  I can see more detail and the image is sharper.  The quality scanner will also allow me to scan at a higher resolution for even better results.

scan-comparisonMany scanners allow you to make adjustments during the scanning process.  I prefer to make all adjustments during the editing process in Photoshop.  Here I have more control over adjustments.  The one exception I often use is the ‘descreen’ function.  This can be quite effective when scanning newsprint or magazines but you do need to take care as it softens the image.

Ideally, save your scanned images in a lossless file format such as Tiff or .psd. if your scanner allows.  Some scanners do not give you an option. I only save images as a .jpeg when I have completed restoration and I am preparing my file to send to the printer or to publish online.

Scan your images as RGB files, even if they are black and white.  The colour information may be very useful when removing damage, especially stains.

I have a scanning guide on my website which helps you to calculate the best resolution. You need to consider the size of the original and the size of the image you want at the end of the editing process for printing.

Sometimes it is not practical to scan images.  They may be behind glass or in albums and cannot be removed.  They may be ‘silvered’ or be printed on highly textured paper.   They may also be so severely damaged that they cannot be laid flat on your scanner.  If this is the case, you may be best to re-photograph the original.

If re-photographing your images, the same general rule applies; the better the copy, the better the end result.  A digital SLR will generally yield much better results than a point and shoot camera.  When saving your files, ideally save them as RAW files or TIFF files. If your camera does not support either of these file formats, choose the highest quality jpeg available.

2. Take time to evaluate your image and develop a restoration strategy before you jump in.
With experience, you will develop a workflow which works best for you.  For example, I usually begin by correcting exposure, contrast and colour, then move on to repairing damage.  Occasionally however,I find it necessary to repair some damage before making my exposure corrections, especially if I have an image which presents in multiple pieces or has pieces missing.

No two images are the same so it is important to evaluate each image and decide the best plan for restoration.  Look closely and pay attention to fine details.  Whilst many restorations are purely objective (there is an obvious problem which needs to be fixed) many require subjective input, especially those images with missing pieces.  These will require a little more thought and creative finesse.

By taking time to evaluate your image, you could also save yourself many hours of repair work which leads to my next hint;

3. Check individual colour channels before you begin.

You may save yourself hours of work.

When you scan your image as RGB (red, green, blue), you will be able (in Photoshop) to assess each individual colour channel.  By doing so, you may discover that the majority of damage appears only on one channel.  If this is the case, there are techniques for replacing data on the ‘bad’ channel/s with data from a better channel.  Here is the perfect example.

check-colour channels-before-you-begin-to-restoreThe original image is covered in yellow stains and spots.  A preview of individual colour channels reveals that the majority of damage on this image is isolated to the blue and to a lesser extent, the green channel but the red channel is clean.  By replacing data on the blue and green channels with data from the red channel I was able to eliminate almost all of the staining.  This simple step can potentially save you many hours of tedious restoration work.

4. Never work on your background (original) layer.

Either work on a duplicate image or duplicate your background layer before you begin to restore your image.  You may need to return to that original image.  It is also great having that original, unrestored layer intact so you can compare the original with adjustments made whilst and after restoring.

5. Utilise adjustment layers wherever possible.

When you edit on an adjustment layer, you do no harm to your original image, nor do you make permanent adjustments to any of your layers.  We refer to this as non-destructive editing. Adjustments such as exposure, levels, curves, hue/saturation, selective colour etc. can all be made using adjustment layers.  Each adjustment resides on its own layer which you can edit, delete, duplicate, merge or rearrange at any time.  When you make a correction using an adjustment layer, the correction is made to all layers below the layer, without affecting any of the layers above them.

6. Keep your hands off the ‘auto’ buttons! 😡

When you first begin restoring images it may be tempting to use ‘auto’ commands.  Whilst ‘auto’ adjustments can achieve satisfactory results, you will have much more control over the end result if you perform these tasks manually.  Here is an example of a transparency which I scanned then adjusted using auto colour, auto contrast and auto tone.  Compare the results with a copy of the same image  to which I applied manual colour, tone and contrast adjustments using non-destructive adjustment layers.  Even at this small size and resolution you can clearly see the difference.


Take the time to understand how tools, commands, filters and blending modes work and you will be pleasantly surprised with what you are able to achieve.

