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How To Repair Scratched and Damaged Photographs or Scans

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Old photographs seem to collect dirt, scratches, and bad textures as they collect dust in shoeboxes and photo albums. If you’ve taken the task of scanning them, but have found damage and scratches, here’s how to fix them.

While only a miracle (or a talented artist) can repair extremely bad photographs, dust, scratches, dirt, and other damage can be taken care of quickly, and not just in Photoshop. Popular Freeware GIMP and Paint.NET both offer tools that can be used to make bad scans look like brand new photographs in no time at all. Keep reading to see how it’s done.

Repairing Scratches in Photoshop (Video)

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The whole problem with dust and scratches is that, even if they aren’t severe, they ugly up a photo and distract from the image itself. While they may not overwhelmingly stand out in this image…

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Erased with this method, it’s nearly impossible to tell that they were even there in the first place. Check out the video to see the Photoshop tools in action, or keep reading to learn about the tools you can use in Photoshop, GIMP, or Paint.NET.

 

Tools for Repairing Images

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Clone Stamp Tool: Photoshop, GIMP, Paint.NET

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One of the staples of photo repair, the Clone Stamp will sample (copy from) and allow you to paint with other areas of the photograph.

In Photoshop, hold down Alt to select a sample area, then paint it over your damaged areas with your left mouse buttons.

GIMP and Paint.NET work the same way, except you have to use the Ctrl key to sample your image. Simply sample (and resample) and paint over your unwanted image areas to improve your photo.

  • Photoshop: Shortcut Key (S), sample with Alt + Click
  • GIMP: Shortcut Key (C), sample with Ctrl + Click
  • Paint.NET: Shortcut Key (L), sample with Ctrl + Click

 

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Marquee, Lasso Selection Tools: Photoshop, GIMP, Paint.NET

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One of the most basic solutions to fixing a photo—copy and paste. The marquee and lasso select tools will allow you to pick pieces of your image, and copy them to cover up your photograph’s blemishes. This is particularly helpful to cover up large areas of scratches and dust, or even large areas containing unwanted objects.

In all three programs, copy and paste are Ctrl + C, then Ctrl + V. You can use the eraser, Clone Stamps, etc to blend the area to the rest of the photograph.

  • Photoshop: Shortcut Key (M) for Marquee, (L) for Lasso
  • GIMP: Shortcut Key (R) for Marquee, and (F) for Lasso
  • Paint.NET: Shortcut Key (S) to toggle between both

 

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Eraser, Brush Tools: Photoshop, GIMP, Paint.NET

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Not for the faint of heart, repairing large sections of photographs with the Eraser and Brush Tools is exactly what it sounds like—redrawing the lost and damaged areas. However, for certain situations, the brush and eraser can be helpful, blending copied information into the background, or painting over small spots of dust or dirt. Other than that, you can expect a lot of tedious, slow work with the Eraser and Brush tools in those unavoidable situations when you have to use them and only them to repair images.

In all three programs, simply select the tool and either erase parts of it to your background color, or paint with a foreground color to cover up anything you don’t want.

  • Photoshop: Shortcut Key (E) for Eraser, (B) for Brush
  • GIMP: Shortcut Key (Shift + E) for Eraser, and (P) for Brush
  • Paint.NET: Shortcut Key (E) for Eraser, (B) for Brush

 

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Healing Brush and Spot Healing Brush: Photoshop and GIMP only

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The tool used in the video, the Healing Brush will sample from an existing part of your image and tie it into the general appearance of the surrounding area, making your brush strokes more invisible to a casual glance. Newer versions of Photoshop have included the “Spot Healing Brush,” which samples the image automatically, with no need to Alt + Click to sample manually. GIMP is sadly missing that particular tool, but does have a serviceable Healing Brush.

Paint.NET does not have this tool in the out of the box install.

