Basic Photo Restoration

Part 1: Placing subjects on a new background

By George McBride



   Restoring old photographs to “like new” condition, for me, is a passion. I find that it helps me if I put on some soothing music in the background and then lose myself into the work I'll be doing. On some of these treasures, I actually feel as if I know the subjects in the photo. These people, some of which have long since passed on, have lived and loved, laughed and cried and had good times along with the bad. If, for no other reason, I think that it's only fair as a restorer, that I do my very best to bring these photographs back to life.

   If your like every one else, you probably have old photos put away in old albums, shoeboxes and envelopes. Time and conditions have begun to take their toll on these precious mementoes from the past. Let's start our foray into photo restoration with what I find to be the most common repairs I am called on to make…ththe cracked or creased photo or photos that have had someone scribble on them with pencil or ink and photos that through exposure to air and sunlight have become faded and just look bad.


   This photo shows what time and the elements have done. There are discolored spots, a very faded background and pencil marks on one of the boys face. So how do we go about starting to work on this photo?

   Open your favorite photo imaging program and import your picture into it. (*note, I use Adobe Photoshop, but most programs have very similar tools that we can use.) Firstly, you will want to do is study the photo very carefully and see where all the damage is located. You probably scanned the photo to get it into your program so you want to change the scanners default settings of RGB to grayscale.(B&W photos only) This will give the photo a truer B&W appearance. There are several ways to do this but I'll just mention a couple here. In Photoshop, the easiest way is to go to Image / mode then select grayscale. It will ask if you want to discard the color info so just click on OK. You will see the difference quickly.



   Another way to change to grayscale but keep the RGB attributes is to go to Image / adjustments / Desaturate. The end result is basically the same. (This will discussed in more detail at a later time)           


   The background here is very faded and any contrast has long since vanished. What we will do is to remove the two subjects and place them on a new background. “Wait a minute”, you are saying, “How can I do that?” Don't worry, as it is fairly easy to do. It just takes practice.

   With out going into using masks at this point, what we do is select a lasso tool from the toolbar and as carefully as we can, draw a selection in one continuous movement, around the two boys. (See #3 above) When you meet your starting point just let go of the left mouse button and you will see a line of what are called “marching ants”. This is called a selection. When complete, go to edit / copy then go to file / new and a box will come up. Just click ok and a new window will open. Click on edit once again and then click paste. Now you have the two boys by themselves.                                            




   We need to select and use the eraser tool now. Pick a soft fuzzy brush from the brush pallet and set the hardness to about 50%. Now, just start to erase the white background away from the boys. Be careful not to get to close at this point because you might erase what doesn't need to be gone. After you have erased as much as you dare with these settings, switch to a harder brush (20%) and continue to erase from the photo until you have removed all the old background. Be sure to save your work often as you don't want to have to start over again if the power blinks.



   After you have finished removing the old background take a break and begin to go through your photos and look for a suitable background to place these boys on.

   Open the new background photo and convert it to grayscale. Select the move tool and left click and drag the two boys onto the new photo.



   After you have placed them in the new background, you will see that there are some artifacts left over from your erasing. Now is the time to switch back to the eraser tool and clean these up. Use a harder brush set to 10 or 15% to do this.

   You have now removed subjects from the old background and placed them on a new one. In our next tutorial we will work on fixing the two boys with the use of the clone and several other tools.






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