Old Sepia Photo Restoration Techniques
By Orion Williams
Dateline: November 26, 2004
In this tutorial I'll show you several techniques for improving the quality of old sepia-tinted photographs. Of course, these techniques can be used on any image and while I'm using Photoshop, many image editing programs provide similar tools. I began with a scan of the photo below. Scanning using at least print resolution (300 dpi) or higher is recommended so you have the best possible representation of the image to work with.
Use a rectangular marquee and make a selection of an area where there should be a noticeable difference in contrast.
Now go to the Curves option from the pop-up adjustment layer menu and choose Options to display the Auto Color Correction Options. In this case, since it is a sepia toned image, you can choose Enhance Monochromatic Contrast. This will increase the dark and light areas independent of color, so it's appropriate for this image.
You should already see a noticeable improvement in the image. To apply the rest of the adjustment to the layer, select a large, soft brush and start painting/unmasking to reveal the rest of the adjustment layer.
You can choose what part of the image to which you apply this.
Below is the before.
And the after.
This image needs to be cropped to remove the ugly scanned-in border. It's important to make a selection of an area first, to ensure Photoshop reads the information from that specific area and then applies the color correction to the rest of the image/adjustment layer. If you don't make a selection first, it will pick up the bright white edges and make effective corrective action impossible.
The adjustment layer doesn't change any pixels itself and is completely disposable, but you can't shift pixels on the layer itself. Create a duplicate of your original background layer by dragging it to the new layer icon.
As long as the adjustment layer is above layers or on the top, it will apply to whatever is visible beneath (where it isn't masked). You can also create custom adjustment layers that only apply to the layer specifically beneath it, as you can mask the adjustment layers above it. You can use this duplicate layer to start fixing the blocky background by using Clone Stamp to get enough of an area that is usable.
Switch to the Patch tool to select an area of texture that is usable and use Destination to drag it to other areas, to start smoothing out the background.
Below I'm continuing to use Destination to drag the source patch and continue applying it to different areas. Patch is similar to the Healing brush in that it will remember the source texture and will blend it into the areas around it.
The Clone Stamp tool is different, because it copies pixels with color instead of just using the texture and density, like the Patch/Healing tools. The Patch tool will make for much better blends but use Clone Stamp for areas requiring you to first fix pixels with good pixels.
Here is a quick example, before...
...and after using Clone Stamp to get a good area and then working fast by using the Patch tool on Destination to drag the sampled texture to replace the bad previous texture while naturally blending in to help create a much smoother background.
You can use this technique to work quickly on larger areas but on smaller areas, and especially people, you will have to take more time and be more careful.
This tutorial is copyright © Dreamcore Productions, Ltd. 2004. Join the Discover Photoshop Network of free Photoshop-related newsletters, websites, tutorials, templates, articles and downloads. Free tutorials on Photoshop basics, graphic design, advertising design, photo restoration, photo retouching, digital scrapbooking and much more. Choose the Photoshop areas that you want to learn about - all free - and get instant access to many downloads and tutorials. Visit the Photoshop training websites by Orion Williams, Adobe Certified Expert, Photoshop CS.