Burnham Graphic Arts | How to Bring a Photo Back From the Dead

How to Bring a Photo Back From the Dead

November 24, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

I say “try to” because ultimately I failed to accomplish what I intended to achieve, which was an exceptional color corrected photo from a promising shot that, if not for the placement of the subject, would have been an easy adjustment and exceptional color photo.  At a certain point you have to throw your hands in the air and submit to the fact there are more important things to than beating your head against the wall.  Also, you might know exactly what I could have done in which case, I’d love to hear from you.

On many occasions (more than I care to count, especially when I used to shoot film), I get a result where the color balance is a mess and the auto balancer on the camera goes into fits because the light is simply not behaving like it thinks it should.  So it compensates in a completely ignorant way and you start with a mess when you see the result.

But can it be brought back from the dead without converting to Black and White?  I aim to find out with this one photo that I gave up color correcting years ago, and due to the sheer expression of the subject, decided it would make a better black and white photo.  And that actually might be the case here, but back when I took this, I had only the latest version of Photoshop (which was 3 at the time, I think) to make adjustments.  Not understanding color adjustments at all at the time, I made the basic levels adjustments I learned in digital scanning 101.  That was taking the RGB layers separately and bringing in the black and white levels so they basically even out the exposure and not one single layer is dominating and creating a color cast.

So, I’m going to do this from scratch and scan the original slide again right out of a Nikon Super Coolscan 4000.  This was taken in full sun under the shade of a tent that had large yellow and white stripes.  Unless you have a greycard available, this kind of lighting is disastrous, especially with color slide film.  But this was candid, unplanned and fleeting, so greycard color balancing is not usually an option.  You just take it and hope for the best.



Original uncorrected image
Original uncorrected image

Ugh!  This one has “Convert to B&W” written all over it.  The skin tones are all muddled up.   The whole thing is completely biased toward red while her arm is a completely different cast.  I’m using Hamrick’s Vuescan software, which imho works much better than the bundled Nikon scanning software.  But even with it set to “Auto Exposure” the scan resulted in this.  Setting to “White Balance” wasn’t much better.  I decided to stick with the lesser of the two evils.





So the first thing I did was look at the histogram in Photoshop.  Red dominates, of course.  Blue and Green shift off to the darker areas.  So the first thing to do is bring these levels back into some sort of balance using the levels tool. It’s important to adjust the RGB level separately, or you will lose the benefit of this basic first step in color correcting.






Bringing the Black and White slider over to meet the curve on Blue and Green helped out somewhat.   The overall cast is still on the photo, though, but at least it was a better place to start overall corrections.

levels-adjustedResult after separate RGB adjustments




After adjusting black and white sliders in Levels


Adding a Photo Filter layer, I started looking at what colors I wanted to filter out.  Red?  Yellow?  Orange?


Illustration By Nathan Hernandez from an article by “The Editors” at shutterbug.com – http://www.shutterbug.com/content/photo-filters


Actually, the Green filter was the key here.  If you look at the chart on the right, using a green filter lessens the Magenta cast (and Red/Blue to a lesser extent).  If you look at the histogram after setting the Green filter a 35%, you can see the difference. photo-filter-green



After Green Photo filter added at 35%


We aren’t quite there yet, though.  The arm is still a different color than the face which looks unnatural.  Here I desaturated the whole image a bit, which helped out quite a bit.  But the arm was still too yellow compared to the face.  That is where you have to go manual and mask off the arm itself and adjust the color balance separately.



After Desaturate (-35)

I added another Photo Filter layer and then selected the Mask that is added to the layer.  I selected all, filled it all in with Black, then used a soft brush in White to color only the arm.  That way, any adjustments would only apply to that part of the photo.  I set the Photo Filter color to Blue, adjusted to the point where the skin tones came very close (around 39%).



20010519_22a-selected Selecting only the arm inside the Photo Filter mask 



Here is the result (left).  I like this version much better (original version on right), but in the end not as much as the Black and White version, which I ultimately settled on.  You can see that one on the Candid page:  http://www.artistasylum.com/candid







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