Restoring Old Photos

Sharing old images that have been in storage for years can unlock untold stories and long-forgotten memories.

Prints fade and the emulsion on slides and negatives can dry out and deteriorate. If you’ve been keeping your old photos in a shoebox, album, or even a frame, there is a good chance your precious heirlooms are faded and damaged. Sound terrible? Help is on the way. Now digital technology can easily bring your old photos back to life, allowing you to preserve and share your pictures for generations to come!


Scanning paper photographs, slides, or negatives “digitizes” your image, converting it into a digital file. Once you transfer and save this digital file onto your computer, you can then organize, enhance, preserve, and share your images.

Personal scanners

You no longer need to be a techno-nerd to easily scan your images from home. From dedicated film scanners to Multifunction printers, there are so many options to choose from. Some of these devices even allow you to scan images without a computer. If you have a scanner, check your owner’s manual to peruse the possibilities. If you are connected to a computer, just getting started and want to ensure that your printer/scanner will work with your computer, use the software that comes bundled with your device.

TIP: Be sure to scan your originals at a high-resolution—typically 300ppi (pixels per inch) to size or larger if you’re scanning a very small photograph, slide, or negative. Here’s the reason why: printers require more resolution to produce a sharp print (260-300ppi), where a computer screen only requires a resolution of 72-96ppi. You cannot successfully increase the resolution of a digital image, but you can always decrease the resolution in an image-editing software program. I recommend scanning your slides, film, and photographs in high-resolution and saving these files for printing purposes. You can then make a copy and size down your image to a lower resolution in an image-editing software program for emailing and computer screen viewing.

Commercial scanners

If you don’t want to invest in a scanner, or have the time or inclination to scan your images at home, there are other options.


If you perform a Google search, you’ll discover many online scanning companies offering a myriad of services. I recently used Scan Digital to scan my old photographs and I had great results. They are located in a suburb of Los Angeles, CA., but if you’re based elsewhere you can send your old prints, slides, negatives (even videotape and other old film mediums) via a trackable shipper (UPS, Fedex). ScanDigital does an excellent job cleaning, scanning, and adjusting your images, with good color contrast and detail. Your scanned images can be viewed and downloaded online and they’re also burned onto a CD that’s shipped back with your originals. This service was reasonably priced, efficient, and I received high-quality scans from my old photographs.

Retail locations

From Walmart and Costco to local photo labs, retail stores now offer digital scanning services. A simple Google search will reveal a list of the services in your area. The same resolution rule applies when ordering scans from a retail location – order the 300ppi, high-resolution scans if you want to print the images out.

TIP: Photographs produced by professionals are usually copyrighted property (look for the photographer’s logo). Most scanning services provide an indemnity clause in their service terms placing the responsibility on the customer for violating any copyright laws. Proceed with caution and review your rights at the US Copyright Office.

Repair and Enhance

Now that your images are scanned and resting safely on your computer hard drive, you’re ready to begin the repair and enhancement process. Before we get started, it’s a good idea to understand your options. Most scanners come bundled with an image-editing software application that allow you to make basic enhancements like cropping, and adjusting contrast. There are also stand-alone software application that are user-friendly, yet provide more robust tools to edit your images.

Adobe Photoshop Elements is an industry standard for organizing, editing, enhancing, and sharing your photographs. You can download a 30-day trial version or try out the Creative Cloud for free at Adobe. Following is a “before and after” example showing how I fixed an old photo using Adobe Photoshop Elements.


This old family photograph has seen the effects of wear and tear, with ragged edges, stains, creases, and scratches.


I scanned the original photograph at 300ppi resolution, enhancing it with tools in Adobe Photoshop Elements.


Image enhancement basics

The various image-editing software programs may differ in appearance, but the same basic principles apply. Fortunately, many of the new consumer-based applications are very intuitive; if you’ve ever followed sewing pattern directions or do-it-yourself furniture instructions you will easily figure out any image-editing program. Don’t be afraid to experiment. As long as you have a back-up copy of your image, you won’t damage or lose anything in the process.

Cropping: Perhaps the edges of your image are torn, or part of the background is too damaged to repair. Cropping an image helps you eliminate unwanted elements


There are a few retouching tools you can use to easily remove water spots, scratches, and creases. In Adobe Photoshop Elements the tools are the Clone Stamp and Spot Healing Brush. Each one works a little differently; for example, the Clone Stamp Tool requires that you target another similar area on your image that you can use to “clone” over the damaged area. The Spot Healing Brush Tool is for small specks and spots and only requires a quick swipe of the mouse to remove these defects. It may take a little practice to get the hang of it, but if you work in a duplicate layer and always keep a backup copy you don’t have to worry. If all else fails, you can just “undo” or “revert” what you did.

Adjusting color

Many old photographs have encountered a color shift due to the aging process, but it’s possible to turn back the clock with a little digital color adjustment. Most software applications offer various choices for altering the color; from converting an image to black and white, to adjusting a specific hue, or adding saturation. You can choose to go the automatic route or manually adjust the color to suit your creative aesthetic.


Don’t be a picture-hoarder—share the love with your family and friends. It could open up new inroads for communication and even enhance your relationships. If this sounds too idealistic, at least you’ll have the gratification of knowing you’ve contributed some effort towards the preservation of history.

Printing from home

Quality photo printers are very affordable, ink systems have improved, and paper longevity has increased. Now you can print professional quality prints from the comfort of home while hanging out in your fuzzy slippers, or working in your home office. Just remember, to achieve the archival longevity print manufacturers’ claim (100-300 years) you’ll need to use their recommended combination of printer, paper, and ink.

Printing at a retail store

If you don’t want to invest in a photo printer there are many retail stores that have photo kiosks for print and product ordering (Costco, CVS Pharmacy, Walgreens, and Walmart to name a few). Photo kiosks vary, but most allow you to either insert a memory card, connect your digital camera via a USB cable, or transfer images from your smartphone in order to print.

Printing and viewing online

If you want to share your images with a community of people, consider sharing your images on a social media site such as, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Google Photos, or Flickr. Just be aware that your images can be viewed and critiqued by the public.

If you’d prefer a more private experience, use a photo-sharing website for only your friends and family to view. Some websites are free, others charge a small subscription fee in exchange for additional video and backup services. Prints, coffee cups, calendars, photo books and more can be ordered online and shipped directly to your mailbox in a matter of days. It’s so much fun to give people these special gifts and watch their expressions when they say “How wonderful! Where did you get this?” Two of the websites I like to use for online viewing, print and product ordering are and


Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of transferring your images to your computer hard drive and then walking away. Computers can crash, hard drives can freeze up, and your precious images could disappear in a resounding POOF if you don’t take the time to save them properly. I recommend saving and backing up your images at least two ways, two times, in two places. Make it a habit to back up your images every time you transfer them to your computer. Burn DVDs, copy your images to an external hard drive, upload them to an online image-sharing website or server, and, most importantly, print them out. When storing your prints, keep them away from dampness, plumbing, heat, and direct sunlight. Never store photographs in a damp basement or near the floor (especially cement floors).

Now that you’ve learned the basics about scanning, repairing, sharing and preserving, it’s time to tackle that box or album full of old photographs and bring them back to life. This is an opportunity to share stories and reconnect with those you love—your friends and family are waiting.