editing vintage photos

Something that has come up a few times among our readers in the community is how to digitally restore family photos that originated on film.

We all have them: cherished family photos that have lost a little bit of their luster over time, whether it be dust spots, fading, or in some cases, a bit of damage. 

A lot of us are in the process of digitizing our family photos for safe-keeping, and in doing so, a little bit of digital restoration in Photoshop can really enhance our memories. In this post, I will show you a couple of easy steps techniques you can use on your vintage photos. 

What I have come to learn about digital restoration in my own experience is that I tend to use the same techniques that I would use on a photo taken today!

This tutorial requires a basic understanding of Layer Masks.


One of the most important aspects of digitally restoring an image is to get a quality scan at an extra high resolution. In this image, my resolution is 1200 ppi:

My mother and her brother!

Having the original negative is ideal, because you can get a more detailed scan that way. In this case, I only had a print, so I scanned the print.

If you do not have a scanner at home, you can find scanning services at most major office supply stores.


Like I said before, I tend to take the same steps in editing a vintage photo that I would when editing my current photos. Here are some things that I look for:
  • Dust - is there a noticeable amount that needs to be removed?
  • White Balance - photos fade over time and tend to shift to either magenta, cyan, or red, depending on how they're stored.
  • Exposure & Contrast - has the image faded over time, making it too bright, or lacking contrast? Could it benefit from an increase in exposure?
  • Damage - has the negative or print been damaged in any way, such as tears, stains, etc?
  • Sharpness - does the image look soft, blurry, or need to be sharpened?


In the photo below, the first thing I noticed was that there were a lot of dust spots, so I removed them using the Patch Tool in Photoshop to remove some of the larger dust spots (if you need a tutorial on the Patch Tool, click here)

Photoshop Patch Tool

To minimize the smaller dust spots and minor scratches throughout the image, I often use the Dust and Scratches filter which can be found under Filter>Noise>Dust & Scratches:

Editing Noise in Photoshop

You will want to play around with the Radius and Threshold, but in my experience, I have found that it is easier for me to work with if I start small and build up - a little bit of adjusting goes a long way here:

Old Photos in Photoshop

I then added a Layer Mask to my Dust & Scratches layers, and erased on my subjects, but left the noise reduction on everything else. This is to prevent my subjects from becoming any softer, because the focus was already a bit soft to begin with - a common problem with vintage photos:

Adding a Layer Mask

I then made a Levels adjustment layer to brighten them up...

Levels Adjustment Layer

...and erased the areas behind them, and also on the sides of their faces, so that the highlights wouldn't be quite as intense:

Highlights Adjustment

Finally, I cropped to straighten the composition just a tad, did one more sweep with my patch tool, and added the Clarity action from the PURE Color Workflow to bring some contrast to the image. Here is the before/after:

Clarity Action


Digitally restoring black and white images is similar to what we just did with our color image, but the main thing you want to focus on is your image scan.

When scanning your black and white images, make sure to scan them as color images (RGB on most scanners) and not Grayscale. Color scans will give you more information to work with.

As is the case with many family photos, this photo appears to have some damage that occurred on the negative, so I used my patch tool to remove the burn marks just as I removed the large clumps of dust in my other image:

Using the Patch Tool

I also ran the Dust & Scratches filter on my black and white image. I finished off by adding the Clarity and Actions from the PURE Color Workflow.  I cropped the borders of the original image, but feel free to leave the white borders if you prefer.

Clarity Action


As a general rule of thumb, I always try to keep these edits simple, clean, and as true to the original as possible, because we want our memories to remain timeless, right?

Be sure to check out all of Pretty Actions great Photoshop Actions Collections here and Overlays here.  And they have a wonderful free Photoshop Action set you can download right here

Do you have any experience with editing vintage photos in Photoshop? We love hearing from you! Please visit us in our private Pretty Photoshop Actions Facebook Group and at the Pretty Forum.