Cleaning Old Family Photographs: Part 3

Cleaning the attic? Cleaning the basement? Cleaning the garage? Oh look! A box of old photos and old photo albums! We need to save these! But where do we start?

Check out Part 1 and Part 2

More articles by Bob Walden

You start by moving them from their most destructive areas. Humidity and moisture are the cause of most problems with old photos. And don’t forget about mice! Your old shoe boxes, cheap plastic storage containers and wooden trunks all hold moisture and keep humidity high. And none of these storage methods will stop rodents!


If you have one moldy photo you will have more. Mold spreads to other surfaces. Mold spores are airborne, so work on your photos in an area that limits spreading of the spores. Outside is probably the best. Wear gloves and a facemask. Spores can be toxic. Careful handling is important. I put photos in a moisture free container and let them dry for a couple days. Do a few at a time and do not stack the photos on top of one another. Once they have had time to dry, I use my soft make-up brush (by this time I have purchased new brushes for my wife!) to brush off the loose mold.

brush photo

Then the photos go into an archival container. Not all spores will die. However, without moisture they will at least lay dormant.

Now is a good time to start sorting and organizing. While I tend to keep all my photos I do try and separate them by very important, important, and nice to have. The intent is to scan all of the photos.  However it rarely works out that way. So if I start with the very important and make it through important, then the nice to have can wait until later. An example is a single photo of your grandmother. Very important! You also have a very nice photo of your grandmother with the family on the front porch of her house. Another important photo! There is also a nice photo of your grandmother’s house. Very nice! This photo is well worth keeping but consider placing it in the nice to have pile, to be worked on at a later date.

There are many definitions of clutter, but most are bad. Clean up the clutter in the basement and get rid of it and all will be well!  My idea of clutter is a lack of decision making and organization. This is especially true with photos.

Photo clutter is really becoming a problem with digital cameras. It’s easy to end up with four or five shots of the family from trying to get just one with everyone looking forward and smiling. Pick one or two of the best (rarely will they all be good or bad) and delete the rest. Three or four photos of Mt Rushmore while on vacation? Chances are the presidents didn’t move so maybe one of those would be enough. Clutter is constantly expanding. But with good decision making and organization, clutter can become a great way of saving something you will need three days after throwing it away!

My wife and I bought a small house in Iowa that her great grandfather had built in the 1890’s. It had been out of the family for many years and we wanted to try and bring it back as close to original as possible. Off came the indoor/ outdoor carpeting from the front porch, up went new pillars, and a reinforced porch. Inside we put up a couple of new ceilings and new wiring.  We even put up a porch swing like the one that originally hung in the early 1900’s. Sadly we didn’t find any hidden treasures.

A house just down the street was much more fortunate. This house was built by my wife’s great uncle in the very early 1900’s. A few years ago a couple purchased the house and started remodeling. While removing some kitchen cabinets, the owners found an old photo behind the cabinets. Sadly it was torn in several pieces. We were contacted because of our connection to the house, and they asked if we wanted it. You bet we did! After doing some research it turns out the photo was of my wife’s great aunt’s family and their house! And that’s the photo I have chosen to show how I approached it and how I saved it.

The first step was to scan the torn pieces. I use an Epson 800 scanner. While the scanner comes with scanning software, I use either Silverfast or Vuescan software for more control. I always scan in Pro mode for the best results and never add sharpening or other filters as Photoshop controls are much better. To obtain as much information as the photo has, it is best to always scan in color mode. Scanning in black and white mode, even if it is just a black and white photo, limits the information that is available. Scanning at a high resolution of at least 600 and at 48 bit works for me as I have a fast computer with lots of RAM. And I always save as a tif file.

Once I have scanned the torn pieces and know I have a working file of the original, it’s time to work on the original photo and prepare it for storage. To me the original is a treasure and piece of history regardless of its condition, and that’s worth saving. Fortunately the main part of the photo, that which held the most important part of the image, was in one piece. Mold also wasn’t a big problem on the front. Rather than take a chance on doing any permanent damage to the front I just dried it for a couple days to be sure the mold was as dry as possible, and then used my soft brush to remove what I could.

The back of the photo wasn’t so lucky. The back of the photo was a mixture of dirt and mold. Luckily, there was nothing of real value on the back, so I could be a bit more aggressive.

After letting the pieces sit in the garage in a tight container for a few days, the mold mostly turned to powder. I first tried blowing on the areas of black mold and that removed quite a bit of the dried mold.  Next I used my art spatula to lightly scrape some of the residual dusty mold. An art spatula is also a handy thing to have in your old photos kit. The spatula is great for lifting old photos from those black photo album pages. I find it useful for getting under photos in the magnetic page albums. Many times when trying to remove photos by pulling them off they tend to bend and crease. By using this tool slowly little or no damage is done.

