August 8, 2004

Ask the Guru: Restoring Old Photographs

Filed under: asktheguru — Tags: , — Eric Jeschke @ 10:35 pm

Restore Old Photographs with the GIMP?

Good morning, Guru: Thank you for the excellent tutorials.

Have you written one on editing B&W photographs? I have several photos of family members. Several of the photos are over 100 years old. I have already scanned them into Gimp. They are replete with scratches and are very fuzzy. Any pointers you may willing to give me would be greatly appreciated. I am not a professional photographer, I am a Senior Computer Systems Engineer, and am still somewhat trainable.

Thanks, in advance.



Hi Ron,Sure, there is a lot you can do to clean up old photographs. Before we dive into it though, I have to mention the obvious, in that you are somewhat limited in what you can reasonably achieve by the quality of the input (original) image.

In this particular example, the “fuzziness” you refer to can be improved, but not to the extent of a clearly focused, sharp photograph. The blurriness of this photo could be due to any number of factors including subject movement during a slow shutter speed (the image being taken with available window light, it would seem), poor focus, poor lenses, poor scanner focus, etc. That being said, there is a lot we can improve on, so let’s get started!

[Aside: you can often get a better starting point from your scanner. Check if there is an option in the scanning software for “old B&W print”. Also, investigate the infrared scratch and dust speck removal features of your scanner (e.g. “ICE” on Nikon scanners); this can give you a much better starting point.]

The first order of business is to crop out that ugly border using the crop tool ().

The next step is to convert this to B&W from the current old, faded sepia. You can follow the instructions in this tutorial to figure out the most pleasing conversion. After examining the separate RGB channels, I settled for a standard mode change to Grayscale (Image/Mode/Grayscale). Then I switch back to RGB mode (Image/Mode/RGB) so I have more filters to work with as well as options for re-toning.
Now we are going to remove scratches and dust with the clone tool. There is some useful instruction in this tutorial. Basically, you want to use the Clone tool (), with a small soft brush; try turning down the opacity in the Tool Options dialog box. I’ve circled the areas that need the most work.Dial down the opacity on fine details, such as hair. The cleaned version is shown at right. We could spend a long time cleaning this image, but since it is old some dust gives it character. If you have an infra-red dust filter on your scanner (e.g. “ICE” on Nikon scanners) this can prevent a lot of cloning work.
Next we’ll attack the dynamic range, or lack thereof. Scanners will typically leave a “haze” on scanned images that can be rectified by a simple levels adjustment to normalize the image and increase the apparent contrast. So open the levels dialog (Layer/Color/Levels). Notice how the histogram is compressed, and not spanning the full tonality that is available. Bring the black point up and the white point down (hitting “Auto” will usually also do a reasonable job, although manual adjustment gives more control).

At this stage let’s retone the image, using this technique. For this photo I prefer not to go back to sepia, but rather something like Platinum (01).
Finally, we’ll sharpen the photo as best we can using smart sharpening redux, in order to avoid oversharpening the scratches, dust spots, etc. Here is the edgemask I made, the sharpening parameters used, and the result.I used lower parameters than usual, because the image (as sent to me) was small, and therefore requires less sharpening, but also because the image is so blurry to begin with. We can never hope to overcome this level of blurriness by digital sharpening. What happens instead is that some (bold) edges (e.g. the side of the light face against the dark background, the seams of the overalls on the chest) appear very sharp while finer transitions (in the eyes, hair) are still hopelessly blurry. It creates an incongruity for the eye, and actually accentuates sharpening artefacts that would normally not be so objectionable.

And here’s our end result, side-by-side with the original. To my eye, it’s an improvement, although I would consider skipping the sharpening step for the reasons I outlined above.

Got a photography question for the GIMP guru?


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