  • Photoshop: Shortcut Key (J) for Healing Brush, sample with Alt + Click
  • GIMP: Shortcut Key (H) for Healing Tool, sample with Ctrl + Click

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Other Helpful tools: Photoshop and GIMP only

While the Eyedropper tool, pictured above center is available in all three programs, Blur and Smudge are Photoshop and GIMP only tools, both reasonable for softening and blotting out damaged parts of photographs.

Use the eyedropper in tandem with your Brush tool to paint colors similar to the colors in your photograph.

Use blur to soften harsh scratches or unwanted textures from scans.

Use the smudge tool to wipe out and cover up blemishes and problem areas in your photograph.

  • Photoshop: Shortcut Key (R) for Blur and Smudge, (I) for Eyedropper
  • GIMP: Shortcut Key (Shift + U) for Blur, (U) for Smudge, and (O) for Eyedropper
  • Paint.NET: Shortcut Key (K) for Brush

While the most helpful tool is certainly the Healing brushes GIMP and Photoshop offer, there’s more than enough image editing power in the other tools and techniques combined to de-blemish those treasured photographs even if you aren’t a Photoshop or a GIMP user. Dive in and give it a shot; editing out those scratches and imperfections in your scans isn’t as tough as it might seem.

 

Image credits: Photos of the author’s family, photographers unknown. Yes, that is Peyton Manning hanging out with my dad.

Eric Z Goodnight is an Illustrator and Graphics Geek who hopes to make Photoshop more accessible to How-To Geek readers. When he’s not headbanging to heavy metal or geeking out over manga, he’s often off screen printing T-Shirts.

  • Published 05/11/11

Comments (11)

  1. Jonneh

    Cool. I’ll give this a try over the weekend. My mother did a scan of an old, cracking polaroid for my grandmother to save it as a mothers day present. I’d like to touch it up for her a bit more and get rid of the cracking if I can.

    Thanks for the tips. :)

  2. TechGeek01

    Don’t forget pixlr.com

  3. Ron Pemberton

    I would really be grateful for some articles like this, that specifically use GIMP. I can’t afford Photoshop right now, but I have GIMP, and a lot of family photos I restore and digitize.

  4. fufanu

    my programme is corel paintshop photo pro. i’m new to it, and editing in general. (euphemism for “i havent a clue”). i’ve wallowed in, experimenting, but it’d be good to have true guidance.

  5. Catherine A. Macleod

    More info about GIMP please. Is it free? I can’t afford Photoshop. Hve heaps of old family photos I’d love to restore.

  6. Sir John

    I’ve used Ulead, which is now owned by another co (Corel?) and is an excellent program and learned lot about photo work. Working photos is like your first ice cream cone – you can’t leave it alone once you’ve repaired some photos.

    Problem is it may not work on Win7 – hopefully can find out how to operate older Windows programs on Win7.(Kids gve me new PC with Win7) If not, will try Gimp or Paint. I’m with others that affording new programs isn’t easily paid for before becoming employed by Medicare & SS.

  7. baroing

    Thank you for the Gimp and Paint.net tips!

    It’s refreshing to see, not all of us are part of ‘clan Adobe’.

  8. Janis Mahlberg

    Picasa does a pretty good job of this and it is a free download

  9. Gabi

    That’s cool and easy, but with color photos isn’t so easy :D

  10. pd

    None of the results in your screenshots look acceptable to me. In the initial video the area that is ‘rubbed’ looks very obvious and then magically a second later that rubbed-out area disappears. In my limited experience using such tools, the rubbed-out effect never just disappears like that. Perhaps I’ve been using the wrong programs in the past, such as Paint Shop Pro. Perhaps though there’s definitely an element of skill to this, rather than the programs doing all the tricky blending of colours/tones for you? Which one is it?

  11. Jerome Gunderson

    I have used this technique with some success. Use the magic wand to select and area of damage and then go to either surface or smart blur. If the area is not to large you can end up with a real dreamy effect at the edge’s on a lot of dull area’s. Blue sky is an area also that this tool can really make a little more alive. The blur effect can cover up a lot of evil’s.

    Jerome

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