127. Restore Color and Tone to an Old Photograph
Before You Begin
136 About an Images Histogram
137 Improve Brightness and Contrast
138 Improve a Dull, Flat Photo
146 Adjust Hue, Saturation, and Lightness Manually
The colors in this picture are a clue to the picture's age. As photos age, their colors fade. Inks fade at different rates, causing not only a loss in saturation, but a shift in color as well. The Editor has several automatic tools on the Enhance menu to correct the color and lighting of photos like this one, but they aren't always as precise as you might like. Try these commands on your photos, but be prepared to cancel them and try more precise, manual methods. In the case of this picture, using Enhance, Auto Levels or Enhance, Auto Color Correction was like using a sledgehammer when the situation called for a scalpel. In this task, I'll explain how to manually adjust the color saturation and tones in your image to improve its overall appeal.
Open the Info Palette
Open an image in the Editor in Standard Edit mode and save it in Photoshop (*.psd) format. In most old photos, the overall tone is medium and the contrast is not as sharp as it should be; when you display a histogram for the image, the graph doesn't meet either end of the scale. The first step in restoring an old photograph is to find the brightest and darkest points in the picture and place them at each end of the histogram to balance the overall tone.
Open the Info palette by choosing Window, Info from the menu bar. The Info palette provides data about whichever pixel is currently under the mouse pointer; you'll use this information to select the darkest and lightest points in the image. To make the Info palette show the HSB (hue, saturation, and brightness) values you'll need to complete this task, click the Eyedropper icon in the first pane and select HSB Color from the menu.
Find the White Point
Choose Enhance, Adjust Lighting, Levels from the menu bar. The Levels dialog box opens to display the histogram. In the bottom-right corner of the dialog box is a trio of eyedroppers colored black, gray, and white. You use the black and white eyedroppers to pick the darkest and lightest tones in the image. After setting the black and white points, the overall contrast and tone of the image will be restored.
Press Alt and click the white slider just below the right end of the histogram in the Levels dialog box. The image changes to display the lightest points in yellow. Memorize the general area of one of these points. Select the white dropper in the Levels dialog box. Move it over the image, in the same area you identified earlier as containing the lightest spot. Look for the highest B: reading in the Info palette. When you find the lightest pixel, click it.
When selecting the whitest point in the image, ignore reflections. Extreme bright spots like these are called specular highlights and should not be considered when finding the true white point in an image.
The picture brightens considerably because the Levels dialog box uses the white point you just specified to adjust its histogram. The point you clicked becomes "absolute white" in the image, and the rest of the points along the histogram graph are adjusted to accommodate this shift.
Find the Black Point
Press Alt and click the slider below the left end of the histogram in the Levels dialog box, and make note of the darkest points in the image, shown on the main image in magenta. Select the black eyedropper in the Levels dialog box. As you move the mouse pointer over the image, look for the lowest B: value on the Info palette. When you find the darkest point in the image, click it.
Remove Color Cast
Assuming there's something in your photograph that's gray, you can use the gray eyedropper in the Levels dialog box to remove any color cast in the image. Otherwise, use the method explained in 144 Correct Color Manually.
First, click the eyedropper in the first panel on the Info palette and select Grayscale from the menu that appears. This selection will help you find a middle gray pixel in the image. Click the gray eyedropper in the Levels dialog box. As you move the mouse pointer over a gray area in the photo, look for a pixel that's roughly 50% gray in the Info palette. When you find a middle gray pixel, click it. The colors in the image shift; assuming that you've clicked a middle gray pixel, any color cast is removed. Click OK to close the Levels dialog box and accept the changes.
Again, the automatic color adjustments that Photoshop Elements provides (Auto Levels and Auto Color Correction) are too heavy-handed for the purpose of improving this picture. Manual adjustment using the Hue/Saturation control provides more control.
Sometimes the color in a photograph fades unevenly. You can increase the saturation in selected parts of an image using the Sponge. Click the Sponge tool on the Toolbox, set the Mode to Saturate, adjust the Flow as desired, and then drag the tool over the area you want to saturate.
You can also increase the saturation in an old photo by duplicating the image on another layer and setting the duplicate layer's blend mode to Multiply.
Choose Enhance, Adjust Color, Hue/Saturation from the menu bar to display the Hue/Saturation dialog box. Drag the Saturation slider to the right to increase the intensity of the colors in a faded image. (For more information about the Hue/Saturation dialog box, see 146 Adjust Hue, Saturation, and Lightness Manually.) Click OK to save your changes.
View the Result
When you're satisfied with the color and tone of the image, make any other changes you want and save the PSD file. Then resave the file in JPEG or TIFF format, leaving your PSD image with its layers (if any) intact so that you can return at a later time and make different adjustments if you want.
After improving the contrast and saturation in this old photo and removing the reddish color cast that seemed to make everything pink, I had just a few remaining issues to attend to. I used the Spot Healing Brush to remove a few isolated specks, and the Median filter to remove some noise (see 124 Remove Specks and Spots). The final result is a much improved treasure.