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Restoring Old Photos in GIMP

Last week, my mother sent me a photograph of my great-great grandfather, Moses Maurice Smith, who came from Georgia and settled in Indian Territory in the 19th Century. He died in Bohchito, Oklahoma in 1925. Anyway, another relative emailed her the photograph, and I thought it was really cool. This must have been taken in Oklahoma – or Indian Territory, as it was called then (Oklahoma became a state in 1907, right around the time this photo must have been taken). Whoever scanned it used a good resolution – the original is 1981 x 1601 at 300 dpi. That’s not really huge, but it’s worth working on to get some decent results, especially if all I want to do is display it at screen resolution, and it might make a nice small print as a bonus.

Moses Smith Original Photo

As you can see, the original had tears, folds and scratches after being passed around for over 100 years. I decided it was worth it to take the time and restore it using GIMP on my Ubuntu.  All told, this restoration took about four hours, just so it’s not as simple as hitting the “Fix Photo” button.  But it isn’t that difficult, either.

I don’t have a huge amount of experience with GIMP, but I’ve done photo restoration a few times. I usually use GIMP just for fairly quick photo manipulation and color correction, so this was going to be a learning experience. Enter Google and my world-wide network of sharing experts!

First, I needed to remove the tears and generally clean the image up. If you looked closely, there were scratches that were minor, and some staining and foxing. Some of that would be all right to keep just for character, but much of it should go. We wanted to see Ol’ Mose looking good.

After Googling around a bit, I found the web site of a Russian guy who wrote a script that separates the grain and the color into two different layers. You will need this and you might as well grab it now at:

Scroll down for the English version of the instructions. Also, he’s using Windows, so if you are using Ubuntu, you will want to install the script in /home/yourdirectory/.gimp-2.6/scripts where “yourdirectory” is whatever your user name is. You may also have a different version of GIMP so the directory might be .gimp-2.5 or some other version. You get the idea. Also note that directories with a “.” in front of them are hidden, so if you are using Gnome to browse your files, hit “ctrl-h” to unhide them.

Start or re-start GIMP and look under “Filters.” You should see “Leon” on the list and “Grain-Colors” in the sub menu. Great. You’ve installed the script.

Now let’s get to Leon’s instructions for fixing up your vintage photo. They are at:

Always use a copy of your original, and save versions as you go along. I’ve found this very handy. Leon is Russian, and tends to be spare with words, but he’s really very good and it’s fairly easy to follow along with what he’s doing. The script he wrote separates your image into two layers. You can use this script to totally remove people from images as well (see the script download page). What we want to do here is remove all the tear marks, and then go back in and fix some tones that were damaged with age.

First, you’ll work on the Grain layer, smudging out all the tear marks, then you’ll switch to the Colors layer, and use the Clone tool to match adjacent areas. Although time consuming, I think this worked out pretty good for me. I confess to not understanding the last part of the tutorial where he creates another layer, uses a black mask, and draws in details with white, but I don’t think I needed that because this wasn’t a portrait like his example.

Here’s my result:
Moses Smith photo after first part of restoration

I also decided that the image looked too gray (perhaps I should have tried to work more with Leon’s script and get the masking correct), and I wanted a more sepia tone look. So, back to Google. You can just use the “Old Photo” filter that comes with your GIMP install, but I wanted something more subtle. I found a tutorial at by Eric Jeschke to give me that kind of control:

It uses masking as well and he’s working on a modern color photograph. He also gives credit to another site ( that details the difference between auto sepia tone (ie. Old Photo filter) and the controlled method of doing it. His tutorial has visual examples, so it’s easier to follow.

So here is my final version of Moses Maurice Smith (Old Mose), probably taken somewhere in Indian Territory around the turn of the century.

Moses Smith Photo Restoration

I wish his face and hand could have been more distinct, but they were too damaged in the original.  I lost some tonality somewhere – you can’t see his horse’s eyes in my version, and in the original you can. It just looks darker overall, but I’m pretty happy with it anyway, and I learned a couple of new tricks.