How to Remove Damage from Old Photos in 10 Easy Steps

Here’s how to remove damage from photos, such as those commonly found on Polaroid Land pictures. It’s a simple digital photo restoration technique you can use to improve your old family photos. See how Lisa Louise Cooke cleaned up a precious family photo as a surprise for an guest she interviewed—and his touching response. 

restore damaged photos - photo restoration on your phone

Last month, I asked esteemed film historian Sam Gill to send me some photos of himself that I could include on the “show notes” page for Genealogy Gems Podcast episode #215. The episode features our conversation on silent films, and the glimpse of early 20th century life that they provide. 

One of the images he shared captures him (when he was in high school) and his mom. Sam told me that it was taken at the time when he started helping her with their family’s genealogy.

 

“I seem to have only one photograph of my mother and me at that time, which was what they called a Polaroid Land Pictures photo,” he continued. “In the days before selfies and digital cameras, this was a way to have a photo miraculously developed in sixty seconds. That was considered a miracle of photography at the time.

“Although these photos tended to leave streak marks and other blemishes, it’s all I got! I am hoping you might get a kick out of seeing this young kid and his intelligent, forever-curious and talented mother, Florence Louise Jones Gill (aka Mom).”

After learning how much the memories behind that photo meant to Sam, I took the liberty of doing some quick touch up work on it. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly cleaner:

how to repair and remove streaks from photos

A treasured old photo of Sam and his mom.

You can try the same techniques I used to remove damaged areas from photos you’ve digitized. It’s easy and free! So, follow along with me, and then keep reading for Sam’s response to receiving the cleaned-up photo.

How to remove damage from photos

(Update) In the past I have downloaded and used the free Adobe PhotoShop Fix app.  However, the Adobe Photoshop Express app has now taken its place. You can download it onto your phone or other mobile device for free from the App Store or Google Play. You will find the Retouch feature as a Premium feature.

Then follow these steps:

1. Add a Copy of the Digital Image

Open the app and tap the Plus sign to add your image. Don’t work with the original photo file. I save mine in Dropbox, but you can also pull your image copies from your phone, Adobe’s Creative Cloud, Facebook or Google Photos. 

Add the digital copy of your old photo to Adobe Fix to be restored

Tap the plus sign and select the location of your photo.

2. Tap Healing in the Menu

This will get you to the tools you will need to do the restoration. 

Tap Healing to begin restoring your old photo

3. Start with Minor Repairs

Start with the easy stuff (don’t go for the face right away,thought it’s tempting). Work on clothing and the backdrop first so you can get a feel for the repair work and refine your retouching movements.

4. Apply the Spot Heal Tool

Use Spot Heal first and see if it takes care of the problem area. Don’w worry about making mistakes. You can always tap the Undo at the top of the screen if you’re not happy with the results.

5. Apply Clone Stamp

Use the Clone Stamp tool to select an area on the existing photo that you want to duplicate to cover up a damaged area. For example you can select an unblemished area of the backdrop, duplicate it, and then “paste” it over a blemished area of the backdrop. Keep in mind that even in a single color backdrop, there can be shading, so move the clone stamp around to replicate it accurately. 

Clone stamp can replace damaged areas on your photo

Tap Clone Stamp in the menu, and use the tools on the left to adjust.

You can adjust the size of the clone stamp selection tool by tapping “Size” in the pop out menu on the left. Selecting “hardness” will give you the ability to cone with a sharp edge or a more feathered edge which is a bit more forgiving when covering another area. 

6. Zoom for Greater Detail

Zoom in for better accuracy. To do this, put two fingers together and then them spread apart to enlarge the area.

While zooming in can give you greater control, if you get too close you may start seeing individual pixels (depending on the size and resolution of the original photo) and those can be much trickier to change accurately. Zoom back out often to “stand back” and inspect your work!

