First, if you have a shoebox full of photos or slides, take them to a reputable camera shop and have them digitized to a CD-ROM or DVD. You’ll save time and get consistent, high-quality scans. Request the images be saved in very high resolution so you can print them on photo-quality paper.
Crop. Basic Photoshop tools can repair a surprising amount of damage. For example, if an unsightly mark appears at the edge of the photo, crop it out. Click the Crop tool, drag the cursor over the section of the photo you want to keep, right-click the mouse, and select Crop. Choose Edit, then Undo if you’re not satisfied.
Cropping is also handy for removing portions of the white border that old prints typically have. (Strictly speaking, photos should be scanned without these borders.)
Unsharp mask. If the image is blurry, click the Filter menu, Sharpen, and Unsharp Mask. Check the preview box to see your adjustments immediately reflected. Use the Amount slider to increase sharpness, which is contrast between pixels. Apply a sharpness of at least 100%.
The Radius slider control determines the range of pixels from the edges that are sharpened. A lower radius selects those nearest the edge; a higher radius affects a wider swath of pixels. A radius of 2 or 3 is most effective.
The Threshold slider specifies how different a pixel’s value must be from the surrounding area before the filter sharpens it. A threshold of 0 sharpens all pixels. Levels between 2 and 20 work best.
Dust and scratches. If the photo is severely scratched, lined, or speckled, remove the marks by choosing Filter, Noise, then Dust & Scratches. Experiment with the Radius and Threshold sliders to reduce spotting and yet maintain sharpness.
This command is particularly effective with selected portions of an image. Use the Rectangular or Elliptical Marquee tool to select the area around the offending mark. Select the Dust & Scratches command. Click the mark. Refer to the enlarged preview window as you adjust the radius and threshold. To deselect the area, press ALT-D. The Dust & Scratches command removes the darkest of spots.
You can use the handy Marquee tool with most of the commands we discuss.
The Clone Tool
Cracks and tears present another difficulty. The clone tool lets you cover such marks with color from the surrounding area, like applying skin-tone makeup to a white scar.
Click the Clone tool (the rubber stamp icon). If necessary, adjust brush size in the menu at the top of the window. Now, in the area adjacent to the crack or tear, find a representative color to fill the damaged area.
Press and hold ALT and click that color. The clone tool is now “loaded” like a paintbrush. Hold down the left mouse button and click or wipe inside the damaged area. It may take several tries, but once you get the knack, you’ll be surprised at the results.
Restoring color often requires multiple tools. Try the following commands, found by clicking Image, then Adjust. Remember that you can use the Rectangular or Elliptical Marquee tool to select smaller areas to edit.
Use sliders in the Brightness/Contrast command to brighten a murky image or dim an area that’s too bright. While the Brightness slider lightens or darkens, the Contrast slider enhances or reduces color values between pixels.
We particularly like the Color Balance command. Use this to restore lost color in photos that have taken on a reddish or greenish cast, for example. If the photo has areas of very light or very dark color, click the Shadows or Highlights button (under Tone Balance) to adjust these areas.
Finally, try your hand at colorizing black-and-white images with spots of color. This is an old-fashioned style once popular in children’s formal portraits. First, click the Foreground Color and choose a pale hue (very pale pink for cheeks, for example). Then click the Airbrush tool. Choose a brush from the options menu. Then select a very low pressure for the brush, about 10%. Then carefully click and wipe the areas you want to color.
Choose a few good photos to restore, then have them printed and framed. Is there a favorite relative you’d like to surprise?