Stainless Steel Spatula.

Stainless Steel Spatula. 7-1/2″ long. This micro-spatula is great for applying adhesive to small areas, and perfect for book binding repairs. The springy ends allow for precise control when needed. The polished stainless steel cleans easily.

The final step was using a Pro Pad. These are lint free and very soft pads, the soft Pro Pads are also very handy for wiping the glass on scanners.

This is the photo after cleaning.

A few stains remain, but the majority of the mold is gone. The back is clean and if kept in a dry environment any mold should stay inactive. After cleaning the small dots on the top, it appears there was some mold, but underneath was reddish foxing. The foxing didn’t come off, but after well over 100 years I think I’ll be ok if I contain this photo in a good environment for photos.

My next step was to assemble the torn pieces in Photoshop CC18. But the same work can be easily done in Photoshop Elements. Many tutorials are available on YouTube explaining this technique.

This is the starting point in Photoshop or Elements. I now have a safe image of this treasured photo.

Before working on the tif file, it’s time to finish with the original photo. While the mold problem has been limited, if not stored correctly further damage to the photo could continue.

I started with a piece of acid free mounting board. I needed something to support the torn pieces. Glue was out of the question! I used a few Scotch Photo Mounting Squares which are supposedly photo safe and acid free. These squares were just to keep the pieces from sliding around. All it took were a few squares to keep the pieces in place. Although, in the future handling of this photo will be minimal, without the support of the mounting board and the sticky squares the torn pieces could move around and add further damage by scratching. Better safe than sorry.

For further protection I put the mounting board with the secured torn pieces in a clear polyethylene still bag.

8 x 10 Still Sleeve

8-1/4 x 10-3/8″ 3 mil POLYETHYLENE with 1-1/2″ flap. Image shows clear sleeves in packing bag.

The completed package of my treasured photo is now ready for storage.

The final step will be to put the package in an archival box for safe keeping. Storing the box in a low humidity, cool area will preserve the photo for years to come.

Archival Drop-front Photo/Print Storage Boxes for 8 x 10″ Photos

Museum Grade Photo/Print Storage Boxes. 10-1/2 x 8-1/2 x 3″. Use for 8 x 10 prints and photos. The archival material used for these boxes is 60 point, solid-core, acid-free, lignin-free cellulose fibers. They are buffered with a 3% calcium carbonate.

Now I can work on the tif scan I made. While I work in Photoshop, most of the same work can be done in Photoshop Elements. By keeping one file as an original tif file and making a duplicate working copy, you retain the flexibility to return to the original. Because all the pieces of the torn photo are on separate layers, they are easy to move and adjust. Once the pieces are squared up, it’s time to determine cropping. No sense taking a lot of time working on areas that you really don’t need or want in the finished photo.

It used to be if you wanted a print made you had to stick to the frame manufacturer’s or photofinisher’s standards of 5×7, 8×10 or 11×14. If you ever had a 35mm negative of a large group of people or a scenic made into 8×10, you will notice part of your negative information missing because it didn’t fit the 8×10 dimensions. The photo standards limited your creativity.

These days, fewer people are having photos made. Most are saving to digital images that can be shown on media devices such as phones, iPads and social media.

In my photo I cropped out the black edges and the mounting board. I also cropped part of the top and bottom as they didn’t offer any important information. Because of the high resolution scan, cropping and enlarging the image wasn’t a problem. This allowed the faces of the people to become enlarged and more visible.

Now for the time consuming part, the cleanup. Unfortunately the lady on the far left is lost to history. No amount of Photoshop magic can bring her face back. The other repairs mostly consist of dust spots and scratches.

These problems can be fixed relatively easily in Photoshop and Photoshop Elements. Many tutorials are available on YouTube. One thing I tend to do that is usually not recommended is to sharpen the image in Photoshop before I do dust and scratch correction. Most tutorials will say to save sharpening until the end. However, I find that means I have to go back do more work on the dust and scratches that show up after sharpening.

My final step is to do a New Adjustment Layer, hue/saturation correction. Older photos, especially the albumen prints have a yellowish color because of fading. But the tone could also be from the materials used. Even later prints could have a warmish tone but these were more a case of improper processing. My goal is to give the prints a sepia tone, which is a more brownish tone. This can easily be done in the hue/saturation layer.

This is the final. I also saved a less cropped version so as to show more of the house and location. To both of these versions I add meta data with all the info I have on the photo. Also added the meta data to the final jpeg I use for sharing and the web. This is an important step to insure people in the future will be able to identify the photo with all the information I have.

Leaving these photo treasures in old shoe boxes, non-archival plastic bins and in harmful photo albums will only continue their deterioration, and another piece of history will be lost! The holidays are here! It is a great time to pull the old photos out and try to gather information from relatives visiting for the holidays. To be continued after the holidays making this a new hobby!

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