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Old Picture, New Life: Adobe Photoshop Photo Restoration and Retouching Basics

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Read Time: 7 min
This post is part of a series called How to Retouch, Recover, and Restore Old Photographs.
How to Add Metadata to Archival Images
How to Rescue Under-Exposed JPEG Images with Adobe Photoshop
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What You'll Be Creating

With the vintage trend, old photographs have been thrust into the spotlight once again with people raiding their attics to see what treasures they can find. History groups in particular are seeing an increase in the amount of old photographs being donated to them. Where once these would have been confined to a dusty archive, with today’s technology they can now be scanned, cleaned up and made available to all.

So how do you clean up an old photo? This tutorial will show you the best way in Photoshop with an emphasis on restoration. We want to bring it back to what it was, not change it into something else.

Once scanned or re-photographed, open up your image in Photoshop. This is the image I’ll be working on.

Old PhotoOld PhotoOld Photo
The photo we'll be working on [photo: Sunderland Antiquarian Society]

1. Duplicate The Original Layer

It's always best to work on a copy of the original image in a new layer. Working on a copy let's us track our progress, reference the original image to make sure we've not changed anything fundamental, and quickly undo things if we've gone to far. Working on a copy is key for working in a non-destructive way.

To duplicate the original image to a new layer, select the original layer in the Layers panel and hit Control-J or Command-J. Alternately, select the original layer in the panel and choose Layers > Duplicate Layer from the Layers menu.

From here on out we'll do our work on the duplicate layer, leaving the original intact and untouched.

2. Crop Untidy Borders

Ok, now we're ready to start working with actual pixels. The picture has edges where it’s been scanned in so firstly we'll just crop those out:

Crop ImageCrop ImageCrop Image
Crop out any uneven or untidy edges

3. Remove Speckles Using the Spot Healing Tool

As you can see, our biggest problem here are the speckles and lines on the photo.  I’m going to start by using the spot healing tool to remove the speckles.

Spot Healing Tool PhotoshopSpot Healing Tool PhotoshopSpot Healing Tool Photoshop
Use the spot healing tool in Photoshop to clear up any small marks and speckles

Make sure that content-aware is selected, as circled above. This will choose points around the brush to fill over your marks and should seamlessly blend it with the background.

Work at 100% or even 200% so that you can see exactly what you’re doing and then place the spot healing tool over the dots you want to remove. If you’re cleaning up detail in the shot, use as small a brush size as possible. If it’s taking out some important aspect of the photo then don’t worry, just do what you can and leave the rest, it doesn’t have to be perfect. 

You might find that in places, the brush has left your background with a smoother circle that stands out. If that’s the case, use the clone stamp tool to gently brush back in some texture, taking a sample from elsewhere in your picture. We’ll move onto using the clone stamp tool next.

Speckles cleaned upSpeckles cleaned upSpeckles cleaned up
Most speckles cleaned up using the spot healing tool

Okay, so that’s most of the speckles cleaned up and you can see our image is already looking better. I’ve not touched the top right corner yet or that distracting line down the left hand side as we’re going to use the clone stamp tool to remove any larger, distracting marks like these.

4. Use the Clone Stamp Tool to Clone Out Larger Marks

The reason I used the spot healing tool to remove the speckles before I moved on to this tool is so it doesn’t include the marks in its sample and duplicate them.

I suggest creating another duplicate layer for this part so that you can keep checking it against the ‘before’. As before, select the layer you want to duplicate (the one we just did all our work on) and hit Control-J or Command-J. Alternately, select the original layer in the panel and choose Layers > Duplicate Layer from the Layers menu.

Select the clone stamp tool and have sample: current layer selected. Now alt-click to a clear part of the background near the area you want to fix, before carefully brushing over your lines or marks. Depending on your image, it might also help to lower the opacity of the brush so that changes aren’t too obvious.

Lowering the opacity of your brush can help blend better

I’d also recommend using a soft brush:

Using a soft brush will give a better result

You can also use this tool as mentioned before, to clean up any little circles or anomalies that might have been left by the spot healing tool. Remember to re-sample (alt-click) near your chosen area each time so as to get the best possible match.

Cleaned up linesCleaned up linesCleaned up lines
Image with the distracting lines cleaned up

5. Use the Dodge and Burn Tools to Bring Back Detail

Now that the main distractions are cleaned up, let's try to rescue some of the detail that’s been lost to ageing.

Use Burn For Shadows

Select the burn tool and set the range to shadows. I’m going to work on 100% Exposure on a duplicated layer so I can lower the opacity of that layer later to get the right balance. Create a duplicate layer and name it 'burn':

Burn layerBurn layerBurn layer
Name your duplicate layer 'burn' to make it easier to see what you're doing

Now gently burn any shadows that have faded out. These are the areas in my example picture that I concentrated on:

Burn tool placesBurn tool placesBurn tool places
These are the areas in which I made use of the burn tool

You can see it’s brought more noticeable detail back to the ships in the background and also made the foreground ship stand out a lot more. This was 50% opacity on the ‘burn’ layer. You may find that switching your range to mid-tones helps with any lighter (but still dark) areas.

Use Dodge to Highlight

Once you’re happy with your burn layer, you can merge it to your background, create a new duplicate layer and call it dodge. Select the dodge tool and this time select highlights as your range. This time we’re not going to work on 100% as dodge needs to be used sparingly. Try around 5% but adjust for your own requirements.

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The dodge tool

Find areas that you want to highlight. In this case, we'll concentrate on the river and parts of the children’s clothes.

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The areas I concentrated on with the dodge tool

These are the areas where I used the dodge tool and the final ‘dodge’ layer is at about 40% opacity. On old photos, this tool will completely blow out highlights and make them look weirdly grainy (as opposed to old photo grainy) so do use it sparingly. If you want to highlight the sky in particular, use a very low opacity on your brush.

Results and Things to Remember

So there you have it, the finished image. It may not feel like you’re making a huge difference but when you look at your results compared with the before, they’re worlds apart:

Before and afterBefore and afterBefore and after
Before and after

The key here is restoration. It’s so easy to get carried away in an editing suite because there’s so much you can do; but it doesn’t always mean you should. Restoration is just that, restoring the piece to how it would have looked before time damaged it. These photos have a whole world of charm and it’s an amazing time we live in that we’re able to restore, preserve and share our history in a way that just wasn’t possible before.


Once we've evaluated the image and decided what we need to fix, the basic restoration process is just five steps:

  1. duplicate the original layer
  2. crop untidy borders
  3. remove speckles using the Spot Healing tool
  4. use the Clone Stamp to to clone out larger marks
  5. use the Dodge and Burn tools to bring back detail; Burn for shadows, Dodge for highlights

Keep Learning

This example used a photograph that was in relatively good shape. Some old photographs are in a much worse state and need an extreme approach to restoration. Here are a couple of tutorials to help with those tough cases.

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