The Digital Art Studio: Rescuing Old Photos #2

Although most of my family photos are stashed away in rarely-opened albums, I have always kept a few special mementos close at hand. One of the photos I have often kept nearby is a much-faded photo of my great Uncle Joe and Aunt Lil in their home in Katonah, NY.

Uncle Joe died when I was very young, and although I only met him a few times, I’ve always felt a close personal connection to him. Joe was my grandfather’s oldest brother (of nine). He was a gentle soul, and although he had no children of his own, he was my mother’s most adored, and favorite uncle. I suspect that although I likely inherited much of my mother’s adoration, much of the connection I feel to him is because Uncle Joe was a professional artist and calligrapher. I am honored to have a number of meticulously-drawn pen and ink drawings by Joseph Abrahams, some framed, others not. In addition to the dozens of intricately detailed hand-drawn menus and invitations, I have a couple of his engraving plates, and a few personal notes and letters. (You can click to enlarge the pair of images directly below to see the details as well as Joe’s cut-rate prices for custom calligraphy.)

Artwork by Joseph Abrahams (collection of Sharon Steuer)

In addition to hand-drawn unique works on paper, Uncle Joe also designed architectural details for NY city building facades, and a couple of commercial works. Probably Joe’s most famous work is the Louis Sherry candy tin—which is still collected, and periodically reissued and reproduced.

So, back to the photo of Joe in Katonah. While in college, it turns out that I used it and a few other  family photos as source images for a series of early paintings and collages. This homage to Uncle Joe is acrylic on paper. Painted originally for my mother, it now hangs in an antique frame in my sister’s home.

Skipping forward a few decades, I’m no longer painting from photos, but lately I have been attempting rescues of treasured photos for members of my family. Not full restorations, just quick attempts to extract details and repair the worst of problems in faded heirlooms. So, when I recently came across this photo again, I wondered if hidden within this limited palette and compressed value range, there were any lost details to extract.

In my previous post in this mini-series, I recaptured some of the missing life in one of my mother’s favorite photos of my brother and me. To salvage this photo I created a trio of Levels Adjustment layers to separately sample portions of the image to designate the white point, then Black point, and finally the Grey point.

I began by using the same process as before for Uncle Joe’s photo. To set the white point I created a Levels Adjustment layer and clicked on the door frame. In another Levels Adjustment layer I clicked on Joe’s pants leg for a black point. The gray point was a bit trickier to locate. After sampling few spots with the gray point I eventually found a spot that I felt best balanced the color range. As with the previous project, by keeping the levels separate, I was able to go back to each adjustment and tweak the parameters as needed.

In its original state I hadn’t particularly noticed the age spots and cracks in the photo, but as the details of the image emerged, these faults became a major distraction. I had no need to undertake a “complete” restoration, but I wanted to see if I could quickly eliminate the worst of the burning and “blooming” that distorted the figures, and minimize the worst of the cracks.

Creating a blank layer above the adjustment layers, I chose the Spot Healing brush. Adjusting the size of the brush with the [ ] bracket keys, I first brushed over a few of the worst spots of the blooming. Zooming in, I then made the brush smaller so it was close to the size of the crack itself, and carefully ran the brush along the crack.

To be able to track the progress as I worked, I used the Layer Comp panel to create a layer comp for each stage of the repair so I could then click on a comp to easily hide and show layers to see each of the stages. This also simplified the process of taking screenshots for this post.

There are many cases where these simple solutions won’t solve your issues, and clearly a full restoration of this photo it would take tons more careful attention and time. However, when the age of a photo isn’t something you need to hide, then perhaps a few quick magic steps can recover just the right amount of lost detail to bring a family treasure back to life.

Posted on: August 13, 2018

Sharon Steuer

Sharon Steuer has been creating, writing about, and teaching workshops on digital art since the early 1980s. The current edition of her Illustrator WOW! book, The Adobe Illustrator WOW! Book for CS6 and CC, is the fourteenth book in the series, and her "Artistic Painting in Illustrator" online video courses are available from Sharon is also the author of Creative Thinking in Photoshop: A New Approach to Digital Art, and is a regular contributor to Her digital paintings and illustrations have appeared in numerous books and magazines and have been exhibited nationally. Find Sharon via,, and @SharonSteuer (Twitter).

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