Help me fix these photos
January 1, 2012 11:30 AM   Subscribe

How would you repair these scanned photos?

I've scanned a bunch of old photos and some of them come from those photo albums with the cling film sheets that lay on top of the pics. I couldn't lift the cling film on all of them to get scans of the photos, because that was causing the film itself to break apart, and they weren't my albums to ruin. Getting permission to ruin the albums would have spoiled the surprise that I was scanning the photos for. In any case, I no longer have access to the photos, only the scans I took of them.

So now I have a number of photos like these ones with filmy layers and a lot of crud on them.

With the better photos that don't have so many problems, I'm just opening them in Gimp, cropping them and adjusting the Levels to counteract the fading since the 70s and 80s when they were taken, but I don't really know how to fix these sorts of problems, or if they're even fixable. What steps would you take in GIMP to edit these photos?

Or, if you'd recommend some other tools, (free or cheap -- I can't afford photoshop) for fixing them, what would you suggest?
posted by jacquilynne to Technology (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You would need to use a "darken" brush on photoshop (or gimp) and darken all the areas that are white. Some cloning and healing would be required as well.

This is not an easy project- these look like pretty low res scans and the glare from the plastic is causing some problems.

Self promotion: I do photo restoration on the side, pretty inexpensively. Email me if you'd like to talk.
posted by kdern at 12:01 PM on January 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Getting permission to ruin the albums would have spoiled the surprise that I was scanning the photos for.

I realize it's too late at this point, but one of the most important things to remember about digitally retouching photos is to get source material as close to perfect as you can. It might have been better to get the permission and "ruin" the surprise in order to get better scans.


As to your broader question, could you tell us what version of what OS you're using? THere's different free or cheap apps, depending on whether you're using Windows or Mac. Other wise, the fix would involve a lot of cloning and painting on the photos. Here's a Gimp tutorial about this tool, there's more on YouTube. The photos you linked to would involved fairly high end retouching in order to look good.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:02 PM on January 1, 2012

I use Windows. I have access to XP, Vista and 7 on various computers around the house.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:07 PM on January 1, 2012

(You can always download the 30 day trial of Photoshop.... Though I think color adjustment tools are just about the same in Gimp...)

The question is: How much time can you afford to spend on each photo? Seconds? Minutes? Hours?

You're never going to get these photos to look like the originals. You can minimize the reflections of the cling sheet, but never get rid of it. It simply washes out too much of the original photo to clean it up properly.

The two without the awful reflections aren't too bad, really. The color should be much easier to correct and running a light dust and scratches filter over them should help clean up much of the crap.

In Photoshop start with Levels to even out the contrast, and then Curves to try to pick out the color. (Even the "Auto color" tool dramatically improved the color on the scans making the purple skintones look more flesh-tone. You could use that as a start and tweak with Curves from there.) I'm sure these tools exist in Gimp but I don't know what they're called.

If you're bothered by a big unpleasant crease, scratch, gunk, etc. Photoshop has a ton of tools to fill those in. Content Aware Fill, Spot Healing brush, and Clone stamp are the biggest.

But I'll 2nd get better scans, if at all possible. This is not a long, difficult project.
posted by Ookseer at 12:15 PM on January 1, 2012

Show the surprise, then ask if you can make better versions by removing the pix from the album, scanning them, then putting them in a new album.
posted by rhizome at 12:15 PM on January 1, 2012

How much time can you afford to spend on each photo? Seconds? Minutes? Hours?

I could potentially spend up to, let's say, four hours on each photo. Most of the photos I have downloaded don't need this much work, I only have about 2 dozen with this level of problems, but they are the 2 dozen photos my mother apparently valued sufficiently to put in albums, and which are old enough that the albums have sort of rotted around them.

I have a year to complete the entire project, so I'm not particularly short of time.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:24 PM on January 1, 2012

I too would recommend rescanning the photos, using a weight to keep the page of the album flat. Or, if that will wreck the album, use a camera on a stand and a long exposure with no flash. Also, clean the plastic with a cloth dampened in windex, making sure no to get any moisture onto the photos. (Including checking for areas where the plastic might have gotten punctured.

I say this because in the areas where there is shine from the scanner light, there is probably no actual data to be uncovered. Those pixels are likely 100% white, and that's it.

You can verify (or disprove) this by downloading Irfanview and using the color corrections tool. Bring up the contrast, and those areas will probably stay white.
posted by gjc at 12:31 PM on January 1, 2012

Rescanning the photos is simply not an option. They are now 2500 miles away from me.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:37 PM on January 1, 2012

I'm afraid there really isn't anything ralistic you can do for the worst of the scans, especially the ones with glare. A highly-talented retoucher could, possibly, re-create the lost data behind the glare, basically doing illustration, but then you're talking buckets of cash on a single photo.

