Creating and Editing Digital Photos

Tips for Scanning and Restoring

Woman looking at a family photo album
Brick House Pictures/Iconica/Getty Images

Do you have old faded or torn photos that you'd like to give a facelift? Have you been meaning to take that box of old photos from Grandma and scan them? Learning to create and edit digital photos is fairly easy and very worthwhile. Digitally restored photos can be used to create digital scrapbooks, post to websites, share through email, and print for gift-giving or display.

You don't have to be a technology whiz or a graphic designer to become proficient at photo restoration, but you will need a computer, a scanner, and a good (not necessarily expensive) graphics program.

Scanning Tips for Digital Photos

  1. Check your photos for dirt, lint, or smudges. Gently remove surface dust and dirt with a soft brush or lint-free photo wipe. Canned air, available at most office supply stores, helps to blast away dust and lint from photographic slides but is not recommended for heirloom print photos.
  2. Check the scanner glass for lint, hair, fingerprints, or smudges. Use a lint-free pad or wipe to thoroughly clean the glass (basically anything that is sold as safe for cleaning camera lenses will also work for your scanner). Household glass cleaner can be used to clean your scanner glass, as long as you're careful to spray it directly on the cloth before wiping, not directly on the glass surface. When using your scanner or handling photographs, it is best to wear clean white cotton gloves (available from photo stores and hardware stores) to avoid leaving fingerprints on your scanner or photos.
  3. Specify the type of scan. If you're scanning photos, you have a basic choice of color photo vs. black and white. When scanning family photos, it is usually best to scan in color, even if the source photo is black and white. You'll have more manipulation options, and you can change a color photo to black and white (grayscale), but not the other way around.
  4. Determine the best scan resolution to assure the quality of your digital photos. The optimal resolution depends on how the image will be printed, saved, or displayed. A good rule of thumb is to scan your photos at a minimum of 300 dpi (dots per inch) to assure decent quality for enhancement and restoration techniques. It's even better to do 600 dpi or greater if you plan to eventually store these photos on CD or DVD, and have space on your computer hard drive to handle such large images.
  5. Carefully position your photo on the scanner face down on the glass, just like on a photocopy machine. Then hit "prescan" or "preview." The scanner will take a quick pass of the image and display a rough version on your screen. Check to see that it's straight, that no part of the photo has been cut off, and that the photo appears free of dust and lint.
  6. Crop the previewed image to include only the original photo. For archival purposes, do not crop only a portion of the photo at this point (you can do that later if you want a cropped photo for a specific purpose). However, you should make sure that all you are scanning is the actual photograph. (Some scanners and software will do this step for you automatically.)
  7. Avoid corrections while scanning. After scanning, you'll be able to edit the image in a graphics software program which offers much more control. The order of steps should be: scan a basic image, save it, play with it.
  8. Check your file size before scanning. You'll want to make sure the chosen resolution you won't create a photo that is so large it will crash your computer. Some computers have enough free memory to handle 34MB photo files, and some don't. If the file size is going to be larger than you thought, then adjust the scan resolution accordingly before making the file scan.
  9. Scan the original image. This shouldn't take too long, but it could take a few minutes if you're scanning at a very high resolution. Take a quick bathroom break, or get your next photo ready for scanning.

Saving & Editing Your Digital Photos

Now that you've got your photo scanned in, it's time to save it to your hard drive. Be sure to choose an archival method and select a good photo-editing program.

Storage Tips for Digital Photos

  1. Choose your file type. The best file type for scanning and saving archival photos is TIF (Tagged Image Format), the undisputed leader when the best quality is required. The popular JPG (JPEG) file format is nice because its compression algorithm creates smaller file sizes, making it the most popular photo format for web pages and file sharing. However, the compression that creates the small files also causes some quality loss. This loss of image quality is small, but becomes important when dealing with digital images that you plan to modify and re-save (something that you are likely to do when restoring damaged or faded photographs) because the loss of image quality compounds itself at each saving of the file. Bottom line—unless space on your computer's hard drive is at a real premium, stick with TIF when scanning and saving digital photos.
  2. Save an archive copy of the original photo in TIF format. You can then place it in a special folder on your hard drive or copy to CD or DVD. Resist the urge to edit this original photo, no matter how bad it looks. The purpose of this copy is to preserve, as closely as possible, the original photograph in a digital format—a format that, hopefully, will outlast the original print photo.
  3. Make a copy of your scanned photo to work on. Use the copy instead of manipulating your original scan. Save it with a different filename (i.e., you can use the original file name with -edited on the end) to help prevent accidentally overwriting the original as you work on editing the photo.

Choosing a Graphics Software Program

The key to good digital photos is selecting a good graphics software program. If you don't have photo editing software yet, there are a lot of good options available—ranging from free photo editors to beginner photo editors, to advanced photo editing software. For photo restoration, a mid-range graphics software program offers the best balance of function and price.

Step-by-Step Photo Repair and Restoration

Now that you've done all the tedious work of scanning and saving your photos as digital images, it's time to get started with the fun part—photo retouching! Pictures with stains, creases, and tears may have character, but they aren't as pretty for framing or photo projects. These photo editing tips will help make your old pictures album-ready.

