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.

Attend One of Lisa’s Upcoming Seminars in Texas

Attend Lisa’s upcoming seminars and Google your way to genius! Both the North Texas Genealogical Association and the Genealogy Friends of Plano host Lisa this month. She is presenting some fantastic, genealogy-packed lectures you won’t want to miss.

Lisa's Upcoming Lectures in Texas

Lisa’s Upcoming Seminar in Wichita Falls

The North Texas Genealogical Association is going big with their upcoming seminar on Saturday, September 10, 2016. Our own Google Guru, Lisa, is presenting the lectures for their fall workshop being held at the First United Methodist Church at 909 10th St. in Wichita Falls, Texas.

Lecture titles include:

  • “Google Tools and Procedures”
  • “Get the Scoop: Newspapers”
  • “Inner Private Eye: 9 Strategies”
  • “Google Earth for Genealogy”

The doors open at 9 am and the seminar will conclude at 3:30 pm. A light lunch will be included with the price of registration. Early registration has been extended through TODAY September 5th and the cost is $45.00. Registration after September 5th, and at the door, will be $55.00. You can download the registration form here.

Lisa’s Upcoming Seminar in Plano

The Genealogy Friends of Plano Libraries, Inc. are also hosting a seminar this month with Lisa! Join attendees at the First Presbyterian Church Plano on 1500 Jupiter Rd. in Plano, Texas. This genealogy smorgasbord of lectures will be held on Saturday, September 17th.

Lecture titles include:

  • “Ultimate Google Search Strategies”
  • “How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers”
  • “Time Travel with Google Earth”
  • “How to Reopen and Work a Genealogical Cold Case”

Early registration before September 12th is $45 for members or $50 for non-members. If you miss the early registration deadline, you can still attend! Price of admission after September 12th and at the door will be $50.00 for both members and non-members.

For a schedule of the day and a registration form, click here. The Genealogy Friends of Plano Libraries ask that you bring your own lunch, but they will provide lemonade, coffee, and tea.

Keep Up with All of Lisa’s Upcoming Lectures

BYU Family History conference 2015

Photo Credit: Ancestry Insider

She’s a jet setter folks! If you are like me, you want to stay up-to-date on where Lisa will be speaking and when you are lucky enough to have her in your area. See her entire seminar schedule here. Why not share the schedule with your genealogy buddies and meet for a fun weekend trip. Nothing beats a little genealogy with friends!

Society Package: Google Videos

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BYU Family History Conference 2016


The BYU family history conference is coming up July 26-29, 2016 in Provo, Utah. I’ll be there! Will you? I hope you’ll come say hello.

I hope to meet many of you at Brigham Young University’s annual Conference on Family History and Genealogy in Provo, Utah, coming up on July 26-29, 2016.byu family history conference 2016They’re keeping me busy during the first two days of the conference, when I will be teaching five lectures! Those presentations will include:

  • Genealogical Time Travel: Google Earth is Your DeLorean. Get ready to experience old historic maps, genealogical records, images, and videos coming together to create stunning time travel experiences in the free Google Earth program. We’ll incorporate automated changing boundaries, and uncover historic maps that are built right into Google Earth. Tell time travel stories that will truly excite your non-genealogist relatives! You’ve never seen anything like this class!
  • Get the Scoop on Your Ancestors with Newspapers. Yearning to “read all about it?” Newspapers are a fantastic source of research leads, information and historical context for your family history. Learn the specialized approach that is required to achieve success in locating the news on your ancestors.  Includes 3 Cool Tech Tools that will get you started.
  • Google Tools & Procedures for Solving Family History Mysteries. In this session we will put Google to the test. Discover Google tools and the process for using them to solve the genealogical challenges you face. You’ll walk away with exciting new techniques you can use right away.
  • Soothe Your Tech Tummy Ache with These 10 Tech Tools. Are you sick and tired of navigating the countless tech tools available to help with your family history? The good news: You don’t need them all to accomplish your genealogy goals. The video session will soothe your suffering by simply focusing on these 10 technology tools that will help you bypass tech overload and get back to your genealogy research.
  • Tablet and Smartphone Tricks, Tips and Apps. Tablets and smartphones are built for hitting the road and are ideally suited for genealogy due to their sleek size, gorgeous graphics and myriad of apps and tools.  In this class you will discover the top apps and best practices that will make your mobile device a genealogical powerhouse! (iOS and Android)

WHAT: Brigham Young University Conference on Family History & Genealogy
WHEN: July 26-29, 2016
WHERE:  BYU Conference Center, 730 East University Pkwy, Provo, UT
REGISTER: Click here for full conference information

Gems editor Sunny Morton will join me at the BYU family history conference in the vendor hall and in the classroom. She’ll be lecturing on researching collateral relatives (as indirect routes to direct ancestors); finding “relatively recent” 20th-century relatives; finding family history in Catholic church records; how to carefully consider your sources; and a hands-on workshop for planning your next family history writing project.

This year’s conference promises to be rich in expertise and education. Keynote speakers include FamilySearch CEO Steve Rockwood and professional genealogist and author, Paul Milner. There are more than 100 classes planned in several topic areas. ICAPGen will host a luncheon, too. A nice extra is that the conference center is so easy to get around in, with free parking right next to the building.

Click here to learn more about the conference and register. And please come say hello to me and Sunny at the Genealogy Gems booth in the exhibit hall on Wednesday or Thursday!

The BYU Family History Conference 2015

Last year, I delivered gave a keynote address on various technologies that help our research. It reminds me how quickly technology moves–and how enthusiastically genealogists continue to embrace new opportunities given them by technology. Click here to read a summary of that talk and whet your appetite for this year’s conference!

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