(It was a comedy of errors I'm not going to describe that caused the print to end up in the garbage.)

A picture of it

Should I spray the photo lightly with some distilled water and then try to flatten it and let it dry? How do I avoid having the emulsion sticking to whatever I put on top of the photo to flatten it?

In other words, I want to restore the photo to more or less its original condition so it can go back into the album.

I do have a fallback plan which is to scan the photo. However, I would be concerned about cracking the emulsion if I tried to force the photo as it is now flat, and again I'd really like to return the photo to the owner in a condition closer to the original.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This looks like an older print material that was developed wet. That means the dyes should not bleed in the emulsion layer (as they might if this were from a printer). I once had a stack of such photos stuck together front to back and would be ruined if torn apart. I soaked them in distilled water plus a chemical typically added during development to keep prints flat, for a week, and was eventually able to tease them apart successfully. Then I re-hung them to dry like when originally developed. \$\endgroup\$
    – Skaperen
    Commented Feb 19, 2013 at 6:56

4 Answers 4


There are three main options you can use to uncurl a photo in the condition yours is in. Given the fairly extreme condition your photo is in, I would really recommend option one, and Jim gave further details on that. The other two options may or may not work.

  1. Flatten the photo out as much as possible on a flat bed scanner. Placing some moderately heavy books on the scanner lid to keep it flat should help in maximizing the quality of the scan. Once scanned, you have a digital copy that can be retouched, saved for a backup, and printed (and reprinted) at any size.
  2. Wrap the photo in wax paper, place between several very heavy books, and let sit. You will probably need to let the photo sit for a week or two for it to really flatten. Given the condition of yours, it may not flatten entirely, however framing it once flattening is complete should help keep it in decent condition.
  3. Place the photo on an ironing board, cover with a towel (maybe two layers), and iron. The heat should help flatten the fibers in the paper. The risk with this option is that the heat will also damage the fibers in the paper, reducing its lifespan. Same goes for the inks in the photo itself. Use as a last resort.

Keep in mind, flattening will not correct any other defects aside from the curling and warping. Creases, scuffs, tears, etc. are really only going to be correctable if you scan and retouch in a tool like Photoshop.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ As expected, flattening it in the scanner did cause cracking of the emulsion. After cleaning off the scanner bed carefully and also wiping the dried garbage, fingerprints, and dust off the photo, I was able to get a good scan at 2400dpi/48 bit color. Now I just need to learn how to retouch in Photoshop Essentials... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 18, 2013 at 6:49
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Make sure you get the latest version of Essentials. It has content-aware tools, which will make your job significantly easier. :) \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    Commented Feb 18, 2013 at 6:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, I'm using Essentials 11 which I managed to get on sale for $49. The photo needs a lot of work, so I need to learn about many of the tools. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 18, 2013 at 7:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ So in your opinion, is it better to flatten out these prints dry, cracking the emulsion, or soak them first? \$\endgroup\$
    – MikeW
    Commented Feb 19, 2013 at 22:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ If you "soak" them, you'll probably ruin the inks far more than the cracking does. Even if the inks are pigment of some kind, water will likely ruin them. Not sure if a fixed photographic print will survive soaking or not...I guess it could. The ironing option might help flatten without the cracking...you would have to be very careful about how you ironed, and slowly flatten as you went. Ironing applies heat, though, so print longevity will suffer (if that matters do you). \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    Commented Feb 19, 2013 at 23:06

It appears that you didn't ruin a museum piece. In this case, what I would do is flatten it and scan it at high DPI, then retouch it in Photoshop. If the emulsion cracks, you can retouch that. I would reproduce the print in as close to original quality as I can. At the same time, I would color correct it for the faded colors and then reproduce the print with the best quality that I can, trying to restore it to the print quality from the time it was first printed (if not better).

After doing all of this, knowing the memories have been faithfully restored, I would go to the owner with all three prints, explain what happened and what was done to reslve the problem. Then ask for forgiveness and hope they apprciate your professionalism and honesty. Ask them if you can do anything else for them to restore the image, and then do it.

