How to find the right editing tools for restoring old photos.

Most image editors will provide at least some of the tools you need for ‘restoring’ old photos to a condition that makes them usable for later projects. But basic applications, like the ones included in the Windows and MacOS operating systems provide a limited tool set that is seldom up to the task.

The Photos applications in computer operating systems provide a very limited range of editing tools and most of them act globally on the entire image, which makes them unsuitable for retouching. Although there’s a Spot fix tool (above), it can only cover up white and black spots (and doesn’t do that particularly well). It can’t handle streaks and abrasion marks or tonal adjustments.

What to look for

Editing applications vary greatly in their capabilities and ease of use. Some are relatively simple, while others have sophisticated tools that require a steep learning curve. Check to see whether it includes most of the following features:

  • Colour correction: With one click, this image editing tool will automatically modify the colours and contrast to achieve a global ‘correction’.
  • Contrast adjustment: This tool leaves colours unchanged but adjusts the image’s contrast.
  • Sharpening: This will sharpen edges and accentuate fine details.
  • Dust and scratch removal: This image editing tool will remove scratches and eliminate minor imperfections usually by slightly softening the image.
  • Clone stamp: This tool allows you to manually copy parts of the image then ‘stamp’ the selected pixels onto another area in the image.
  • Healing brush(es): These tools sample pixels from part of the image and use them to paint over cracks or dust spots. The spot healing brush samples from the immediate vicinity of the blemish, while the healing brush requires the user to select the sampling area.
  • Content aware corrections: Tools that are ‘content aware’ will take account of pixels in the area surrounding the blemish that is being This makes the edit blend better into the surrounding picture.
  • Content filling algorithms: Content-filling algorithms can help recreate missing parts of a photo automatically.

Ideally the ‘strength’ of each tool should be adjustable by the user, both before the tool is used and after it has been applied.

Finding the right application

Choosing which software to use will depend on the degree to which you want to pursue photo restoration, the number of photos you want to restore and the extent to which they are damaged. Photos that require only basic edits like colour correction and tonal adjustment are easy to restore with very basic software.

If you want to take restoration seriously and have a large number of photos to digitise and fix, you’ll be better off with a more powerful editor. This is especially true if any of the photos is extensively damaged because of staining or if it’s torn or creased. These problems are very difficult (and often impossible) to fix without the right tools and some degree of expertise.

Complex repairs like fixing this torn photo (top left) will require sophisticated software. The first step in repairing this image was to select and copy (2) the section of the image above the tear and paste it into a higher position that covers most of the white gap. It is then possible to ‘paint over’ the tear using the cloning stamp and healing brushes (3), adjusting brush sizes and hardness and working on an enlarged image, when necessary. The retouched image is shown in the bottom right corner. (Image source: Camera House.)

Photographers who already use editing software like the freeware application GIMP, or fee-based applications such as ACDSee Photo Studio, Adobe Photoshop (or Photoshop Elements), Affinity Photo, Corel PaintShop ProLuminar AI, or Pixelmator will probably find all the tools they need are available in these applications. They also provide the range of adjustments you require and you won’t have to deal with an unfamiliar user interface.

Generalist image editors like Affinity Photo provide all the tools you need for photo restoration.

Newcomers to image editing face a complex array of choices. Will it do what I want? How long will it take to learn the basic functions? How much control will I have over the end results?

It can be tempting to seek out ‘AI-based’ software, which uses ‘artificial intelligence’ to accomplish tasks that may appear challenging. AI technology will no doubt improve over time, but it still has a long way to go to be reliable. When you allow computer algorithms to take over virtually any process, you have little or no control over the end results.

Shows a highly automated application promoted as being able to ‘restore damaged photographs close to their original state’ being used to restore the torn photo used in the previous repair example. Without the ability to cut-and-paste the two sections of the photo together, it was unable to produce a satisfactory repair.

While a web search will yield plenty of recommendations of low-priced and free software for retouching photos, you’re unlikely to find an application that is both powerful enough to fix major problems and easy enough to use. Fortunately most applications offer free downloads so you can try them out on your own photos and, if they don’t do what you want or you find them difficult to use, you can simply uninstall them and move on.

Trial downloads allow you to check out the user interface and find out whether the software can do the jobs required.

You can usually see how complex the software is by looking at the size of the downloadable file – remembering it’s probably compressed and will install at more than 50% more megabytes. Watch out for ‘bloatware’ that takes up a lot of space on your hard drive without providing a decent range of fully-adjustable tools.

Be wary of applications that require your credit card details before they let you download a so-called ‘free’ trial. Don’t provide credit card details unless you really want to purchase the software.

Photopea is one of the more useful freeware applications. It has a logical user interface, provides the widest range of adjustment tools, saves to most popular file formats and is compatible with all computer platforms.

Useful links

The editing toolbox

How to choose an image editor

Photo editing software

This article by Margaret Brown is an excerpt from Photo Restoration pocket guide

Pocket guide Partner: Camera House