Your best option now would be to simply color-correct what you have, glare and all.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:45 PM on January 1, 2012

They're 2500 miles away, but a photo album can be shipped. Yes it would spoil the surprise, but a) the quality of the photos would be so much better and b) In a year, will they remember?

You also say the photo album is falling apart. I suggest that part of the surprise be putting the photos into a new, not falling apart, album. After all, you were afraid to handle the album and it ain't getting any better with time.
posted by Ookseer at 12:48 PM on January 1, 2012

Can we just assume the photo albums have since been dropped into the cauldron of Mount Doom and are no longer available to be rescanned?

As much as I'd like to include these photos, I'd rather omit them entirely than spoil the surprise.

I'd also rather include them in rough shape than omit them entirely, so I'll use them as is if that's my only choice. The result doesn't need to be perfect, I'm just hoping there are some things that will make them better.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:12 PM on January 1, 2012

Here's what I would do:

Levels to bring up the contrast

Auto-white-balance based on a known white or grey element in the photo, possibly with manual tweaking of the three color chanels to correct for fading

Repair tools as described in earlier posts for scratches and specks

Reflected glare: I doubt you can eliminate the glare from the reflected plastic unless you can essentially paint in the parts that were glared out, hence the suggestions in earlier posts to, if not now, after the surprise, rescan or photograph the pages with a good camera with the flash off.

I've taken photos of photos before, and a dSLR with a sharp prime lens and the flash turned off can yield excellent results.
posted by zippy at 2:31 PM on January 1, 2012

It has been a while, but I have fixed worse than this, and I am far from a pro. Just takes a lot of patience and a bit of trial and error. Photoshop is best, but I have had good experience with Paint Shop Pro which is much cheaper. I have not used GIMP or Paint.NET for anything like this, but I imagine you could do it with them. It helps to have layer control, opacity settings for tools, clone tool, and level or curve adjustment tools.

First hint: Take your image and make it bigger. At least twice as big, but 4 times or more if you can. If your program has options, use a cubic or bicubic spline and go up in small steps, like scale it 1.5 times bigger, then repeat. This way when you are done and shrink it down again, little errors you made in editing will be smoothed out. Do not be afraid to save numerous copies with different techniques so you can go back if needed.

Next, rotate and crop the image to show just what you want. The focal point of the picture is the man and the child in this case, not dad's checkered pants that will be a nightmare to correct.

Most programs will have a dust or dust and scratches feature. Try this. You may want to see what is out there in external filters. I believe there are a lot for GIMP you can probably find. Sometimes a filter will help one area, but maybe blur another. Some of the programs will allow you to select and area and apply the filter only to that area

The worst glare or creases will likely be best fixed with a clone tool. The clone tool can be much more powerful than most people realize. The trick is to select the proper brush size, brush type, opacity, and the direction and length of the clone vector. By setting the opacity of the tool lower, you eliminate the blocky look or repeating patterns. For fixing things like the chairs, shirts, hair, etc it works really well. Vary the direction of the clone vector from time to time. Use short strokes. This will give you a random pattern that blends in from different parts of the surrounding area. If you have a large glare area, you may have to fill it in with the base color at a higher opacity, then come back to randomize the pattern. There is also solid and feathered brush options and the sizes that you may have to play with.

Edges and seams are a little tricky with the clone brush, especially if they are curved. Use a smaller brush and try to follow the direction of the edge. Pay attention to the shadows.

These programs also usually have filters called blur and sharpen. These don't always do what you think they should do, and sometimes do the opposite of what you expect. Play with these, and sometimes try multiple iterations of both.

The levels or curves tool is helpful to get the overall look right, as others have suggested. I used to use a hue or variations tool as well that would show you the image with shifts to the colors and you kept selecting the one that looked better.

My final advice is usually the hardest for someone like myself who has little artistic ability, and that is recreating what has faded out or is missing from the photo. What I usually do is cheat. Need to fix the mans faded hand: take a picture of a mans hand in a similar position, crop out the new hand, bring into a new layer in your image, scale and rotate to match, and turn the opacity down on the new hand layer. This will bring some texture and shadow to the old, faded hand. Things like the baby's eyes. They look like bad redeye correction. Replace the eyes with the kid's from another picture, find a stock photo and cut and paste the eyes, or take some new pictures of someones eyes at the same angle. It will look much better than those big black circles. Missing part of an ear... you get the idea.

Hope this helps. If you get caught up on specifics there are lots of tutorials out there, or ask here.
posted by Yorrick at 11:12 PM on January 1, 2012

Oh, one more thing. If you can't get the color looking good, get rid of it. Go old school B&W, or add a sepia layer.
posted by Yorrick at 11:14 PM on January 1, 2012

And as you are a fellow Canadian, replace color with colour in my posts. :)
posted by Yorrick at 11:17 PM on January 1, 2012

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