Cleaning Up Old Photographs

I’m still working on the school yearbook. I think I’m going to once again prove the old saying, “You’re never really done. You just run out of time.”

There are lots of things about assembling a yearbook that take time. I have to make sure that I don’t represent one grade (or, God forbid, kid) more than others. I have to make sure that I include every big event during the year (while hoping and praying that my view of “big event” matches everyone else’s). I have to eliminate pictures of kids whose parents did not understand that checking that box on that form back in September means that their child won’t appear in the yearbook in May. And I need to make sure that no staff member looks crazy, stupid, ugly, or fat in any picture.

It eats time. More and more and more time.

This year, the principal had a demand request for the yearbook that is eating even more time. The principal wanted every staff member’s elementary school picture to appear next to their current picture. She sent out a request a few months ago to tell the staff members to start bringing in their pictures. In turn, staff members sent their parents requests. What they brought in was the biggest collection of poor photo archiving I’ve ever seen. Almost every last picture was covered with tape, green goo (from magnetic albums), dust, scratches, fold marks, etc. A few older staff members didn’t even have school pictures, but did bring in family photos. My mission, which I had no choice but to accept, was to make them all presentable and as consistent in quality as humanly possible.

Fortunately for the principal, I like a challenge! I’ve gone through each and every photo, scanned it (and quickly returned it to the owner lest I lose their one and only picture of them as a child), cropped it, and fixed every last flaw. In the case of those who turned in family photos, I cropped out everything but their heads and shoulders and replaced any body remnants from siblings or parents with a speckled background. I saved a version of the cleaned up image and then changed the pictures to black and white so that it’s not overly obvious which staff members are older (like the kids can’t tell anyway!).

Here’s an example of mine (yes, I was a homely child!):

Image editing

Thanks, Mom, for even finding a picture of me at that age! Our family albums have been scattered (everyone thinks someone else has them), so getting any picture was a blessing, even one as damaged as this one.

The first panel shows the original scanned photo. Notice those big white spots all over the photo? That’s where the surface of the photo had been chipped away. (It looks like a nail had been dragged across the surface of the picture.) There were also assorted large chunks of stuff that aren’t as obvious. The second panel shows the cleaned up image. The last panel is the desaturated grayscale image that will appear in the yearbook next to my current picture.

If you have Photoshop (or even Photoshop Elements) and a scanner and have equally mangled photos, it’s easy to do this if you have the time.

  1. Scan the photo. Most scanners these days are so easy to use that trained monkeys could use them. (I’ve taught fourth graders to use them!) Mine is as simple as putting the picture in the scanner, pushing the power button, and hopping through two panels on the computer. I typically scan at 300 dpi because that’s what’s required for print publication.
  2. Open up the picture in Photoshop and use the Crop tool to eliminate any white border that appears in the picture.
  3. Run the Despeckle and/or Dust and Scratches filter to get rid of the majority of the graininess that appears in the picture. (Try the filter. If you don’t like it, Undo the operation.)
  4. Zoom in the picture so that you can actually see the pixels in the picture. Then use the Healing tool to touch up any bad spots created by reflecting dust particles, major scratches or cracks in the photo, etc. This is the part that takes time, and it’s worth your while to spend lots of it if needed. It’s amazing to zoom in and out as I fix things just to see how the image is improving. (This is also useful because I can see if things don’t look as good in the full size view as I thought it would.) Heal all of the problem spots, being very careful not to “heal” anything that isn’t really a flaw. (On one staff picture, I almost removed a mole from the picture. Turns out, that particular teacher remembers that as being the bane of her existence as a child but felt that learning to deal with it made her the teacher she is today.)
  5. Play with the Hue/Saturation or Auto selections to fix any yellowing or fading of color in the picture.

Again, it’s better to take your time with this. Go ahead and try things and make liberal use of the Undo History and/or Undo (Ctrl-Z on the PC) features if you don’t like how they changed the image.

There might be a better way to do this, but I’ve used this process on over 60 photographs and have had great results. I can’t wait to see the looks on the everyone’s face when I present them with a print of the cleaned up image!

4 thoughts on “Cleaning Up Old Photographs

  1. Grace Post author

    Heh… So did my mom, I think. And my grandmother. They were pretty standard issue for folks that were too poor to afford anything that was even remotely in style. Sometime, I’ll regale you with the story of what I did when I first got them. (My dd thinks it’s a hoot! My mother was not so amused.)

  2. Batty

    OMG, you look so much better than I did! The picture is at my parents’ house and I may try scanning it when I go visit in April. Think thick horn-rimmed glasses, black hair in a bowl cut (with bangs!), a turtleneck in 70’s brown, burnt yellow and burnt orange, and 70’s dark brown Osh Kosh overalls. Not good. And the kicker? My dad still has this picture hanging in his office!

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