7. Adjust as Needed

If you’re going to zoom in, take the time to adjust the size of the tool you are using, whether it’s Spot Heal or Clone Stamp. You can adjust the size of the circle and the “hardness” by tapping the tab on the left side of the screen. 

When you’ve completed your initial re

8. Saving

Be sure to save to your work along the way. That way you can always go back to a previous version if you get a little too overzealous. I like to save the image to my device’s Photos, but the app offers a variety of saving locations.

9. Apply Smoothing

In the main menu, use the Smooth tool to refine your work. Start by tapping Face. Chances are you’ll like the effect as it smooths the skin tone. And again, you can always undo if you don’t.

Then tap to spot-smooth areas, particularly backdrops. Beware of over-smoothing – it won’t look natural.

10. Make Final Adjustments

After you complete the repair work, play with other options to improve the image quality. In the main menu tap Adjust. Play with Contrast first, then move on to testing WarmthSaturationShadows and Highlights.

When you’re done, save the finished image one last time to your device’s Photos

Take Mobile Photo Restoration a Step Further

When I work on improving and restoring my old photos, I often do so in more than one app. It’s rare to find an app that does everything you want, and each has it’s special strengths. Adobe has several other excellent apps, and PhotoShop Mix is one I use quite often after I complete my initial restoration in Adobe PhotoShop Fix. 

Import the restored image into the free Adobe Photoshop Mix appHere you’ll find even more tools for refining the image. Tap Adjust in the main menu. Experiment with these tools because you can always Undo!:

  • Auto Fix – I avoid this one!
  • Temperature
  • Exposure
  • Contrast
  • Highlights
  • Shadows
  • Clarity – definitely give this a whirl
  • Saturation

I was delighted how quickly I was able to significantly improve the photo. Sam and his mom’s faces just radiate happiness.

I sent it off and heard back from him almost immediately:

“I can’t tell you how much it means to me to see this extraordinary repair and restoration work you accomplished on that tiny Polaroid Land Picture of my mother and myself! This picture was taken at the exact same time I began to help my mother with her genealogical work.”

He then shared the story about that first research project with her. The two of them wanted to identify the relative who had rendered some beautiful old paintings hanging in his grandparents’ house. The trail led mother and teenage son to London, Ontario, Canada. As a budding genealogist, Sam was certainly thinking ahead!

“I convinced my mother to let me take along a tape recorder, as I was very interested in sound recordings, and so we recorded my mother’s interviews with family members still in London and related to the same…family.”

Sam and his mother identified the artistic ancestor who did those paintings: John Ashton. Their research culminated in a “delightful little family history, called The Descendants of John Ashton, of London, Ontario, Canada, and his Son-in-Law, John Ames Arnold, of Greencastle, Indiana (Lyons, Ks.: Lyons Publishing Co., 1964) compiled by my mother, Florence Jones Gill.”

Sam proudly mentions that her book was favorably reviewed. A quick check of Google Books reveals that there was indeed quite a bit of “buzz” when she published her book! It was referenced in several genealogical publications. Here are the search results in Google Books:

google books search results

Sam wrapped up his reply with a little life lesson that he learned from his mom, that we can all take to heart.

“You might get a kick out of this,” Sam wrote, “but the only mistake that my mother ever found after the book was published, was the date of her marriage to my father! It should have been 1935, not 1934. One never to take herself TOO seriously, she had quite a laugh over that one.

It was fun helping my mother. Also, as I look back over my life, I must say that I have never known a more “can-do” person than my mother. If something came up that needed attention–no matter what it was–my mother’s usual response was , “WELL, WE’VE GOT TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT THAT !!!”

So my dear Gems, next time we see our family’s history hidden behind damage in an old photo, let us hear Mrs. Gill’s words in our ears “WE’VE GOT TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT THAT!!!”

