Restoring Damaged Photographs—Part 1

October 10, 2014  - by 

In a 2010 episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, the NBC television series, actress Susan Sarandon carried around a old laminated photo of her grandmother. With today’s technology, she could have had the old photo scanned and restored, however, that was never mentioned in the episode. Neither did they mention, later on in the hour, that the other photos she found could be easily digitally copied. I am sure that almost everyone realizes that any photograph can be digitized and the digital copies of old photos can be edited to “restore” them. Of course, there are limitations. Missing information in the photo cannot be restored. But the appearance of the photo can be digitally enhanced and some obscure parts made more visible.

Digital photography works on a variety of levels. At its most simple level, anyone can click a photo with an inexpensive digital camera or smartphone and thereby digitize an existing photograph or document. At its most complicated level, equipment costing tens of thousands of dollars can involve some of the most expensive software available. For example, a simple digital camera with fairly good resolution presently costs about $100. The most expensive digital cameras, such as the Hasselblad H5D-200MS, cost about $44,000. Obviously, most genealogists are a lot closer to the $100 camera than they are to the Hasselblad. Digital flatbed scanners also have a range of costs, from around $50 up to over $20,000.

Photo Restoration before
Getting the old photo into a digitized format is only half of the story. You need to be able to edit the photo once it scanned. That takes a computer and software. The most popular photo editing software is Adobe’s Photoshop and its less expensive junior partner, Photoshop Elements. The full version of Photoshop CC 2014, the most current version, is presently only available as a part of Adobe Creative Cloud, a way to subscribe to software directly from The cost of just Photoshop CC 2014 is about $10.00 a month. The Photoshop Elements program is less than $100. So if you made the least expensive choices, you could be in the digital photo business for about $250 to $300 or you could spend close to $50,000 or more.

I have been scanning photographs for over thirty years and I would not even try to restore photos with the least expensive options. The real cost of photo restoration is in the time it takes to work on the photos and if you are going to spend the time, you need the right tools and the understanding of how to do the job without ruining both the original photo and the digital copy. If you take the time to start to learn about digital photos, you will soon realize that there is a lot to learn. There is a whole series of Digital Photos for Dummies books out there on the Internet, just try doing a Google search on “digital photo dummies” and see what I mean. If you want to really know what is going on in digital photography and scanning, try a book like Kelby, Scott. The Adobe Photoshop Book for Digital Photographers for Versions CS6 and CC. [Berkeley, CA]: New Riders, 2013.

In the next posts of this series, I will discuss the equipment and the software tools needed to restore photos and to manage your photo collection. Stay tuned.

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  1. Some computers already have picture/photo software built in. Though you may not be able to do as much as with some other programs, you can fix color, crop, correct red eyes, lighten or darken, etc. Free if you have a such a program on your computer! Also, once you scan the pictures, you can print up copies for relatives or have someone else do that for you. There is one large “box” store (guess I shouldn’t name) where you can upload your photos to their website and create a family book. You can also add captions – so important to have people identified. This is so much fun and a great way to share all of your pictures with family! I’ve done it a number of times and folks really appreciate it. And some tree builder programs (available at at least one other other genealogy website I know) allow you to do a little of this as well.

  2. This was informative. Btw, Binfer is a great tool to send entire folders of pictures with a simple drag and drop.

  3. There are also 3rd-party programs that can be downloaded that are similar to Photo Shop and don’t cost anything (ie: GIMP). However, with these 3rd-party programs you need to be careful not to get any malware.

  4. Anxious to follow your story. I’ve been restoring old photos using Photoshop Elements and find the program an excellent tool. And for us perfectionists, yes time–time–time is the true cost when we want the photo to look just right.

    Thank you!

  5. I wanted to print out each of these articles on photography, but it is not printer friendly. So much ink would be used on the pictures with the article. I do wish they could be printed with the text only.

    1. Carrin,
      Copy and paste is a solution. Copy the text from the webpage and paste it into a blank word processor document. If you get unwanted formatting, paste using Edit > Paste Special (Unformatted text) to get just the clean text.