How to remove scratches from old photographs in Lightroom

Header old photo scratches

Removing scratches from old photographs in Lightroom can be a tedious job. And as always it depends on in what kind of recovery you are making and how much good you want the results to be.

Heal vs Clone

When working to remove scratches or even worse, fix broken photographs, this is the two key tools Photoshop give us to work with.

For this tutorial purpose, I am going to work with this old photo that I scanned from one of my family’s albums.

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So as you can see, it is not that much damaged, although it has some vicious scars at some focus points.

In order to fix those scars and also the dark dots, this picture has, I need to work with a combination of Heal and Clone.

Heal blends in damaged pixels with the pixels you are sampling, but also with the contiguous pixels, so it is good for almost every situation unless the scars are wide or is a pretty noticeable area.

Clone, on the other hand, replicates the exact pixels we are sampling from to the area we apply them. As good as it may sound it is a double edged knife to work with since when you apply it over a large area it will start to show up the repetition of the pattern applied to the same area.

My workflow

I start by dividing the tasks into two groups: blendable areas and damaged areas.

The blendable area can be fixed quickly with the Clone tool as you just only need to sample nearby and apply the tool were you want it to work. This method works 100% with dark spots on old photographs, and even with certain scars.

The damaged area group includes every kind of scar you may find while working with old photographs. In this case, I start working with the heal tool in order to see if I can blend the scar with the scenery. For this work, I need to sample continuously from several nearby points? Why? Because otherwise the fix I am making is going to be noticeable and I am only going to drag pixels from one point to another.

Since I sample from several points I can also blend those pixels together and the picture will have a much more natural look.

If the Heal tool can’t handle the fix I am wanting to achieve, then I switch to the Clone tool, but sampling from a very nearby area with a small size brush.

Brush styles

For some large areas, it is best to use a soft brush tool for the Heal tool, but if you are working with areas of edges nearby please switch to the hard brush, if not the brush will sample more elements than the ones you actual want it to sample.

Clone tool, on the other hand, is best to always use with the hard brush nib since you will be working on a small area and most likely will use the Heal tool on top of it.

Unless you feel it is very necessary to your job to switch styles of brushes, don’t do it. The first two brushes Photoshop provides are more than enough to handle almost every kind of damage you may face.

Plugins

Using plugins can become a help to improve the final result of the image after you finished healing it. Imagenomic Portraiture is my best shot for this.

Apply some softness especially at fine details, this way the whole image will start blending in, and some details that you may have missed while working will disappear. Even if you lose some detail, it won’t be as much bad as to notice remains of scars around the picture.

I don’t recommend using sharpening plugins for this work unless you feel quite confident with the work you already performed or to the general look of the photo. Most probably sharpening tools will drag more elements to correct since they reveal every detail of the photo.

Adding more film grain to the picture is also an option for masking unsolved details or to give a more professional look to your finished job.

Noise reduction is optional. It depends on in which kind of old photograph you may want to have, but in most cases, noise actually helps the end result rather than getting rid of it.

Vignetting effects don’t apply here; as much fancy they look, it only says post-processed image, when what you want is to keep the image quality as similar as the non-scanned photo remains to the date.

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Seeing my end result picture you will notice that I didn’t even apply any basic post-production adjustment. Restoring old photographs is a work that demands the huge amount of patience, so losing time applying changes that are not natural for the image don’t pay the time spent on doing so.

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