Just like pops and clicks are a fact of life with LP records, dust and scratches are a fact of life with film. If you’re scanning film, it’s something you’re going to come across even with the cleanest of workspaces and workflows.
Most scanning software these days comes with some kind of dust and scratch removal features. Many use some kind of infrared process like Digital ICE. Those options do a very good option much of the time, but not all the time. They’re also really designed for color film, and don’t work well on most black and white films. Another downside is that they have a tendency to soften the sharpness ever so slightly.
But what if you’ve already scanned the film? Or maybe you’re scanning old prints that have their own imperfections from handling over the years.
For tricky jobs of cleaning dust and scratches from scans, I use Photoshop. That gives a lot more flexibility and is more precise. Here’s a workflow with Photoshop that works especially well for black and white photos.
But Lightroom is also surprisingly capable for simple repair jobs. To do it properly, there’s no way to avoid it being a bit tedious. Automating the process comes with too many negative effects. So you’re going to have to manually pick out the spots to be patched. But Lightroom can help make the process a little easier.
For this tutorial I’m going to use this black and white photo of a ship silhouetted in the shipping lanes off Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. I took the photo about 20 years ago, and although my original negatives are pretty carefully stored, there are still marks on the original.
You can see a few dust spots on this overall view, particularly in the sky in the top right corner. There are also dust spots in the light reflection on the sea, but they’re completely camouflaged, so I’m not going to bother about them.
Zooming in to 100% shows many more marks, as well as the original film grain. The grain just is, but the dust spots are distracting and are unwanted artifacts. So I’m going to get rid of them and get back closer to what the original, pristine film looked like.
Make the Toolbar Visible
Before we get started, it’s helpful to make sure that the toolbar is visible in the Develop module. If it’s not, press T. This is where you can control zoom level and do side-by-side comparisons, or add star or color ratings. We’re not going to use any of those for this task, but we’ll see why the toolbar is useful shortly.
The Healing Brush
First we’re going to try a basic fix using the healing brush in the regular way. It’s usually best to zoom in to 100% to do this, although you can technically do the same thing on the zoomed out version–you just won’t be able to see as many of the dust spots.
In early versions of Lightroom, this was often known as the Spot Removal Brush because it only worked on a single spot. But newer versions of Lightroom have changed the functionality so that you can now drag the spot to create other shapes. So it’s now known as the Advanced Healing Brush and works more like the version in Photoshop.
When you click on the brush tool icon you’ll get some options for the brush. Make sure that Heal is checked in the top right of the panel. Clone will work, but won’t work as well for this task.
The best size to use depends on the size of your original image. A size of 20 will be far larger relative to a small image than it will be relative to a large image. An easy way to do this is to simply click one on the image. You’ll get two circles showing up. One is the target area to be cloned; the other is the area where the cloned material is coming from. If you now use the Size slider, you’ll see the circles resize in real time. You want to strike a balance between the selection areas being too big that they rope in too much unnecessary area and so small that you find it very slow going in precisely placing them. If you’ve got long scratches, your best bet is to use a small brush and drag along the line of the scratch rather than use a large spot that includes all the scratch.
Feather refers to the hardness of the edges. For a more natural heal, applying some feather is often a good idea.
In most cases, an opacity of 100% for the heal brush works very well, but if you find that the corrected areas are themselves becoming too visible, try dialing down on the opacity.
To start fixing the dust spots, simply click on them. Lightroom will automatically calculate what it considers a good match for grab the patch from. Much of the time it does a very good job. But there are also times when the match isn’t good, or it grabs from an area with different kind of detail. In those cases, you can override the selection by dragging the circle over the area from which the patch is coming.
You’re also not limited to doing spots. You can click and drag to create other shapes, which comes in handy for scratches. You can also delete any patches you’ve applied by selecting the patch and hitting the delete key.
Using the Visualize Spots Feature
So that works well so far. And for an image like the one I’m using, where the spots are easy to see, I could probably just go ahead and continue doing that across the whole image until I’m happy with it.
But Lightroom has a built-in tool that makes it even easier to see the problem areas and can therefore speed up what is unavoidably a tedious process. It’s the Visual Spots tool.
This is why we made the toolbar visible earlier. While using the healing brush the toolbar changes to reveal the Visual Spots tool.
When you check the Visual Spots checkbox, you get what is basically a filter that both simplifies the image and creates very high contrast. And don’t worry–you haven’t done anything to the original image. It’s just a temporary visualization and doesn’t have any effect on your image and won’t be visible when you export the image.
You can see here that the dust spots are already showing up as bright white dots. The dull marks are from the film grain. You can change the sensitivity of the visualization by using the slider.
In this case, moving the slider to the right is counterproductive for this image. The “best” setting depends on your original image and your preference as to how much to reveal.
The healing brush is used exactly the same way with this visualization, but it can help speed up the process by making the problem areas more obvious. That’s especially useful in areas where the dust spots don’t naturally stand out as starkly.
Simply continue applying the healing brush wherever you like. One minor downside of using this visualization is that you can’t see the effect on the original image. But once you turn off the Visualize Spots tool you can go back and manually correct any rogue patches. To see all your patches, change the selection to Always in the toolbar at bottom left.
Once you’re finished applying the patches, you should have an image that’s good as new.