Save an old photo, copy it

copy_pic1 Now why would you want to photograph a picture that’s in a picture frame.

That’s daft, Peter.

Sorry for stating the obvious here–it’s a picture you love, but you can’t find the negatives.

It’s the only copy you have and it is encased behind glass.

Siesta–Here’s a picture my sister-in-law took of the Phun boys snoozing. Those long days and nights with a new born are so much fun. I just taped the picture frame to the cupboard door in my garage. The light source is whatever daylight was coming in through the garage door and the small door.

Whenever you place a picture inside a frame with behind glass, it’s always a good idea to matte it.

Besides making your picture look better, there’s another more important reason.

If you don’t, over time, the picture will stick to the glass. Then you’ll be up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

Even if you break the glass carefully with the hopes of liberating the picture underneath, bits of the picture may tear off with the shards of broken glass.

So to rescue your picture that’s behind the glass, you’ll need to copy it with your digital camera.

You could slap it on a flatbed scanner but the resolution is not going to be very good.

If your camera has the ability to shoot RAW, this would be a good time to set it to RAW to get the biggest file size as this is going into your archives.

Copy the picture

Grab your tripod and find a bright wall in a room that is painted a neutral color and use your macro lens if you have one.

A word about reflections. Glass reflect objects that are placed in front of it according to Snell’s Law of Reflection, so the trick is to shoot this picture from an angle from the side.

Stick with a neutral colored room  because you don’t want to have a color shift and have to do more work in post production. I just shot this in my garage. The main garage door and the smaller one was open, overhead florescent  lights are off. Camera set to daylight white balance. Try the shadow side of building icon for good measure if you like.

Macro lens and tripod sort of go hand-in-hand to remove camera shake. If you don’t have a cable release, then set the camera to self-timer. My camera has a 2-second and a 10-second delay.

When you do that, you’ll end up with a pretty funky picture. The sides of your picture will have strange angles. Don’t sweat it, this where Photoshop comes into its own as an image editor.

In Photoshop CS3


  1. Open your image in Photoshop. Make sure all the fields in the Options Bar is zero.
  2. Use  the crop tool to just draw a marquee on your picture. If you don’t draw a marquee with the crop tool, you won’t see the option “Perspective.”
  3. Go up to the options tool bar and check the box “Perspective.” Doing so allows changes the behavior of the crop tool. Instead of it being constrained, now you can drag the 4 points independently. I’m simply drawing a marquee to crop out the picture frame.
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  5. When you  have drawn your marquee to crop out the picture frame, go ahead and hit “Return” if you’re on a Mac, “Enter” if you’re on Windows.
  6. What  you’ll see next is a distorted picture which has been squeezed on the sides, but the picture frame has been removed.
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  8. Under Photoshop menu, Image>Image Size brings up the Image size box.
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  10. Uncheck the “Constrain Proportions” box but make sure to check ”Resample Image”
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  12. Change the unit of measurement from Pixels to Percentage where it says Pixel Dimensions.
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  14. I am going to change the percentage from 100 to 80. That should correct the compressed look. Again, this is where you might need to eyeball it and try different percentages. It’s not too difficult to come up with what looks good since you can compare it against your original in the picture frame.
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  16. That’s it. Now you have an original once again.

Before you close the file, why not fix the color  and clone out the dust spots? Save it as a TIFF or Photoshop Document PSD.

That’s it. Next time you’re at an art gallery and you feel like copying some of the work, ah…never mind. You didn’t learn this from me.

It’s intended to save your heirloom pictures, okay? What you do with this knowledge I’ll leave you to reconcile with your clergy, rabbi, priest or whoever’s name you yell out in fear.

Those of you without photoshop can still use this. All you need to do is shoot the picture, then find a friend who has Photoshop, load up this page in a browser and follow these directions.

So get cracking and start saving those precious family pictures.

I don’t intend to include a lot of Photoshop tutorials because there are countless tutorials online. And you can always buy a book if you want to learn photoshop.  From time to time, I may include one here, but only if I find them practical and useful.

So get busy everyone ! Save those precious memories of grandpa, pets or those dearly departed ones.

13 thoughts on “Save an old photo, copy it”

  1. Hello Sam,
    Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I’m glad to hear you are saving some treasures. Also pleased to know you my suggestion to shoot in the garage worked out well.

  2. Peter,

    Thanks for this great tip! I found you in one of my LinkedIn groups, used this tip on photos of my great grandparents and the results are much better than I would have hoped. The garage was a great idea!

