Photograph Restoration and Retouching


The Staff at Photo Rescuer





This article is an overview of photo restoration and retouching, and it provides advice and considerations for having your photographs restored and retouched, and how to preserve them. 

Photographs and their Value

Photographs are snapshots in time that record the important people, places, and things in our lives. They also capture important events in our lives, and serve to augment our memories.  Our photographs mean a lot to us, and we value them.  We put them into photo albums, place them in picture frames, display them in our homes and offices, and carry them with us in our purses and wallets.  The value of photographs is very apparent, as they are often the first thing mentioned by someone whose home has been ravaged by a natural disaster such as a fire, flood, or hurricane.

One of our recent clients had only had one photograph of her and her parents. You could tell how much that picture meant to her, and how happy she was that it could be restored. 

Photograph Permanence and Care

With the exception of natural disasters, deterioration of photographs is caused by environmental factors such as exposure to sunlight, temperature, humidity, handling, and the breakdown of the chemicals and photographic paper (or material) used in the photograph and the developing process.  

You can however reduce and delay the effects of deterioration on your valuable photographs, but this is too important and detailed a subject to address in this article, so we will provide you with some excellent information sources.  

You can read an extremely thorough article by the Library of Congress on the Care, Handling, and Storage of Photographs.  This article also describes in detail all the factors that cause photographs to deteriorate.  This article can be found at:   

The National Archives also has good information on the preservation of photographs, which can be found at:

For a look at the permanence and care of contemporary color photographs, Henry Wilhelm
(with contributing author Carol Brower) put together an  extremely comprehensive book  “The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs: Traditional and Digital Color Prints, Color Negatives, Slides, and Motion Pictures”.

This book was written in 1992, but has information that is relevant today.  A PDF copy of this book is available for download at:  This web site also has current articles relating to the permanence of color photographs.

Traditional and Digital Restoration Methods

When our photographs have deteriorated or been damaged, we often wish they could look the way they did when they were new.   Photo restoration (performed by a skilled restorer) can take these damaged and deteriorated photographs and restore them either close to, or exactly how they were when they were new, and can even improve the photographs.

Photo restoration existed long before the digital world. It was, and still is to some extent today, performed by skilled traditional photo specialists in their darkrooms.  Their tools include artist brushes, retouching dyes, fixers, toners and other chemicals, mixing pallets, baths, enlargers, film tanks and other darkroom equipment.  They do retouching by hand with artist brushes and dyes, and they use enlargers for adding and subtracting exposure to prints (i.e., dodging and burning), and filters for adjusting contrast.

The tools of the digital restorers include scanners, computers with high-end photo-editing software (ex. Adobe Photoshop®, Corel Painter®, Paint Shop Pro®), high resolution monitors, and photo quality printers, paper and inks.  They do retouching with a mouse or table pen, and save their work as electronic files that can be printed, emailed, or stored on removable media such as a CD-ROM or DVD.   Many of the digital retouching features found in the high-end photo-editing software such as Unsharp Mask, Dodging and Burning, and Contrast have their roots in the traditional, non-digital photo restoration world. 

The digital restoration workflow consists of:

·          scanning a photograph or film

·          performing the restoration or retouching using photo-editing software

·          printing out the photograph using a high quality

·          storing the restoration on a removable media such as CD-ROM


Common Photograph Problems

The following section shows some of the more common problems with photographs that can be corrected by photo restoration.


This picture is from the early 1900s. It contains numerous cracks throughout the picture, several of which ran through the face.   It also lacks sharpness.



This restoration included:

  • repairing of a number of deep creases some of which covered the face and eyes

  • rebuilding parts of eyes and nose

  • restoring black, white and gray levels

  • image sharpening

  • repairing and cleaning up the background



Extreme Fading

The left side of this picture was severely faded with a loss of detail in the woman's face, hair, hand and skirt. This restoration included:

·          restoring the woman on the left side of the picture

·          restoring detail to the left side of the picture

·          adjusting brightness & contrast

·          adjusting tone

·          sharpening




Fading, Tone and Contrast

This photo was taken around 1905 and has faded over the years, the tone has changed to a brownish shade, and the contrast and sharpness are lacking


This restoration included:

  • opening up the tonal range (shadows, mid-tones and highlights)

  • adjusting brightness and contrast

  • sharpening the image

  • replacing the background


Color Fading and Shifting

This 1962 visit with Santa has faded, and the colors have shifted over the years. Unfortunately many color photos taken in the 60s, 70, and 80 (and even some in the 90s) have and will experience color fading and shifts.


