mad in pursuit: photoshop tutorial

Amazing Color Photo Restoration

4/6/09 Republished in Newsletter of the Photo-Historical Society of Canada

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Goal of this tutorial

Bring life back to precious old color photos. This demonstration shows the steps for one old Kodacolor. It should give you a process for tackling your own family photos.

Level: Intermediate - assumes you know your way around Photoshop.

Software: Adobe Photoshop.


My image: a classic 1956 group picture of the Price cousins, scanned it at 300 dpi (about 900 pixels square). I'm working in 8-bit color mode, but 16-bit is preferred for the least risk to the final image as you rearrange the pixels. Crop off (or mask out) any white border because it will distort your color analysis.

The Histogram Palette (Window > Histogram > All Channels View, Show Histograms In Color) demonstrates the off-kilter color distributions. I originally thought the photo was "too red" and that the correction would require subtracting out the red somehow. But it is the red dye that has apparently broken down — as seen by the shift to the right in the histogram and the faded red channel view (thumbnail at the right).

Step 1. Correct Red Channel

Add a Levels Adjustment Layer from the Layers Palette button. Isolate the Red channel. (See the Figure to the right.)

Move the black and white sliders to where the red color begins. Adjust the gray slider till the photo color looks most balanced.

The result will look something like the corrected photo below. The red channel histogram and thumbnail look much healthier — even though the spikiness of the histogram mean some information is lost. (Too much and the photo will start to posterize — the reason for trying to work in 16-bit color mode.)

Step 2. Overall Color Correction

Add a Levels Adjustment Layer from the Layers Palette button. Select Options... Enhance Per Channel Contrast.

The resulting image will be brighter, with enhanced contrast:

Step 3. Final Colorization

The photo is vastly improved, but let's not leave well enough alone. Add a new layer on the top and, with ALT held down, Layer > Merge Visible.

Dresses. It is Easter, after all. I added a layer, changed the blending mode to Hue. With a soft brush, I painted a few of the dresses with some pastels.

Grass. What's up with that? I made a selection of the grass area. When a Hue/Saturation Adjustment layer is added, the selection becomes a clipping mask. Set Hue to a credible green, with Colorize checked. Set blending mode to Multiply and Transparency to 80%. (Hmm... I probably could have just carefully painted the grass like I did the dresses and avoid the hassle of a complex selection.)

Final result is on the right. The photo could still use some work but — how sweet it is.

Price Cousins - burn polishStep 4. One More Tweak

Bob L. from Canada suggested using the Burn Tool for a final polish:

[Merge your work into a copy on top of your stack of layers (CTL-ALT-SHIFT N E) to give yourself a chance to play without messing up prior work.]

Use a soft Burn Tool brush set on Shadows at 10% Exposure to go over that upper right area that is still badly faded.

Burn the girls in that area and a few dabs here and there where density would improve the image.

Then, on the upper left and across the top. burn the area down to black and some on the fence.

Bob wrote: "I had fun testing to see what could be achieved on the grab shot" [see photo at left].


7.19.06 (revised 3.31.09)