The Soldier’s Goodbye – a 10 step photo restoration

Restoring old photos is a rewarding pastime. I love seeing beautiful, tired old pictures emerging alive and sparkling from the restoration process. It’s always my aim to maintain the original feel of the photo. To me, this means making appear as it would have done either when it was new, or if it had appeared in an ideal world.

Today’s tutorial is a brief introduction into the world of restoration. There are of course countless techniques depending on the photo, editing software, and the preferences of the artist performing the restoration.

As a practice piece, this charming, but rather sad photo caught my eye in the Flickr Commons.

(The Commons are a great resource for practice photos, inspiration, history, and so much more. It’s always worth browsing when you get the chance.)

It’s just a little faded from age, rather than severely damaged. Perfect for a quick freshening up to bring it back to its former glory.


Naturally, the first step is to open the image in Photoshop.

Photoshop workspace with WWII soldier kissing girlfriend goodbye


Done? Okay. Now let’s crop off the ragged edges.

If you like you can replace the faded border with a crisp line at the end of the process. For now we’ll crop it clean to keep things tidy.

To do this select the crop tool

…and crop the very edges of the photo, making sure to take off only what’s necessary.


Old photos are often subject to a fair bit of discolouration. When working with black and white photos I usually strip the colour from the photo right at the start to make the image easier to work with. This then allows me to replace it with a beautiful, even tint of my choice at the end of the editing process.

There are hundreds of ways to de-saturate a photo. Currently my favourite technique is to create a Channel Mixer adjustment layer.

To do this, click the Create Adjustment Layer button at the bottom of your layer palette, then select Channel Mixer.



The Channel Mixer dialog box will open. All you have to do here is tick next to Monochrome  to change everything black and white. If you’ve never used Channel Mixer before, play with the sliders while you’re here to see what they do. It’s a great tool for easily adjustable contrast.


Next is a touch of repair work. There’s not a lot of damage to this photo, just a few rubbed creases and one or two spots. Because this is such a low-resolution image file to begin with we can’t work much with details, so just a quick sweep is enough.

The tools we’ll be using are what are called “destructive” editing tools. That is, they cause permanent change to the photo. For this reason you should always work on a copy of the photo, never the original itself. To make a copy of your image select the background layer by clicking on it in the layer palette and press Ctrl-J (Cmd-J for us Macs).

A new layer will appear called Background Copy. If you make sure that this layer is selected whenever you are doing any editing, you can ensure your original is always sitting there untouched in the background, ready for you to go back to if you make a mistake or simply for reference purposes.


For the repair itself I used the Healing Brush and Clone Stamp. There is much to be said about all of Photoshop’s repair tools, the way they each work, and their different uses, but for now let’s keep it simple.

With the Healing Brush and Clone Stamp you choose the area of the photo that you want to duplicate to cover over the damaged area. You do this by pressing the alt key. When you hold it down you’ll see the cursor turn into a little target. Click on the area you want to copy, then release the alt key. Now click on the area you want to hide and watch it change.  These tools will do a similar thing (similar, not identical) in slightly different ways. Experiment to see what happens.


Okay, so it’s all cleaned up, scratches gone. Now let’s add a touch of contrast to make it pop. This photo is pretty evenly toned and doesn’t need a lot done to it. If it needed more work I would use curves or levels adjustment layers with masks to isolate each area, but I think this just needs a little bit of zing.

A simple way to brighten things up a little is to duplicate your newly cloned and healed layer and change the blending mode.

As before, select the layer you want to copy in the layer palette, and press Ctrl-J/Cmd-J to make a copy. Now with this copy still selected, we’re going to change the blending mode to soft light, and turn the opacity down to about 75%.

Once you have made the new copy, click the bar that currently says “Normal”, a menu will appear.

Select Soft Light, and then dial down the opacity a little, until you’re happy with the contrast it produces.

Now your image should look something like this:

An improvement in many ways, but it misses the warmth of the original. So lets add back in that touch of colour.


There are many ways to add colour back in. In this case we’re going to use a transparent layer of colour to affect everything below it.

To do this click on the New Layer button at the bottom of your layer palette.

The new layer will appear above the layer that you had selected. This should be at the top of your stack of layers, if it’s not at the top for any reason, simply click and drag it to the top. Your layers should look like this:


Now let’s add the colour.

Click on the foreground colour swatch at the bottom of your toolbar.

The colour picker dialog box will open. Select any brownish tint you like. I chose this one, but it’s purely a matter of taste. Once you’ve chosen, click OK and the dialog box will vanish.

 The Fill dialog box will open.

Make sure that “Foreground Color” is selected in the Contents area. Then click OK.

The effect will be less than pretty, a solid block of opaque colour obscuring all your hard work.


We’re going to fix this in the same way as we added contrast earlier; with the blend mode menu.

This time we’ll select the Color blend mode.

 Next we’ll want to lower the opacity. As with so much in image editing, this is a matter of taste. You can make it as full of colour as you like, or so there’s hardly a hint. In this case I’ve gone for the latter; I lowered the opacity all the way to 20%.

And…. we’re done!


The final step is to sit back and admire your work.

Before and after. Simple, but effective. And of course the same techniques can be used to repair photos with far more damage than this one.

Experiment and have fun!


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