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.
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:
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.
2. Tap Healing in the Menu
This will get you to the tools you will need to do the restoration.
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.
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
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 Warmth, Saturation, Shadows 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 app. Here 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!
- Clarity – definitely give this a whirl
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:
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 Author
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 Toolbox, Mobile Genealogy, How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers, and the Google Earth for Genealogy video series, an international keynote speaker, and producer of the Family Tree Magazine Podcast.
June 10, 2013 – Austin, TX. Discounted early-bird registration for the 2013 Federation of Genealogical Societies Conference will continue only until July 1. Early registrants receive a $50 discount for the full four days, or a $20 discount for any single day. Details at http://www.fgsconference.
The conference will be held 21-24 August 2013 in Fort Wayne, Indiana at the Grand Wayne Convention Center. This year’s conference theme is “Journey through Generations,” and the local hosts are the Allen County Public Library (ACPL) and the Allen County Genealogical Society of Indiana (ACGSI). Platinum sponsors are FamilySearch, FindMyPast.com and Ancestry.com.
The conference offers opportunities for all who are interested in researching their family history, with over 160 educational sessions on records, strategies, and tools for genealogists at all levels. The exhibit hall features over 70 vendors offering a wide range of genealogical products and is open and free to the public.
Luncheons, workshops and special events provide additional opportunities for networking and learning. Make sure the get your tickets to these conference “extras” early to guarantee your spot.
See you in Fort Wayne in August!
Learn More and Stay Connected
- Visit or subscribe to the FGS Conference Blog at http://www.
- Like the conference on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/
- Follow the conference on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/
FGSconference and hashtag #FGS2013.
- Visit Fort Wayne at http://www.visitfortwayne.
Every Friday, we blog about new genealogy records online. Might these collections include your ancestors? And does the Google search tip we’ve added at the bottom help you out?
This week: Kansas newspapers, WWI records for the U.S. and Canada and a unique collection of mid-1800s Shaker photographs.
KANSAS NEWSPAPERS. Subscribers to Newspapers.com can search a newly enlarged database of Kansas newspapers. It “currently has more than 190 papers from almost 90 Kansas cities for a total of 4.3 million pages.” One paper dates to 1840, 20 years before statehood.
SHAKER PHOTOGRAPHS. The Shaker Museum Mount Lebanon (New York) “has launched a newly digitized online catalog of historic photography as a part of its ongoing effort to make available online a full catalog of its collections,” says this press report. Photos include “scenes of Shaker villages from the mid-late 19th Century, as well as a collection of stereograph images from this early period.”
CANADA WWI MILITARY RECORDS. Ancestry recently posted a new collection of “more than 17,000 historical military records (featuring more than 470,000 images) revealing the First World War military experiences of many Canadian soldiers. The Canada, Imperial War Service Gratuities, 1919-1921 collection contains records of Canadians who fought and served in the British Imperial services.” Note: the above link goes to Ancestry.com but the database is also available on Ancestry.ca.
U.S. WWI PHOTOGRAPHS. The National Archives (U.S.) has a newly digitized collection online: American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs, 1917-1918. According to the site, “This series contains photographs obtained from the U.S. Army Signal Corps, Federal and State government agencies, as well as private sources, such as the American Red Cross and the Central News and Photo Service. The photos depict the unity of the nation and how overwhelming the war effort was, including pictures of public gatherings, peace demonstrations, parades, and activities of libraries, hospitals and first aid stations.”
Google tip of the week: Some databases are hosted on multiple genealogy websites. For example, The New England Historical and Genealogical Society has been receiving a lot of new databases from FamilySearch. Ancestry has recently posted several databases from JewishGen, which also hosts them on their site. One site may have the search tools you prefer; another may be more convenient because you can attach records to your tree on that site. Use Google’s site search tool to see if the database is on a particular site. Enter the keywords in quotes, then the word “site:” immediately followed by the URL without the www. (There is no space between site: and the website address.) A search for the Canadian database above in Ancestry.ca looks like this: “Imperial War Service Gratuities” site:Ancestry.ca. This tip is brought to you by the newly-revised 2nd edition of The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox by Lisa Louise Cooke, which has an entire chapter on site searching and resurrecting old websites.