I have many photos that have that washed out look about them and some that are completely blown out. These photos are JPEG only and were not taken (or I do not have) the RAW file. I currently attempt to salvage them using Camera RAW and some layer adjustments in Photoshop. What are some tips and techniques that I can attempt to use to correct these photos and restore them to best state possible?

Note: I currently use only Camera RAW and Photoshop. However answers that are for Lightroom (or other programs) are welcomed as other users may find them beneficial.

Example Photograph that I would like to use for something:

Washed Out Photo

Source of Photo

Other examples would be photos that look like there is a haze over the subjects.

  • \$\begingroup\$ "Washed-out" as in low-contrast or as in over-exposured? \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Commented Jan 5, 2012 at 4:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ An example photo will be great and effective for us to understand how much washed out they are, or if there is any retrievable details at all or not. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 5, 2012 at 4:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mattdm - It can be either as some photos are low-contrast and others are simply over exposed. \$\endgroup\$
    – L84
    Commented Jan 5, 2012 at 4:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ShutterBug - Added an example photograph that I would like to use but has that look I mention. \$\endgroup\$
    – L84
    Commented Jan 5, 2012 at 4:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ I ask because the processing techniques one might use are somewhat different and it might be better to split these up. (It seems like there's three questions, actually: low-contrast, overexposure, and haze.) In all cases, "muck with the curves" but be the answer, but exactly what one does is different. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Commented Jan 5, 2012 at 4:53

2 Answers 2


It's amazing what you can do just using the Levels dialog in Photoshop.

Modified Image. Source image cited above.

To get this version of the example image in the original question, I converted the greyscale image to RGB at 16 bits (Image->Mode) to give PS some room to smooth out the adjustments, then hit ctrl+L to bring up the levels dialog. Moving the black slider until the shadows were well-defined fixed the tonality. (There was no actual black in the histogram, but the darkest darks are only a hair above black.)

Then, because I can't leave well enough alone, I gave the image a quick pass using the Topaz Labs DeNoise plugin and killed a couple of the most obvious scratches using the spot healing brush (in CS3) before re-converting to 8-bit.

There was a lot more spotting that could have been done, and I suppose the curve could have been tweaked, but the main problem with the source image was simple fading. Fading of the darks and staining (yellowing) of the whites are the most common problems with old B&W photos, and the effects of both of those problems can be handled with the sliders in the Levels dialog. (With colour photos, the three colour channels will have faded at different rates and need to be adjusted separately). If there are actual blacks and whites, you can use the eyedropper tools to set the black and white points, and if there is something in the image you know should be about the same tonality as a grey card, you can use the grey point eyedropper for that.

There was no discernable sky content -- it's very likely the picture was taken with a blue-sensitive panchromatic film using no filtration. A lot of old black and white snapshots are simply not going to have a useful sky since you need to use a yellow filter to get any tones much lower than white. If you want a sky, you need to invent one or transplant one from another photograph.

Photo restoration can get to be a long, involved process, but the initial stages -- the steps that are going to account for most of the improvement -- are generally fairly simple. There will be a lot of work anyway, so there's no sense making things harder than they need to be.


Here are a few methods I would use. I would certainly recommend doing it in Camera Raw, since you can fine tune a lot of adjustments at once.

If you have truly blown out areas, they will not be recoverable, but the main thing you'll want to do is lower the overall exposure and probably bring up the black point so that you have good overall contrast (histogram covering all or most of the range of exposure values, depending of course on the subject matter).

Camera Raw

Basically you want (for most images) to adjust the sliders so that you have a histogram that covers the full range of values. Since your washed out images will have the histogram bunched to the right, you want to lower the exposure (and/or use recovery slider) to bring back the brightest areas off the right edge of the histogram. Then use the blacks slider to set the darkest areas to black (if suitable).

In Camera Raw, you can also drop the brightness, add a curve or boost the saturation as needed. You may still want to do levels/curves adjustments in photoshop, but Camera Raw adjustments should give you a good starting point.

enter image description here

Using Camera Raw - no spot removal or denoise :)

Multiply Blend Mode

A common method that I've seen is to simply add a levels adjustment and set the blend mode to multiply (without making any changes to the levels slider). And repeat as necessary to restore some contrast. I guess that's a simple method, but I'd rather do it in Camera Raw where you have more control.

enter image description here

Using a levels adjustment layer with multiply blend mode. Not quite as crisp as the ACR adjustments.

Curves Adjustment Layer

If truly washed out, you may want to reduce the exposure in Camera Raw or with an Exposure adjustment layer, then:

  • Add a threshold adjustment layer. Move the sliders to determine the brightest and darkest areas of the image.

  • Add a curves layer, and then use the black and white eyedropper tools to set the black and white points as found in the first step.

  • Throw away the threshhold layer.

This will make the blacks truly black and give you that histogram that covers the full range of exposure values (assuming your image ought to contain full blacks and whites, i.e. not the picture of a white cat on snow).

Histogram before:

enter image description here

and after:

enter image description here

With most images I would aim to get the blacks near the left edge, but that would result in too much loss of detail in the shadows in this image.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I hope you'll forgive me for saying so, but your ACR example is a good demonstration of why you should try a purely linear adjustment first with faded photos (just raising the black level to meet the shadows). There's no drapery left in the front girl's felt coat or slacks, and the shadows on the faces are far too deep for a snow scene. When you lower the overall exposure then play with the highlights and shadows, you are creating a non-linear curve. It's not that ACR is the wrong program; using the point curve tool and setting the zero-out point to about 58 for this image will do it. \$\endgroup\$
    – user2719
    Commented Jan 5, 2012 at 8:05
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Um... folks? This is a good answer, especially as it describes what you might want to do if the simplest measures don't get you where you want to go. All it was missing, and all I provided subsequently, was the step to try first -- seeing what a linear expansion of the tone curve/histogram does before tweaking its shape. It deserves more votes than it currently has (only 3 as of this writing). \$\endgroup\$
    – user2719
    Commented Jan 5, 2012 at 17:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ As writer of this question I wish I could give @StanRogers and MikeW both credit for outstanding answers. And in fact I have applied both answers already to other photos that I have and came out with great results. \$\endgroup\$
    – L84
    Commented Jan 5, 2012 at 22:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ Stan, I did overdo the blacks a bit. Blame the user not the technique :) Not worried about votes and credit, happy to help. Writing these answers is very helpful to me in organising my thoughts. As with most things in photoshop, there are a number of ways of getting the same result, so use whatever you find works for you. \$\endgroup\$
    – MikeW
    Commented Jan 6, 2012 at 0:17

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.