Picture Perfect

By Diane Haddad and Christy Miller Premium

Great-grandma’s not looking so good anymore, with brown spots on her face and a tear across her dress. Grandpa’s become rather pale and sickly. And for years, you’ve been watching your mom and dad slowly turn purple.

Time and wear can take a toll on family photos in the form of fading, spots and creases. Don’t wait until your ancestors are unrecognizable—and don’t go broke restoring their images, either. We’ll show you the tools you need to digitally refurbish your photos, and techniques for four common photo fixes.

Make a resolution

Photo retouching starts with a good scan of the damaged photo. You don’t need an expensive scanner—the flatbed scanner you got for less than $100 or your all-in-one printer/scanner/copier will work fine for most jobs. For help selecting a scanner, see the buyer’s guide to all-in-ones in the March 2010 Family Tree Magazine.

You’ll need to adjust the resolution setting before you scan the photo. Most consumer scanners have at least 1,200 dpi (dots per inch) optical resolution—plenty for your purposes. Scan your photo at a resolution of at least 300 dpi, which is optimal if you plan to print the photo at its actual size. If you want to enlarge the photo, go for a higher resolution. For example, say you have a 2×3-inch headshot you want to reproduce as a 4×6-inch print, and you need the final image to be 300 dpi. You plan to enlarge the photo to two times its original size, so you’ll scan the original at two times standard print resolution—or 600 dpi. Err on the side of high resolution: You can downgrade—but not upgrade—the resolution of a digital image.

Rename each file when you save it so you’ll know what it is. Save it in TIF format for long-term preservation (for e-mailing or posting online, save a copy as a JPG, a more compact type of file). Always preserve this original, unedited image. When you want to edit the photo, do a Save As and edit the copy. Remember to regularly back up your digitized images to a CD, flash drive or external hard drive.

Don’t have a scanner? Visit a local photo lab, kiosk or office supply store for scanning services. Note that some retailers won’t scan professional portraits as a matter of the store’s copyright policy, even if the copyright has expired.

Tool time

You’ll need specialized software to edit your photos, but you don’t have to spend a lot (or anything at all). Your scanner or digital camera probably came with a basic photo editing program, such as HP Photosmart Essentials. If so, experiment with that program to see if it meets your needs.

If you need more photo-editing tools, look into these low-cost or free consumer programs: 

  • Picasa: This free software from Google is available for PCs and Macs.
  • Photoshop Elements: Available for PCs or Macs for about $100, this software is a “lite” version of Adobe Photoshop, the program used by most professional graphic designers.
  • Paint Shop Pro: You can purchase this PC software from Corel for about $100. 

As a plus, these programs often include integrated file organization features and online storage (handy for backing up digitized pictures and sharing them with family). For more software options, visit Tucows and choose Windows or Mac from the tabs at the top, then search for photo editor (or use the categories on the left side of the page to navigate to photo-editing programs).

In general, software reviews indicate that free photo editing programs are as good as or even better than what you can buy in stores. We’ll use the free Picasa for the following photo fixes; you’ll find the strategies and tools you’d use in other editing programs are similar to the ones shown here. In Picasa, you’ll click Apply to save changes you’ve made to the photo, or Cancel to remove any changes since the last Apply. Whatever program you use, it’s a good idea to save your changes every so often so you won’t lose all your work if you need to undo your last few steps (or, heaven forbid, the power goes out).

Professional help

Is your photo-editing job beyond your home repair abilities? A professional photo retoucher may able to fix problems such as tears that remove parts of a photo or fading that obscures faces.

To find a pro, check the yellow pages under Photo Retouching or Photo Restoration, or run a Google search on these terms plus the name of your city. A local photography store also may be able to recommend someone. Many batch scanning services, such as ScanDigital, ScanCafe and offer photo-retouching, too. The downside is that you’ll have to ship your pictures through the mail.

A surprising amount of photo damage, though, is fixable by you, at home, with simple software tools and a little patience. Isn’t it nice to know you can return your sickly looking grandpa and purple parents to a healthy glow?

Problem: Photo Fade


1. The details in this photo were fading into a beige mist. Start by opening the scanned photo in Picasa.
2. Select the Basic Fixes tab. Click on Auto Contrast to boost the contrast between the light and dark areas of the photo.

3. Click the Tuning tab. Use the Shadows slider to darken the photo’s shadows (moving it to the right strengthens the shadows). If the highlights in the photo aren’t bright enough, use the Highlight slider to lighten them (here, we left the highlights as they were).

Problem: Color Shift


1. This photo had taken on a reddish cast over time. To fix it, first open the photo in Picasa and click the Effects tab. Here, you can choose a number of color effects, including Black and White, Sepia, Warmify and Tint, so experiment to see which works best for your photo.
You also could click the Basic Effects tab and choose Auto Color, which automatically rebalances the hues in a color photo. Remember, you can always click Cancel to undo an effect if you’re not happy with it. For this photograph, we’ll select Black and White to return the image to a black-and-white appearance.

2. Click Accept to save the changes. Here’s the corrected photograph. Keep in mind that you’ll improve the look of the photo, but it may not return to its original appearance.

Problem: Rips and Tears


1. The tear on this photo looks intimidating, but you can repair it with some patience. Open the photo in Picasa and select the Basic Fixes tab, then Retouch. Use the Brush Size slider to select a brush size. It’s best to start out small; you can make the brush bigger when working on areas of the photo without much detail. When working on detailed areas, especially faces, zoom in even further and use a small brush size.
2. Zoom in on the area of the photo you want to work on. Click on the tear, then move the brush around to find an area of the photo that you want the torn place to look like. Click again, and Picasa will replace the pixels in the torn area with those from the undamaged area.

3. Take your time as you continue across the tear, replacing the torn area with nearby pixels.

Problem: Dust and Spots


1. The fix for a photo speckled with dust and spots is similar to repairing tears. Open the photo in Picasa and select the Basic Fixes tab, then Retouch. Select your brush size. Zoom in on the photo and click on a spot you want to erase.

2. Move your mouse to find an adjacent area of the photo you can use to cover the spot, and click again to replace the spot with the pixels from the undamaged area.

Retouching Tools

You’ll find these retouching tools in many photo-editing programs:

  • Airbrush: simulates a spray-paint can when applying a color; you can adjust the size of the brush and the spray’s intensity
  • Burn: darkens too-light areas
  • Clone/rubber stamp: copies a good area of an image and pastes over a bad area, such as a crease
  • Dodge: lightens too-dark areas to bring out detail
  • Smudge: smears details slightly to soften an area of an image (such as a speck of dust)

For a chart that gives you the scanning resolution you need based on the sizes of the original photograph and the enlargement you plan to print, see

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From the January 2011 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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