What do I Need to Restore Damaged Photographs? Part One

December 11, 2012  - by 

In a past episode of Who Do You Think You Are, 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 the most simple level, anyone can click a photo with an inexpensive camera. At the most complicated level, equipment costing tens of thousands of dollars can involve some of the most expensive software. For example, a simple digital camera with fairly good resolution presently costs about $100. The most expensive digital cameras, such as the Hasselblad H3DII-39MS cost about $31,000. 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 $6000.

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 can cost around $500 (or less depending on discounts and special purchases), while Photoshop Elements 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 about 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 Fraser, Bruce, and Jeff Schewe. Real World Camera Raw with Adobe Photoshop CS4. Berkeley, Calif: Peachpit, 2009.

Over the next few posts, 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. Sometimes the greatest amount of improvement is easily and quickly achieved.

    So many old photos have a poor range of contrast and just using e.g. levels control in Photoshop Elements has fantastic results

  2. I have 3 very faded polaroid pictures. Will this be discussed? I tried bringing the images out on my computer.

  3. You can get excellent photo editing programs for free. I have used “Paint.NET” for years. There are others such as GIMP.


    Take those photos, and scan them. Then, if you know how, have them hosted online. Then post the link here. I will fix up the photos and post the link where you can get them back, repaired.

    If you don’t know how to have a photo hosted online, go to imageshack.us

  4. I am 63 years old an am interested in Digital Photo Restoration in all it’s aspects as a second career. I am particularly interested in the digital colouring of old Black and White photographs