We all have bad family photos. Headless uncles. Crooked skylines. Clashing colors and prints. Not to mention awkward poses and facial expressions.
Using film didn’t make our ancestors great photographers, although the cost of film and developing probably made them more selective of the shots they took. Whether you’re digitizing a treasured family photo collection or just curating images on your mobile phone, these tips will help you fix five of the most common photo problems.
Before you get started, remember to work on a copy of your original, and save with a different filename so you don’t get confused. If you’re working with heirloom photos, scan the entire image including border and and reverse side to preserve any historical detail or genealogical information when you start cropping and editing.
- Frame and Crop
Most snapshots will be instantly improved by zooming in on the main subject. Hold your hand to your eye like a spyglass and close your view of the image to frame only the subject. That’s the picture you want to save and share.
Professional photographers use the Rule of Thirds as a guide for composing the photo in the camera lens. Imagine a grid overlaying your photo, dividing it into three vertical and horizontal segments, or nine sections. Align your subject on one of the grid lines slightly off center, taking care not to cut off a body part. You might use the grid to frame a portrait or to position a figure slightly off-center for a pleasing effect.
If the picture has already been taken, crop your image with the Rule of Thirds. To focus on a person, zoom in close on their whole body or face. If you want to call attention to a house or other object, crop out distracting background. Use a second photo with all the detail to set the mood or provide genealogical context of a street name or sign.
- Straighten Crooked Skylines
Tilted photos can be cool. But, often they just look like a mistake. Check out the Crop tool in your photo editor for a ruler or level-type tool. This allows you to adjust the image along a baseline, either vertically or horizontally.
Adjust lines so that rooflines and fences are horizontal and buildings stand straight and tall. Next, crop the image to a square or rectangle. You may loose some of the corners, but the result will be a better picture.
- Restore Color
Color snapshots from the mid-20th century are especially prone to color-shift, a problem when unstable color dyes change over time. Photos typically take on a pink, orange, or purplish tone. Photos can also suffer from overall fading where the image becomes very light and colors hard to see.
The easiest way to restore color in old photos is to use the Color Restore feature on your flatbed scanner. The software automatically adjusts for color balance and levels.
You can also attempt to restore color manually inside your photo editing program using the Auto Color selection, or by adjusting Levels in the Histogram.
Adobe Photoshop Elements includes a guided feature for restoring old photos step-by-step.
- Color Clashes
What were they thinking? Too many colors or the wrong colors mixed with pattern and texture can distract from an otherwise good family photo. Eliminate the problem by getting rid of the color. All of it.
Use the color conversion feature in your photo editor to change a color photo to black-and-white. Adjust the contrast, highlights, and tone and the image will be more pleasing to the eye.
Black-and-white unifies images for a collage or photo book. The single tone sets off special pictures for framing or a book.
- Who Are They?
The biggest problem with any snapshot, old or new, is identifying who’s in the picture. Take time NOW to write names, dates, events on the back of old photos. Use a soft lead pencil with very light pressure to avoid making an indentation.
This “data about data” is also called “metadata.” Read more on my blog to Learn How to Add Metadata Without Special Software by using the file properties feature of your computer system. Access this feature in your photo editor or in File > Info or File > Properties. You must “Export” the file to save the data inside the file. Learn more about adding metadata in How to Archive Family Photos: A Step-by-Step Guide to Organize and Share Your Photos Digitally or at TheFamilyCurator.com.
Include the person’s full name (not just Grandpa), dates, places, or events, if known.
Take a low-tech approach to identifying photos by creating photo albums and scrapbooks with captions, stories, and memories. An album that is carefully arranged and annotated to tell a family’s story is more valuable than shoeboxes filled with unidentified snapshots.