7. Mask, don’t erase.

When you use the eraser tool on a layer, the pixel data is removed from the layer and, unless you go back through your history (and only during that editing session) you cannot retrieve erased data.  Layer masks allow you to ‘hide’ data from a layer.  This data can very simply be recovered with a simple brush stroke should you need to.

Here is an example of an image which has had the background ‘hidden’ using a layer mask.  Wherever you paint black on your mask, data will be hidden.  Paint white and it will be revealed.
use-layer-masks-instead-of-the-eraser-tool8. Don’t overuse filters.

There are many filters within Photoshop and available as plugins which can be used to assist with your restorations tasks, however they should be used in moderation.   Over-sharpening can result in pixelated images with strange halos.  Too much noise reduction can result in flat, lifeless images with loss of detail in high contrast areas.  Adding a Gaussian blur to minimise the severity of damage in background areas or to increase the illusion of shallow depth of field can work well, but if you go too far, the image will look unrealistic and ‘doctored’.  Filters can be very used successfully but use them in moderation.

9. Pay attention to detail

It is quite easy to overlook obvious flaws when you are working closely on an image.  Zoom out occasionally and survey your work to ensure you have not created new ‘problems’ within your image.  For example, I often see restored images that have cloning patterns.  These occur when the restorer does not take the time to sample frequently or to blend cloned areas.  It is a common mistake which is easily avoided.

10. Keep your .psd files.

When you have completed your restoration, you will most likely want to save your image as a .jpeg so it can be sent off to be printed or re-sized and published online.  When you save your image as a .jpeg, the image will be compressed and you will lose all of your working layers.  I always keep my .psd file, just in case I need to re-edit or make further adjustments to my image plus a tiff or jpeg file for my client.

Photo Restoration Tools

If you plan on spending long hours restoring photographs, there are tools which can make your work a little easier.  Of course, you should start with suitable software such as Photoshop.  Photoshop is no longer available for purchase as a boxed set.  the newest version, Photoshop CC was released in June 2013 and is available only by subscription via Adobe Create Cloud.  Photoshop Elements, Paintshop Pro or even The Gimp are great alternatives, especially for those on a tighter budget.

A graphics tablet such as a Wacom tablet allows for comfort and accuracy when retouching and restoring photographs.  The stylus has a pressure sensitive tip which is particularly useful when cloning, healing and painting and using a stylus is generally much easier that using a mouse, especially when it comes to making selections.  What you pay for a graphics tablet, you will most likely save in chiropractor bills.  Ergonomically, holding a pen or stylus in your hand for hours is much better than pushing around a mouse.

I once attended a seminar where an audience member asked the presenter, ” is possible to professionally retouch photos with a mouse”.  The presenter replied with this question; “would a professional painter paint with a brick?”  A great analogy.

A calibrated monitor will allow you to achieve colour accuracy.  If your monitor is not calibrated, the image your print may look nothing like the image on your screen.


If you would like to learn to restore your own images, consider enrolling in a course to familiarise yourself with your chosen software and/or a photo restoration course.

Introduction to Photoshop Elements courses and Photo Restoration courses are held at Pines Learning in East Doncaster.  Visit the Pines Learning website for more details. These courses are suitable for both Photoshop and Photoshop Elements users.

If you are unable to attend one of these courses, I also offer private tuition and weekend workshops at rural and interstate venues.  Check the website and keep in touch via our newsletter or on Facebook to keep informed of upcoming courses and workshops


There are some great photo restoration, many of which are available from my online store.  My favourite restoration book, even though it is a few years old now and written for an older version of Photoshop, is Katrin Eismann’s “Photoshop Restoration and Retouching”.   Her “Photoshop Masking and Compositing” book makes a great companion.  These books ship from Amazon in the US so please allow a few weeks for delivery.

The internet is also a great resource when learning to restore images.  There are subscription sites such as or which offer great online courses.  Retouchpro is another great (free) resource.  It is an online forum for photo retouchers and restorers where you can ask questions participate in webinars and view tutorials.  You can also learn a great deal from reading posts that others have made.  And don’t forget Youtube!

These are just a few of the many tips I can offer when it comes to restoring photographs.  It is a continual learning process and it is only with practice and perseverance that you will become truly skilled at this craft.  I think I learn something new with almost every image I restore.

Please share your top tips for restoring photographs below;


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