Restoring pictures from the fairs

If you were lucky years ago, you not only went to a World's Fair, but you also took pictures of the big day. Or perhaps you have inherited a box of old pictures from your parents, or found them at a yard sale. Hoping to relive the fun of days past, you fire up the trusty slide projector, ready for a trip back in time. All too often, the big moment is ruined when the slides hit the screen. The colors seem odd, and there's dust and scratches everywhere. Even worse, some of the slides have become moldy from too many years of storage in a damp area. Decades of wear and tear, combined with the shifting of the color dyes, have turned those once vibrant images into something far less than what you had expected.

In the days before computers, you would generally have been out of luck. Restoring these photos would have been a timely and costly proposition, assuming that the work could even have been done in the first place. Happily the tools are with us to breathe new life into these faded treasures of days past. With a little effort, some patience and yes, some money, minor miracles can be performed. Here's an example to whet your appetite:

This slide from the 1964-65 New York World's Fair has obviously seen better days. The colors have shifted badly and almost faded away. Much of the surface has been attacked by mold or mildew, leaving large blotches of strange colors. To make things worse, the slide is dusty and scratched.

Thanks to the Nikon Cool Scan V scanner and Photoshop the wonders of Flushing Meadows can be brought back to life. The colors are back, and the mold, dust and scratches are gone. As a bonus, the badly overexposed sky has also been corrected, revealing the clouds for the first time.

I have received numerous letters and e-mails asking how I have fixed the photos on the site and the CDs. I don't consider myself an expert in the field, but am happy enough with my results that I wanted to encourage others who have their own photos rotting away to take the time to bring them back to life. So, without further introduction, some suggestions.

1) The scanner is the key

Before you can do any editing on the computer, you'll first have to get the original slide, negative or print scanned into a digital format. I use several different tools for this step based on the source media. For 35mm slides and negatives I thoroughly recommend the Nikon Coolscan V scanner. This is the best piece of electronic gear I have ever purchased. What makes it so special? Well, besides being able to scan at a respectable 4000 DPI resolution, the Coolscan is able to remove most surface defects and to restore color automatically. It does this through a Kodak technology called Digital ICE. This magic is done by shining an infrared beam through the film and calculating the thickness of it. Thinner spots are considered to be scratches and thicker spots are dirt. The scanner then does a fabulous job of mathematically removing those defects from the final digital image. It works far better than you could possibly believe. Without it you will be spending WAY too much time manually removing this type of damage.

Besides fixing the surface defects the scanner can restore most color to faded images. A general rule of thumb is that Ektachrome images will have shifted towards the blue end of the spectrum, with Kodachrome turning red. Some pictures, especially those on non-Kodak stock or commercial souvenir slides, will have turned so red that you would swear they were beyond salvage. Happily a good scanner can prove you wrong.

This scan was done without any of the correction features turned on. The colors have faded away, and there is visible surface dirt and scratches.

A pass through the scanner with correction turned on has things looking much better. The color has started to come back, and most of the surface defects are gone. Processing time so far? About 4 minutes.

Playing with the colors in Photoshop really turns things around. And just to make it more interesting, a few clouds were added. Total time to restore the slide? About 10 minutes.

The Coolscan isn't the only scanner with the Digital ICE features, and there are enthusiastic users of other brands who will swear by them. Whatever scanner you get, if it doesn't have the Digital ICE feature don't get it.

As good as the Coolscan is, it's not perfect. Here are a few things to consider:

Here's an example of how Kodachrome can confuse the scanner. The image on the right used the built-in ROC feature of the scanner, which resulted in a gray and washed out image. The left one was scanned with Digital ICE to remove scratches and dirt, then adjusted with the software plugin for a more pleasing version.

The Coolscan is designed for 35mm images and cannot be used on larger format film. In some cases you can use it for smaller images, but instead I suggest a flatbed scanner. I use an Epson V700, which has Digital ICE built in. The Epson handles a wide range of film sizes and prints, and through the magic of Digital ICE does a very nice job indeed. It's much slower than the Coolscan, though, and the recovery tools are not as precise as on the Nikon, so I use it only for those jobs the Coolscan chokes on. There are some slides and negatives that the Epson doesn't seem to like, so those go on an HP flatbed that is waiting in the wings. That doesn't have Digital ICE, but between all of these tools it's possible to get just about anything into the computer.

The following Pana-Vue slide was too large an image area for the Coolscan so I used the Epson. The Epson has a color correction mode but I prefer the results from the Kodak software, so it was scanned without that feature turned on.