    Thanks for all of your great posts and tips.


  3. Thanks Dave for your contribution. I’m sure if we all play with the various settings, we’ll all find our own sweet spot.

  4. Hey Peter!
    Thanks for telling others!
    I’ve been doing this for quite sometime now. I had thousands of pics and no scanner. My camera’s resolution is better than that of the camera that took the original pic. This can be an advantage after you take the pic.

    If you’ve got several hundred (or in my case, thousands) of family pics in old photo albums, you can set up a “production-line” scinario and blow through over a hundred an hour.

    Clear glass on the bottom, glare-free on the top (hinged at the bottom with duct tape – it’s not in the image). I place a piece of blue “painters tape” between the glass on the clear pane to act as a ledge for the pic to rest on; and a pen mark on the tape to mark centerline. Size depends on the size of your pics. I set my camera on my tripod pointing directly face-on the glass.

    Pick a room with bright, “natural”, even light and set yourself up. Load a pic. set zoom and focus and shoot. Spend about a half hour shooting the same pic and adjusting everything accordingly, until it looks as real to the original image as possible… then shoot away. Since not all pics are the same size you can crop them when taking the “advantage”…

    The “advantage” that I speak of in my response, is the fact that with today’s photo editing software, you can take your new digital images and make almost all of your old pics look significantly better than the original. It works GREAT!

    P.S. No macro… You’ll see the flaws in the paper…

    Hope this helps!
    Dave Grower

  5. This tutorial seems incredibly elaborate, and I have to say, somewhat unnecessary. Re-photographing photographs often yields unsatisfactory results, hence why you need to go through so many processes to make it less so. If you don’t have the negatives for something, then I strongly suggest you use a flatbed scanner.

    It may be some time since you’ve looked into them, but these days, the resolution is very impressive. As for photographs sticking to glass? I’ve never come across such a thing – but suitable wetting agents certainly seem to be the best cause of action.

    I hope I got the point of this post?


  6. Eric,
    Thanks for your suggestions. Please don’t take this the wrong way. I would worry it would be damaged or lost in the mail. Your services is definitely a good thing and needed. Even with insurance I wouldn’t let priceless pictures out of my hands unless I deliver it person.

  7. Two suggestions: light from the side at 45 degrees to the picture to elimnate glare, so you shoot straight on. Avoids extra photoshop. Or shoot em outdoors on a cloudy day. No reflection.

    Alternatively, send ’em to me! Photo restoration is what I do for a living!

  8. Hello Jude,
    Thanks for sharing that info about Undu. So Undu is a solution of some sort then? It’s probably like Photo-flo a wetting agent like what Luke used. My tip works well if you don’t want to get your hands wet. After you have the image copied then you can feel better about soaking the picture. Also a good thing to have a backup before attempting soaking in a solution. I just learned something thanks to Luke and you Jude.

  9. Hi Again Mr. Phun,

    We scrapbookers have a product that will help release that photo from the glass without damage. It’s called Undu. I have a lot of wonderful old photos in those old ‘magnetic’ sheet albums (EEK!) and I have the same problem – most of them I don’t have negatives for. This stuff removes the photos from these awful albums intact so that I can put them in more archivaly safe storage.

    As always, thanks for the post!

    – Jude

  10. Hi Luke,
    Thanks for stopping by and taking the trouble to comment. May I ask how you came across this tutorial?

    I’m always curious, that’s all. If you want to share it with friends, just click on the Share This icon and find the appropriate means, whether it’s email or Digg, Twitter, Facebook etc

    It is better than trying to break the glass and force it by brute strength. 😉

  11. I just had to remove the stuck photo from the glass. Using the same techniques except there was water damage. I soaked the glass and photo for six (6) days in photoflo and had to repair the damage. But the client was happy as it is the only photo he has of him holding his now adult son. Great tutorial.

  12. Hi Tom,
    Thanks for stopping by and taking the trouble to leave your comment. Actually if you have a bunch of old photos, scanning on a flatbed scanner may be faster than photographing one-picture-at-a-time.

    Especially if you have the full version of Photoshop. When I have the time I’ll see if I can elaborate with a tutorial.

    Nice, nice images on your website, Tom. I love those triathlon pictures!

  13. Great tip and timley as well. I’m copying a bunch of old photos of my wife for a slide show on her upcoming birthday. This will be much easier and faster than scanning.


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