Editing Tips for Digital Photos

  1. Open your photo editing software and select the photo. Be sure that it is a copy and not your original digital image. (This way you can always start over if you make a mistake.)
  2. Crop your photo using the crop tool. This is good to do in cases where there is a mat or extra "wasted" space in the photo. Depending upon your purpose, you may also wish to use the crop tool to cut out the background or focus in on a particular person. Since you have saved a copy of the original photo, you don't have to worry about losing important historical details by getting a bit creative with cropping.
  3. Fix photo flaws including rips, tears, creases, spots, and smudges, with a variety of handy fix-it tools.
    Creases, Tears, Spots, & Smudges: Most image-editing programs have a cloning or copying tool to help fix photo flaws by filling them in with patches from similar areas in the picture. If the area is large, you may wish to zoom in on the area a bit before applying the cloning tool. The best alternative in low-budget photo editing software is usually the smudge tool.
    Dust, Speckles, & Scratches: Set Radius and Threshold settings at their lowest settings and then slowly increase the Radius until you find the lowest setting that will rid your image of the dust or scratches. However, since that makes your whole image look blurry, you should then bring the Threshold setting way up and then slowly lower it until you find the highest setting that still removes dust and scratches from your photo. Check the results carefully—sometimes this process ends up removing eyelashes and other important content that mimic scratches. Many graphics programs also have a global dust/speckles filter, which looks for spots that differ from their neighboring pixels in color or brightness. It then blurs the surrounding pixels to cover the offending ones. If you only have a few large specks, then zoom in on them and edit the offending pixels by hand with a paint, smudge, or cloning tool.
    Bye, Bye Red Eye: You can remove that annoying effect in your photos with automatic red-eye removal, or with the pencil and paintbrush found in most photo-editing software. Sometimes an automatic Red-eye Removal tool will change the original eye color. If in doubt, check with someone who has knowledge of the person's eye color.
  4. Correct the color and contrast. You may find that many of your old photos have faded, darkened, or become discolored with age. With the help of your digital photo-editing software, you can easily repair and restore these photographs to their former glory.
    Brightness: Lighten up a dark photo with the brightness adjustment. If it's too light, you can darken it a bit.
    Contrast: Best used in conjunction with Brightness, this feature adjusts the overall contrast—bringing out features in pictures that are mostly middle tones (grays with no true blacks and whites).
    Saturation: Use the Saturation tool to help turn back the clock on faded photos—giving photos more richness and depth.
    Sepia-tones: If you want to give your color or black-and-white photo an antique look, then use your photo-editing software to create a duotone (two-color picture). If your original photo is color, you'll first have to convert it to greyscale. Then select duotone and choose your two colors (brown shades are the most common for this effect).
  5. Sharpen: Use this to add focus to a blurry photo as the final step before saving.

Enhancing Your Digital Photos

If you have plans to use your newly-edited digital photos in a scrapbook, slideshow, or another digital project, then you may wish to jazz them up with colorization, captions, airbrushing, or vignettes.

Enhancement Tips for Digital Photos

Colorization
Have you ever wondered how your 19th-century great, great-grandfather may have looked in color? Or perhaps you want to see how that old black-and-white photo would look with a few touches of color—a pink bow here and a blue dress there. If your photo-editor is fairly full-featured, it's easy to find out!

  • Begin with a black-and-white photo.
  • Using a Selection tool Lasso), select an area of the image that you wish to add color to. The Magic Wand can also be used for this step, but it requires a bit of technical knowledge and practice to use with black-and-white photos.
  • Once the area is selected, go to the tint or color-balance controls and alter the color level values.
  • Experiment until you get the desired effect.
  • Repeat these steps for each area of the picture you wish to colorize.
    Colorizing photos can get a lot fancier than what we've detailed above, with techniques such as channel-splitting and transparent layers, plus tips for using the Magic Wand for selecting photo areas.

Adding Captions

If you've spent any time going through an ancestor's collection of largely unlabeled photos, you'll understand why we say that you owe it to your descendants (and other relatives) to properly label all of your digital photos. Many photo-editors offer a "caption" option which allows you to actually "embed" a caption within the header of JPEG or TIFF format files (known as the ITPC standard), allowing it to be transferred directly with the picture, and be read by the majority of graphics software programs. Other photo information that can be embedded with this method includes keywords, copyright info, and URL data. Most of this info, with the exception of the caption in some photo software, is not displayed with the photo but is stored with it and can be accessed under the photo's properties by almost any user. If your photo editing software supports this feature, it can usually be found under "Add Caption" or "File -> Info." Check your help file for details.

Creating Vignettes

Many old photos have soft-edged borders, called vignettes. If your photos don't, it's an easy effect to add. The classic vignette shape is an oval, but you can get creative and use other shapes such as rectangles, hearts, and stars. Or you can create a free-hand vignette, following the irregular outline of the subject—as in a portrait.
Select an image with plenty of background around the subject. You need this to allow room for effective fading.

Use the Selection tool in the shape of your choice (rectangular, oval, etc.), adding the "feather" option to feather the edges of your selection by 20 to 40 pixels (experiment to find the amount of fading which looks best for your photo). Then drag out the selection until you encompass the area you want to start the blend. The line at the edge of your selection will eventually be at the midway point of your faded edges (in other words, pixels on both sides of the line you've created will be "feathered"). Use can also use the Lasso selection tool if you wish to create an irregular border.

Under the Selection menu choose "Invert." This will move the selected area to the background (the part you wish to remove). Then select "delete" to cut this remaining background from the picture.

Some photo-editing programs offer an easy one-click option for adding vignette borders, as well as other fancy frames and borders.

Using these strategies, you can save family photographic heirlooms and create a historical record that can be shared digitally and in print.