This restoration included:

  • adjusting colors for a more natural look

  • sharpening

  • adjusting brightness and contrast


Exposure Problems

This photograph was underexposed leaving the images too dark and facial details not well-defined. This restoration included:

·          correcting the tonal level (ex. highlights, shadows and mid-tones)

·          sharpening the overall image



Significant Damage

Photo courtesy of Steve Shalford of Solihull, England. This photo shows his grandfather in 1910 sitting in his new car. This photograph was extremely damaged due to tape, the environment, and age.


This restoration included:



Common photograph retouching capabilities

1. Colorization

It is possible to have sepia (brownish tint) and black and white photographs hand colorized. If you know the original colors of the eyes, hair, skin tone, and clothes, you can get a more accurate colorization:





We performed an exhaustive search to locate the copyright owners of these pictures of Marilyn Monroe, but we were unsuccessful. We did get however get permission to display these photographs from the Marilyn Monroe estate.


2. Special Effects

There are many types of special effects available with photo retouching. They include removing or adding people to a photograph, changing backgrounds, giving glamour makeovers, opening half-shut or completely eyes, removing braces and retainers, age reversal (ex. wrinkle and age spot removal), and weight reduction.

The retainer and some discoloring took away from a nice smile



How often are someone’s eyes shut or half shut in a photograph?   These eyes were opened by copying them from another photograph of the same person, and carefully blended in.



How to get a Photograph Restored

Do it yourself

If you have the desire, time and patients to learn and practice photo restoration, then you always have the option of restoring a photograph yourself. If you don’t already have the tools to do photograph restoration, you can expect to spend in the range of about $500 - $2,000 for a high quality scanner, photo-editing software, and inkjet photo printer.

There are a number of websites that offer tutorials, reviews and critiques of restorations.  One site that we highly recommend is site has restoration and retouching challenges where you can get feedback and advice by others, a forum for asking questions and exchanging ideas, a tutorial section, and a gallery for displaying your images.

The are also several good books on photograph restoration. Unquestionably, the best book we have read on photo restoration and retouching is “Photoshop Restoration and Retouching” by Katrin Eismann ( ).  Katrin Eismann is an internationally respected lecturer and teacher on the subject of imaging, restoration, retouching, and one of the best-known experts in the field. 

An excellent book on advanced techniques in Photoshop 7.0, some of which than can be applied directly to photo restoration and retouching  is “Adobe Photoshop 7.0 Studio Techniques” by Ben Willmore ( ). 

Finding a reputable photo restoration company

If you don’t want to do the restorations yourself, we recommend the following approach for selecting a professional restoration company:

Ask friends and relatives if they have any recommendations, as they may have had some restoration or retouching work done for them.  If you do business with a photo lab that you are comfortable with, ask them if they can recommend a photo restoration service.   

If you cannot get any recommendations,  you can start with a web search on “Photo Restoration”  (you will get pages full of hits).   You can reduce the number of hits if you add your state to the search criteria.  When looking at these web sites, carefully examine their restoration and retouching samples (they are typically viewable on their web sites).   The samples should give you a good idea as to what you can expect.  Once you have selected one or more promising sites:

·          get estimates for the work up front and compare prices and quality between companies

·          get customer referrals from each company  that you can speak with

·          make sure they will provide you a proof copy before you have to lay out any money

·          make sure they will store your original photograph (if they scanned it), and restored photograph on a CD-ROM (or DVD). The photographs should be stored in a common format (ex. JPEG or TIFF)

·          find out is there is a satisfaction/money back guarantee if you can’t get the them to provide you with a restoration that meets your expectations

You may want to take some time and think about how you would like a particular photograph restored.  Some of the things you should consider are:

