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Curve A-Peel

(Many thanks to my friend Tipsy for including me on his Tip Squirrel team! I’m more honored than I can say!)

These past few weeks have found me so inundated with restoration work I was unable to carry the load of writing a daily blog. Okay, the main culprit was lack of organization, but this is about restoration, not organization.

One project I worked on involved eleven photos that were damaged in a house fire. The client, a woman whose house had been struck by lightning in a storm a few months ago, lost every one of her family photos, except these eleven.

 (Let me pause here to implore you all to digitize all your old photos, restore those that need it, put the originals in an archival box in a safe place and display copies in your frames, please! )

These surviving photos were damaged by heat, smoke and water.  High heat begins to burn the photo paper and the particulates in smoke (soot) attach themselves resulting in darkened areas.

I wanted to get the photos back to a more consistent overall tone to make the restoration process a little easier on myself.  I could accomplish this, of course, using one of many (many!) options.  The process I used, and am showing you today, is one of my favorite methods for this type of restoration work. It’s the same principle as peeling away the layers of an onion.

Using Curves adjustment layers, you’re peeling away layers of dirt and discoloration from specific areas. It’s an excessively simple process, but needs to be done in very small increments to get the best results, in my opinion. Remember, you’re looking for the most subtle restoration possible! I’ll be using one of the lesser damaged photos from the house fire today, with the permission of the owner, as means of an example.


 Before beginning any digital photo restoration project, duplicate your background layer (Cmd+J on a Mac, Ctrl+J on a PC)! You always want to have the means of checking your restoration progress!


**FYI, I’m writing this using Photoshop CS4, where Adjustment Layers are separate, masked layers. If you’re using another version, or another program, please, for sanity’s sake, make a copy of the last layer you worked on for each adjustment! Then make a copy of that copy and add a layer mask after you do the levels adjustment. **


Begin by making a Curves Adjustment Layer (Windows > Adjustments >Curves)[#1].  In your Curves histogram [#2], move the center of the line up slightly [#3], thereby lightening the tones in the photo. Only move the line up slightly! You only want to lighten the areas in very small increments!


Now, let’s move back to the layers palette. You’ll now have an adjustment mask attached to your layer. If you don’t have CS4, make a duplicate of the duplicate of the background layer – yes, I mean have three layers of the same thing! With the topmost layer selected, go to Image > Adjustments > Curves and move the line in the Curves histogram as detailed, above. Now manually add a layer mask (below: “other”)



Make sure your active color selection is black.  With your adjustment mask selected, fill with black (Cmd / Ctrl + Backspace). Make your active color selection white. With the paintbrush tool selected, at whatever size/hardness is best for you and the area you’re working on, paint over the areas you want to lighten. There won’t be a huge difference, just a subtle change. 



Since the lightening is so subtle, there shouldn’t be a noticeable line demarcating the painted in areas. But I’m all about blending, so just to be anal about it, I go to Filter > Blur > Blur and just put a light blur on the mask. *Make sure your mask is still the selection when you do this step*!


Now, it’s all just a matter of “Wash, Rinse, and Repeat”! In English, that means you repeat the same steps, over and over. I could simply duplicate the mask layer, lowering the opacity each time as needed, painting over areas with black occasionally, as the lighter areas integrate with the original color, but I want a little more control over the process, so I merge the adjustment layer down after each increment and literally start over.

When you get to a point where the color difference is negligible, or where it looks good to you, begin your regular restoration methods.  The example, below, was done using approximately every other adjustment layer.  I actually reached a place where I moved on after fifteen, very small curves adjustments! As always, use this as a guide; find the levels, settings and procedures that work for you! Most of all have fun!


Thank you Janine for a teriffic tutorial. It’s with great pleasure that I can say; Janine will be back next Wednesday.

Janine can be found at Landailyn.com
And also on Twitter

Tomorrow the ball is handed back to TipSquirrel.

About Janine Smith (114 Articles)
Janine Smith is the owner of Landailyn Research and Restoration, a Fort Worth, Texas based company whose services include family history research and photo restoration. Janine honed her skills in restoring badly damaged photos as a volunteer with Operation Photo Rescue, a non-profit organization whose mission is to repair photographs damaged by unforeseen circumstances such as house fires and natural disasters. <br> Janine’s work is well-known in the world of genealogical and historical societies, museums, libraries, university archives, and non-profit organizations; appearing on the board of directors for several organizations and institutions. She is a sought-after lecturer on photo restoration and preservation to libraries, genealogical and historical societies. <br> In addition to being a Lynda.com author, Janine is the author of many articles on research and restoration appearing in newspapers and magazines, both on and offline. Janine's history and photo restoration columns appear regularly on TipSquirrel.com and in the popular Shades Of The Departed Digital Magazine. <br> Janine is the winner of the 2010 “Photoshop User Award” in the photo-restoration category.

3 Comments on Curve A-Peel

  1. Excellent tutorial, Janine 🙂 You are the master of restoration 🙂

  2. Excellent tutorial, Janine 🙂 You are the master of restoration 🙂

  3. Anca Haiduc // 16/08/2013 at 10:52 pm //

    Hi! First of all congratulations on your restoration works, they look great!!! I started following your post and I was wondering if there can be done something to see the pictures again on these first post. You explain very well in the text, but I think that seeing the pictures would help a lot in visualizing the steps :D. Thanks, and keep up the good work 😀

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