Like most commercial slides, this one has seen better days. Almost all of the Pana-Vue ones will have turned red, some far worse than this. There are some film stocks that make the Pana-Vue ones look good. Happily most amateur shots aren't this bad.

Place your mouse over the picture to see the color corrected version. It only took a few minutes of tweaking to get rid of the red. I'm still in awe of what the brains behind this have been able to revive from the dead. There sure wasn't any blue sky or green grass in the original version.

One question I get asked a lot is how high a resolution to use. I recommend going as high as you can, and later downsizing the image if you need a smaller size. For example, most web pages are at 72DPI, but if you scan at that resolution you're likely to be quite disappointed. Here's an example of how a higher resolution produces a much better result:

This view of the train station at Disneyland was scanned at 2900 DPI, which was the maximum resolution of the older Coolscan IV.

Place your mouse over the picture to see the same 35mm negative scanned at 4000 DPI on the Coolscan V. The image is much sharper, which really shows up at full size, and the colors are more life like as well due to the newer scanner.


While most of my work is on slides or negatives, it's also possible to make faded or discolored prints look better. This shot from "Man and His World" in 1970 has shifted quite badly in color.

Move your mouse over the picture to see an adjusted version. Some dust and scratches have been removed, and the sharpness adjusted. Unfortunately, the original was a bit blurred and not everything can be fixed!

2) The next step is the editing software

I am a big fan of Adobe Photoshop, and use it for 99.9% of my editing. A friend of mine gets excellent results from Corel Paint Shop Pro. Whatever tool you pick, I suggest it be able to use Photoshop plug-ins, which allow you to greatly extend the capability of the editing program. Why do you need an editor if the scanner is so good? Well, as amazing as it is, some things are just beyond it.

This slide went through the scanner with the correction features turned on, but there's still a lot of dirt visible.

Here's the reason why. All of this junk is printed on the slide ,which is a commercial souvenir sold at the Fair. Poor quality control by the vendor has created a messy slide indeed. Since the dirt is printed on the slide it can't be detected through the infrared process.

Manual editing with several tools in Photoshop have removed the junk and produced a sharper image.

While the scanner will get rid of most of the dirt and scratches, there will be some defects that it won't be able to handle for you. In those cases you'll have to become familiar with Photoshop's "Healing Brush" and cloning features. Some of the automatic Photoshop features such as dust or scratch removal cause too much image degradation for my taste, so it's time then to start playing artist and fix things by hand.

Since the Coolscan can't fix black-and-white negatives, the scan will have the original dust and scratches faithfully transferred into Photoshop. A look at the elephant and ground shows lots of scratches and some dust.

Place your mouse over the picture to see the corrected version. Voila! The elephant and surroundings are looking a lot better. A steady hand and a few hours were required to turn back the clock. I believe this one took about 2 hours or so.

There are lots of other things you can fix on your old pictures. As the first example on this page shows, you can fix the lightness or darkness of areas, even if the original picture was over or under exposed (within reason, of course!). Colors can be fine tuned, sharpness adjusted, etc. Just because the original doesn't look good doesn't mean it should be tossed away. The last version of Photoshop didn't do some of these things automatically; who knows what the next version might be able to do to one of those "bad" slides, like the newer Coolscan did with the Disneyland picture.

3) Fix it in post production

I spent about 20 years working at different movie studios, and one common refrain heard any time something went wrong on the stage was "We'll fix it in post production". Those guys could do magic - and so can you.

What happens if you have a picture that you really like except for a cable in the way, a kid making a face at the camera or people standing in the way of your favorite pavilion?

It's a nice day at the New York State Pavilion, but every time you tried to take a picture someone got in the way.

Place your mouse over the picture and what people were those? Using Image Doctor from Alienskin Software and other tools in Photoshop, you have sent them on their way.


The Lunar Fountain would look better if someone wasn't in the way, right?

Place your mouse over the picture and she's no longer in sight. It took about 30 minutes to edit her out of the shot.

Some photo purists get quite upset about altering photos like this, but to me I don't have a problem with it as long as no one is trying to pass the picture off as something that it's not. I always keep the unaltered version as well, so don't feel bad for those missing people - they're really not gone at all.

Ready to get going?

I hope this short introduction to "Fun with Photoshop" encourages you to dig your old pictures out and to bring them back to life. If I can answer any questions for you (short of a course in Photoshop 101) please let me know. If you're sitting on the fence and aren't sure if your pictures can be salvaged, drop me a line. I might be able to do one for you just to encourage you a bit further. I don't do wholesale restores for others as a general rule (just no time available), but if you have something special in mind let me know.

Bill Cotter
October 2, 2009

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