  • \$\begingroup\$ It's not a museum piece, but it is a sister-in-law piece! Hmm -- would steaming it make the paper more flexible? The paper is quite stiff and hard at the moment. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 18, 2013 at 2:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'll let someone else answer that. You risk changing the glossiness of the print at a minimum, and that might be hard to restore. If you can experiment with a throw-away print, you might try that first. But I'll bet you won't find one of this. :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Jim
    Commented Feb 18, 2013 at 2:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ I wouldn't steam it, Walt. The moisture is bound to ruin the inks. I think the scanning solution, and reprinting it on quality paper with quality pigment inks, is the best option. Additionally, once you have a retoughed scan, you can back up that digital version in case it ever needs to be printed again. \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    Commented Feb 18, 2013 at 3:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ By "ink" I assume you mean the dyes that are in this (probably) Kodacolor print? I don't understand why moisture would ruin the dyes, as the print is placed in a developing bath when it is processed. At any rate, the point is made that the print may end up less glossy. I'll go ahead and scan it -- wish me luck. Thanks for your advice, everyone. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 18, 2013 at 5:35

I wouldn't think water would harm the image, as you said. I know I've soaked black and white prints before - they were fixed, so there was nothing to run - but I didn't do much colour darkroom work.

I would be more afraid of it cracking if you tried to flatten it out fully dry.

I would put a corner of the image into some water to test the durability. If no adverse effects, then I would quickly slide it through some water, pat the back with a towel and hang to dry. It may curl somewhat, but should be in better shape to be scanned.

Having done just a corner, if something did go wrong, you only have one place to clone/repair if you manage to scan it.

Alternately you could slightly flatten it enough to photograph it, so that again, if something goes wrong, you have a fallback plan.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Too late! I already scanned it, cracks and all... not too bad, though, I'm sure I can fix them. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 18, 2013 at 7:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ If you can't, upload it somewhere and I'd be happy to fix it up. \$\endgroup\$
    – MikeW
    Commented Feb 18, 2013 at 7:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ I appreciate the offer, but I really want to learn PS Essentials 11 in deep enough detail to do stuff like this myself. I understand layers, I understand selections and masks, right now I'm having trouble figuring out how to remove a bluish cast from a selected area and only that. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 18, 2013 at 7:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hue/Saturation, adjust the Hue? \$\endgroup\$
    – MikeW
    Commented Feb 18, 2013 at 8:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ Not working. Here's the cropped image showing the problem: imgur.com/MVpkbCf. The fingers should be more pink-flesh colored, and should blend into the arm on the left properly (it's possible the fingers were somehow in shadow.) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 18, 2013 at 9:36

OK, here's what I did.

  1. Put it in the scanner and flattened it with some heavy books. This cracked the emulsion in several places, but at least I had a backup image to work with.

  2. Wet the photo with distilled water and flattened it. This fixed the emulsion cracks. I let the photo dry before scanning it again, but unfortunately it curled up again.

  3. Wet the photo again, dried it off as well as I could, and scanned it. This didn't work too well; the damper areas on the photos were quite visible as darker splotches on the image. However, the cracks were still gone.

  4. Wet the photo one more time, placed it between 2 sheets of waxed paper, piled up some heavy books. I'm going to let that sit for a few days to dry out then will scan it. Doing this will fix the emulsion cracks and hopefully it'll be dry enough there won't be any water splotches. Hopefully the wax on the paper will prevent the photo from sticking to the paper.

The waxed paper was a bad idea. The wax isn't quite flat on the waxed paper, so all of the waxy bumps got transferred to the emulsion and resulted in a visible noisy pattern of creases and bubbles on the photo.

I attempted several approaches to remove this noisy pattern. What finally worked was to soak the photo thoroughly (15 minutes in distilled water), then lay the photo emulsion side down on a very clean sheet of glass. I then used a tungsten roller I just happened to have to roll the back of the photo flat and press the photo hard against the glass. That smoothed out the emulsion very well, and also flattened the photograph. I then used a hot air dryer to dry out the photo quickly (not giving it time to warp if I hung it in the air.)

  • \$\begingroup\$ Try wetting it, then hanging it on a line with clothespins or similar clipped on the bottom to weigh it down. I guess it will eventually dry between the waxed paper, but better to air it out. \$\endgroup\$
    – MikeW
    Commented Feb 18, 2013 at 23:36

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