Scanners have never been better value for money. For less that £100 you can now buy a scanner that can cope with negatives and slides as well as prints at up to 4,800 dpi, so you’ve no excuse to put off digitising your photos any longer. However, simply scanning those dusty old photos from the box in the loft probably isn’t enough.
Certainly it will make them much more accessible and preserve them for posterity, but the chances are that time has already taken its toll on your precious pictures. What’s more, while your photos certainly won’t get any worse once they’re safely stored digitally, the act of digitising them won’t return them to their former glory.
The good news, though, is that a digital photograph is much easier to restore than its analogue counterpart as we’re about to see.
Here we’ll look at ways of putting right the most common types of damage that occurs to old photos. In the main, photographic prints, negatives and slides degrade in three ways.
First of all they pick up dirt in the form of dust, hairs and even coffee stains. Second, they suffer physical damage such as scratches, creases and tears. Finally, they degrade chemically. This can result in faded areas on very old negatives and, in the case of colour photos, the colours can be faded or otherwise altered.
Film Care & Repair
Although photo editing can work wonders for damaged photos, it pays to do as much as you can to repair any damage to your photographs before scanning them. If they’re dirty, it’s far easier and more effective to remove dust and hairs physically than editing it out later.
Be careful that you don’t cause damage by scratching though. Use a very soft brush, ideally of the type that also includes an air blower. Better still, use a compressed air aerosol. Both are available from www.hama.co.uk or from high street photographic shops.
Stains caused by liquid are harder to remove without damage as they’d need to be washed off. The best course of action if the photos in question are sufficiently valuable is to seek professional help.
If a negative or slide is torn there’s not a lot you can do except to ensure that it’s as flat as possible before you scan it. In the case of a print, though, repairing it by applying tape to the back will reduce the need for digital editing.
After cleaning, repairing and scanning, you should also think about ongoing care. After all, we certainly don’t recommend that you throw your old photos away after you’ve scanned them. This way, if you subsequently invest in a better scanner, you can re-scan them for even better results. The number one rule is to keep your photos in the dark to help prevent them fading. High temperatures should also be avoided.
However, there's only so much that can be repaired physically; this is where photo editing software comes to the rescue.
Commonly, scanners are bundled with software to help you restore your scanned photos. You might also find similar software bundled with your digital camera. Either way, our tutorial will show you how the general techniques work.
We'll be using Corel Photo-Paint but, so long as you have a reasonably well-equipped photo editor, you should be able to repair your photos in much the same way. If you want a free alternative, try Pixlr.
How to retouch scanned slides, negatives and photos
1. Marks on your scan caused by dust, hairs, tears or creases will appear as black or white lines or dots. To remove them, you'll need to overwrite them using the clone tool (or Healing brush if you have Photoshop) which copies from one area of a photo to another. Copy from an area close to the mark you want to remove. Use a degree of transparency or feathering to avoid a hard edge.
2. Sometimes you’ll find a very thin scratch across the entire length of a photo. It’ll be a time-consuming job to remove this using the clone tool but since this type of scratch is usually parallel to one edge of the photo there’s an easier method as we’ll see in this and the next step. First select the area of the photo immediately to one side of the scratch.
3. Copy your selection and paste it as a separate object or layer over the original. Now move it so that it just covers the scratch. Save the photo so that the objects of layers are merged and crop to remove the strip of repeated photo along one edge. If you try to remove too wide a scratch, you might still have to resort to the clone tool to tidy it up afterwards.
4. Sometimes a photo's colours fade with time. The solution is to use the tool for increasing colour saturation. More commonly, though, there’ll be a colour cast due to different colours fading to different extents. You might find that an automatic colour correction tool is effective but, failing that, you’ll need to adjust each colour channel individually.
5. The contrast of a photo can degrade with age or, alternatively, with very old photos it might not have been very good in the first place. Either way, once you’ve repaired any other damage, if you feel your photo lacks impact, consider increasing the contrast. Often this is bundled together in a tool for adjusting brightness too. Beware of increasing contrast too much.
6. The other aspect that you might consider enhancing after all your other repairs is sharpness. While you this won’t actually create detail that’s missing in a soft photo, the act of sharpening will make it look crisper. Again, though, don’t go too far or the end result will look very grainy. Your photo editor probably has several modes of sharpening and our advice is to use the Unsharp Mask tool if present.