·          do you want the restoration to be as close to the original as possible, or do you want to make improvements:

o         does the exposure need to be corrected (is the photograph too light or too dark)

o         does the contrast need to be corrected (are the shadows, highlights and mid-tones too similar)

o         does the photograph need any color correction

o         do any artifacts (ex. stains, cracks, dust, mold, etc.)  need to be removed

o         do you want any features of the face retouched (ex. skin/blemishes,  forehead, eyes, nose, mouth)

·          do you want  any special effects (ex. background removed,  person added or removed,  glamour retouch,  digital diet (reducing weight),  hand colorization, etc,)


Before submitting a photograph for restoration, make sure you own it or have written permission to have it restored.  If you are not the owner and do not have written permission to have it restored, it is a violation of U.S. Copyright law.

Before mailing any precious or valued photographs to a photo restoration company, consider how it would affect you if the photograph was damaged or lost in transit.   If this makes you uncomfortable, you have a couple of choices:

·          locate a Photo Restoration Company that is within driving distance that you can work with or,


·          take your photograph to a reputable Photo Lab and have it scanned and placed on a CD-ROM.   You can then mail the CD-ROM to the Photo Restoration Company, or you can copy and attach the scanned photograph to an Email message, and send it via Email

Can any photograph be restored?

It depends.  If facial features (ex. eyes, nose, and mouth) are extremely damaged beyond recognition or missing, then you have the following choices for restoration:

·          provide another picture of the individual where the facial feature or features are discernable

·          provide a picture of a close relative that has very similar facial features

·          rely on the restorer’s artistic abilities along with your guidance to re-create the problem features

·          choose against having the photograph restored (you may still want to have it scanned and placed on a CD-ROM, so that further damage and deterioration of the original would not effect the electronic copy)

What are the best methods for restoring a photograph?

If you provide your photograph to a number of Photo Restoration specialists, and ask them to provide the detailed method(s) they will use to restore your photograph, you are likely to get different answers.   This is because the high-end photo-editing tools usually provide a number of ways to accomplish the same task. 

Longevity of CD-ROMS and DVDs

Since many scanned original and restored photographs are being stored on CD-ROMs (and to a lesser extent DVD), an important question to ask is how long will CD-ROMs and DVDs last.  While there is no universal answer to this question, there are a number of areas of consensus. They include:

·          longevity is directly effected by manufacturing quality, condition of the disc before recording, quality of the disc recording, handling and maintenance, and environmental conditions 

·          among the manufacturers that tested CD longevity, there is a consensus that, under recommended storage conditions, CD-R discs should have a life expectancy of 100 to 200 years or more

·          DVD-R longevity ranges from 20-250 years depending on the manufacturing quality

·          other reports (not made by the vendors) have claimed that CD-R expectancy was in the range of 10 to 50 years.

·          Few,  if any  life expectancy reports for these discs have been published by independent laboratories

·          It is best to keep CD-ROMs and DVD in a dry, cool environment to promote longevity

·          proper care and handling is also important to promote longevity

For more information on CD longevity you can visit the National Institute of Standards and Technology at: and the CD FAQ Web Site at (  )

For DVDs, the most complete set of information can be found at:

Document Restoration

Documents, like photographs may also hold special value and meaning to us.  They also capture special events in our lives in the form of birth certificates, diplomas, wedding certificates, and other important documents.   

Documents also experience deterioration due to environmental factors.   We worked on a 1934 Wedding Certificate where the paper had deteriorated to the point where a number of areas of the document including parts of signatures, designs, and typeset were missing.  The certificate was heavily tapped resulting in significant tape stains.   We have also worked on a diploma where three out of four signatures were extremely faint and indiscernible.

Digital restoration of documents has a limitation in that the original document is not used for the restoration; a digital copy is used instead.   Depending on how old the document is, it may not be possible to find an exact match the paper of the original document, and it may not be possible to match the exact font used when the document was printed.

If you do need to have a document restored, be sure to ask the Photo Restoration Company if they work with documents, and if they don’t you may have to locate one that does.If they do provide document restoration services, make sure you view their samples.



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