Improving an old, damaged family photo

Some photos just cry out to be saved. Old family photos often fall into this category as they are often neglected until someone comes along and decides to repair or improve what still exists. The photo above, of my family including my mother and father, cousins and my grandmother is one such photo. Languishing in a shoe box for close to 70 years, it’s faded, water marked and generally in pretty poor condition. That being said, there’s enough here to work with and having some pretty handy post processing available to me projects such as one are definately worth the effort for the most part.

The first thing to say is that while the sofware available today is amazingly capable, it isn’t a magic wand that you can wave to fix everything. A significantly out of focus photo will still be an out of focus photo at the end of the process although it’s possible to add in some detail and to sharpen it a little without it becoming too grotesque. Soft images, ie very slightly out of focus fare better and here you can work minor miracles. Problems such as water damage, blemishes, marks and tears on the photo are somewhat easier to fix and don’t present as much of a challange although some care is needed. The other relatively simple task is to fix the overall image with regards to the black and white points as well as to apply a more fitting tone curve to the image. This tends to enhance contrast and can bring out some additional details as well as making the image look less faded and more attactive. There is however a limit of how far you should push this as I think it’s important to maintain some of the history of the image.

Before talking more about the post-processing side of things, let’s take a look at what I was able to achieve with about 30 minutes of work. I’ll go into a little more detail on what the various actions were later but if you compare the image above to the one here you’ll have a good idea of the work I did.

The tools I used here were On1 PhotoRAW 2022 for basic image improvement and noise reduction (On1 NoNoise), followed by some work in Affinity Photo for the majority of the repair work and final post-processing. Since On1, Topaz and Luminar Neo all work as plugins to Affinity Photo I could have started here and then used the various plugins available to me to complete the work. However, it is always better to use noise reduction software at the beginning of the process and I have found On1 NoNoise to do an excellent job for the most part.

In the next photo we can see the effect of applying On1 NoNoise to the original image. It’s a great starting point for any repair work. As you can see, a lot of the haze in the image disappears as the image is cleaned up and the reduction of noise has a positive affect on the image albeit as i said previously, you can’t completely fix a photo which is out of focus. The other issue here is that back in the 50’s, prints were often postage stamp sized so the simple process of scanning and resizing the image does have consequences. Ideally if I could locate the original negative I would start from here rather than from this jpeg. The point here is that over-doing any processing at this stage would lead to a lot of artifacts being added to the image so the amount of detail and sharpness you can add must be held back.

Now while On1PhotoRAW is an excellent all-round editor for preparing or improving photos it’s real strength lies when you start with a RAW file as On1 provides a huge wealth of tools for bringing out the best from the RAW image. In situations such as here though, we are starting from a jpeg which although not ideal as it has already been processed, is something we have to live with it. This means that we are processing a processed image and this can lead to problems downstream with artifacts, over processing etc.

As you can see in the image above, I have done nothing in the way of cleaning up the image in terms of water marks, tears and cracks using On1 at this stage purely for noise reduction. While On1 is able to handle this type of repair work, Affinity Photo in my eyes is far better for non-destructive editing and is therefore well suited to repairs of this type providing simple but hugely effective tools such as the InPainting and Patch Tools. You can see the effect of ths work in the image below which although subtle to the eye, were extensive. For reference, InPainting targets localised colour or tone while the Patch Tool targets areas and texture. Used together they provide all the tools necessary to clean up an image such as this one.

The image above is the final result. I have used the InPainting tool to clean up the tears and smaller marks in the image and the Patch tool to address more localised damage to the clothing etc where it was important to retain texture. I have also applied an Unsharp Mask to the image as a whole and used a tone adjustment to push the blacks and whites out to the edges of the histogram. To some this may seem overdone, sitting here I might even agree, but it’s purely a matter of taste.

Summary

I’m sure that there are lots of applications that you can use to do this sort of work, Photoshop for example. I have chosen to use On1 PhotoRAW 2022 and Affinity Photo together as I find each brings something unique to the party . On1 produces a good start point for further repair work, especially for images that are noisy while Affinity Photo offers a number of extremely useful tools for image repair. All this being said, neither application is a magic wand and there are certain things that you can’t improve without significantly degrading your image, for example focus issues and extreme softness in the image. You can improve these, sometimes significantly but you can’t make them 100% perfect. However, when dealing with photos of this type i.e. precious family photos, just improving them is a great step forward.

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