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Genealogy Tip: Restore Old Faded Photos and Create a Family History Story

Updated on April 29, 2020
John Dove profile image

John is a mid-Atlantic writer and avid student of history. His current passions are frontier and Civil War history, genealogy and politics.

Restored Digital Snapshot. Original photo was faded. Part of Mom's early years. Source: Author's collection.
Restored Digital Snapshot. Original photo was faded. Part of Mom's early years. Source: Author's collection.

I found among my deceased mother's possessions a box containing her old album of snapshots. I put that aside for many years until I had more time to devote to family history and genealogy. When I got serious about genealogy I started tracing my family trees, doing research online and onsite, visiting cemeteries, and touring neighborhoods that were home to my ancestors.

Then I remembered that box of old snapshots. They had been carefully pasted in an album of heavy black paper, several snapshots on a page. My mother had marked most of them in the margins with names and dates going back to the 1910s. What a treasure! But the condition of the album was not good. The black mounting paper was ragged at the ages. Many of the snapshots had faded over the years. But I could see that they told the story of Mom's early years.

Best Way to Preserve and Share Old Photos

I determined that the best way that I could preserve and share them with family members would be to digitize and restore them and then to write a narrative based on the images and Mom's notes.

This article tells how I went about my experience in creating that photo narrative.

Step 1: Scan the Old Photos and Save Them in a Digital File

Each page in the album was 7" x 10 1/2" in size. I used my flatbed HP 4800 series scanner connected to my HP Pavilion laptop computer to make a "preview scan" of an album page with its several pictures.

HP Scanjet 4890 Scanner -- Source: Author
HP Scanjet 4890 Scanner -- Source: Author

I use an older HP 4890 scanner with a 12 1/4" x 8 5/8" glass. But any good flatbed scanner large enough to place an album page flat on the glass will do. They can be bought new or used.

Before saving that full-page preview scan, I selected a frame around a specific photo, then I made a "final scan" of that single snapshot in color at 1200 dpi because I wanted to capture fine detail. Each final scan was imported to a folder in my Genealogy directory,

I repeated this for each of the individual snapshots in the album.

I use GIMP Image Manipulation Software for most of my image editing and restoring of old photos. GIMP is free. It is open source. And it is very comprehensive. You can do so much with GIMP. It can be as simple or as complex as you desire. For this project, I used GIMP in as simple a manner as possible.

Gimp can be a bit unnerving the first time you try to use it. You can learn it intuitively and with a little help from Google. You can download the GIMP manual. Or you can purchase a GIMP guidebook in digital format or paper.

Beginning Photo Retouching and Restoration Using GIMP
Beginning Photo Retouching and Restoration Using GIMP
There are a number of GIMP manuals out there that you can use as a reference. Photo restoration is one of many applications where GIMP excels. This particular manual goes into all aspects of photo restoration.

Step 2: How to Use GIMP to Restore Faded Photos

  1. After you download GIMP, open it and click "file" > "open" then go to the folder on your computer with your saved scanned snapshots and open the one that you want to restore. Once it is on your GIMP screen you can crop or rotate it as desired. My go-to tool for improving a snapshot is the curves tool. Go to "color" > "curves"; that is, click first on "color" and then on "curves" and a grid tool will pop up with an interactive "curve" that you can shape with your cursor. As you change the shape of the curve, you can see the image improve until you are satisfied.
  2. Next, go to the file menu, click on export. I type in a title for the restored snapshot, based on Mom's margin notes, and select "jpg" as the format for the saved photo. Then click export. I can then delete the original faded image to save storage space on my laptop.

I stopped my restoration on each photo at this point. With GIMP I could have made further improvements -- remove scratches, change tint, sharpen edges, etc. But with so many snapshots to work on I decided to use the above simple steps and move on.

GIMP Screen Shot Showing Curves Tool

Step 3: Create a Narrative Based on the Old Photos

After the scanning and restoring has been completed and I am satisfied with the results, I view them in a slide show. I rearrange the order of the images according to the narrative I want to write. As I view the titles for each image (notes written by my mother on the margin of each snapshot) I transcribe them to a separate document. Now I have the information I need to tell the story.

I chose to arrange the images in chronological order according to the approximate date of the snapshot. I wrote my narrative based on the photos, notes and other information about the neighborhoods and places where the original images were probably taken.

Step 5: Create an Attractive Heritage Book

You can go online and find dozens of vendors who can make attractive bound heritage books from your digital photos, narrative and layout choices. These include Winkflash, Shutterfly, Amazon Prints, MixBook, Presto Photo, and others. You can receive bound and printed books, or save your books in the cloud.

Genealogy software such as Family Tree Maker includes tools for organizing and printing media and stories as well as family trees.

For now, I like to enjoy my mother's old pictures and stories in digital form and share them with family and friends. I'd rather work on finding other old photos and information that tell even more about the life of my ancestors.

How about you?

What Other Tips for Restoring Old Photos Can You Suggest?

What are your suggestions on how to improve on the methods I describe in this Article.


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