Read More About Working with Old Photos & Apps:

My book Mobile Genealogy is chock full of more innovative ideas for using your smartphone and tablet for family history. It’s available here in the Genealogy Gems store

About the AuthorAbout the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke

Lisa is the Producer and Host of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, an online genealogy audio show and app. She is the author of the books The Genealogist’s Google ToolboxMobile GenealogyHow to Find Your Family History in Newspapersand the Google Earth for Genealogy video series, an international keynote speaker, and producer of the Family Tree Magazine Podcast.

5 Steps to Finding Marriage Records

Show Notes: Marriage records are essential to building your family tree. Here are the 5 steps you need to in order to find an ancestor’s marriage record. 

Watch the Video

5 Steps to Finding Marriage Records for Genealogy

Downloadable ad-free Show Notes Marriage Records Worksheet for Premium Members

A really good Spring cleaning task is to look through your family tree, starting with yourself and working backwards, and just checking to see if you have all the vital records for everyone. Vital records include birth, marriage and death records. Civil marriage records are typically some of the oldest vital records, and offer valuable information. 

Step 1:  Determine the time and place.

Time and place are critical to marriage record searches. Records like census records can help you get within 10 years of a marriage, and can also help you narrow in on the location of the wedding. Thankfully, all U.S. Federal Census records are free and online at FamilySearch.

Marriage records are typically filed at the county level. However, they can sometimes be found at the town level, particularly in New England. 

It’s very important to identify the correct county at the time of the estimated marriage. You can do that using the Newberry Library’s Atlas of Historical County Boundaries. Click on the state and then select the time frame. 

Step 2: Use a genealogy guidance website

Genealogy “guidance” websites pull together information from a variety of sources to aid you in your research in a particular area. Here are two of my favorites:

The FamilySearch Wiki 

Click on North America > United States > State. Scroll down the state page and click on the county. Use Alt + F to quickly search for the word marriage.

The wiki will likely also provide you with links and clues as to where to find the records. Remember, it’s not always a comprehensive list, but it’s a great place to start.

Learn more about the Wiki with these videos:

If civil marriage records had not yet started when your ancestors married, look for church marriage records. Learn more with my video: How to Use Church Records for Genealogy (Premium)

US GenWeb

  • All-volunteer website
  • Organized by state and then county.
  • Great place to tap into the collective brain trust of genealogists interested in the same area.
  • Provides information such as when records started, how to access them, or if they are no longer available.
  • Provides links to online records.

Step 3: Genealogy Records Websites

If those leads don’t pan out, next turn to major genealogy websites. Start with the free FamilySearch, then if you have subscriptions to sites like Ancestry or MyHeritage, use those. (Note: These are affiliate links and we are compensated if you make a purhcase.) Only a fraction of these website’s record collections are included in their hints and suggestions. This means that the card catalog is essential if you want to scour all the records. 

Learn more about searching Ancestry’s card catalog: Ancestry Top Tips and Hot Keys (Premium)

Step 4: Contact the jurisdiction that originally created the records

If you don’t get the record that way, you’ll need to do it the old-fashioned way: contact the county or town clerk.

Early vital records are often moved to the state level. That contact information can likely be found on the FamilySearch Wiki page you found, or you can Google:
County name, state “marriage records”

Check the following repositories:

  • State Library
  • State Archive
  • State Historical Society
  • County Historical Society
  • Other: _________________________________________

Step 5: Google Search

If all else fails, turn to Google to see if there are any other repositories or online resources outside of the largest genealogy websites and archives. Use search operators to focus your search.

Example:  Randolph County Indiana “marriage records” 1880..1900

The quotation marks ensure that the exact phrase (Marriage records) is included on each web page result you get.

Two numbers separated by two periods is called a Numrange search. This instructs Google to also ensure that each web page result includes a number (in our case, a year) that falls within that range. It’s a great way to target marriage records from a particular time frame. 

Learn more about marriage record research with these two instructional videos:

Resources

Downloadable ad-free Show Notes Marriage Records Worksheet for Premium Members

 

Pin It on Pinterest

MENU