Rescuing Grainy Film Photos

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I made the complete switch from film photography to digital photography somewhere around 2003 or 2004. So you can imagine my surprise when, while recently digging through some old bags I had stuffed in the back of my closet, I came across several rolls of undeveloped film. I took them to my local one-hour developer and asked them to put digital copies on a disc, as well as make prints.

The photos were of extremely poor quality, given the age of the film. So I set about to improve them the best that I could, in Photoshop CS3.

Here is one of the original images, of my daughter at her high school graduation:

As you can see, the photo is extremely grainy, we’ve got some red eye going on, and there’s some sort of weirdness with someone’s hair flipped into the shot on the left hand side. This was a great moment in my daughter’s life, so I wanted to salvage what I could of the photo.

The first thing I did was remove the red eye effect. I zoomed into her eyes (shortcut tip: press “Z” on the keyboard to get the zoom tool, then use it to draw a rectangle around the area you want to zoom in on), selected the “Red Eye Tool” (hidden under the “Spot Healing Brush” on the palette), and clicked once on each eye. Voila! The red eyes disappear and a more natural color is left in their place.

Next I “despeckled” the picture using Filter/Noise/Despeckle. You can actually run this a few times to smooth out the photo.

Then I reduced the “noise” of the photo by going to Filter/Noise/Reduce Noise. I kept it on the default settings since I liked the result, but feel free to fiddle around here until you get the effect you’re looking for.

Here is the result so far:

At this point the photo had already improved, but I wanted to boost it up a bit. First I sharpened and softened the photo using one of my very favorite actions, “Boutwell Magic Glasses” from Totally Rad Actions ( You can also sharpen manually by going to Filter/Sharpen/Unsharp Mask.

Next I used the Dodge tool to lighten sections of her hair. I selected the tool, adjusted the brush size, and lightly “drew” down her hair until I achieved the right effect.

I played around with the contrast a bit to achieve the level of lightness I wanted in the photo, then boosted all of the colors by adjusting the curves (Image/Adjustments/Curves).

Next, using the “Burn Tool” (just under the “Dodge Tool”), I darkened the edges of the photograph in order to subdue the surrounding distractions and help draw the viewer’s eyes to the subject.

Here is the end result:

Still not perfect, but I believe it’s a vast improvement over the original.

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I hope you find some helpful tips within this tutorial to “rescue” some of your old film photos!

Photo Credits (all): Tiffany Joyce.

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  • California Photo Scout

    Interesting technique. I usually rely on plugins to do the job, but I think I can take a few pointers from this article to further improve the results.

  • Dennis Tolson

    This is a very effective enhancement to the original image. I especially like the darkening of the edges to reduce distractions. I often employ this or subtle vignetting to achieve that result.

  • Tim

    Hi Tiffany, I enjoyed the post, but I wanted to make a suggestion, you've probably already heard it before. But instead of using a traditional dodge and burn, use a layer filled with 50% gray, set the blend mode to Overlay, and use the brush tool as you would on a mask to “dodge” and “burn”

  • Tiffany

    California Photo Scout – happy to help!

  • Tiffany

    Dennis, thanks. I know some folks protest vignetting as being over-done, but I feel in some applications it's really helpful to draw the eye to the intended subject.

  • Tiffany

    Tim – thanks for the suggestion! I will certainly give that a try next time.