Removing Dust & Scratches with Photoshop

If you're scanning film, slides, or prints, you're almost certainly going to run into the problem of dust and scratches. Here's a handy technique for removing them that works particularly well with black and white images.

If you’re scanning images, whether film, slides, or prints, you’re almost certainly going to run into the problem of dust and scratches at some point. It’s one of those unfortunate facts of life of analog photography. No matter how carefully you wipe film or slides before scanning them, it doesn’t always work.

If you’re using Lightroom Classic, I have another guide for removing dust and scratches in Lightroom. Lightroom does quite a capable job with its healing brush. But Photoshop does an even better job of it and has much more flexibility.

One option is to use Photoshop’s content-aware Spot Healing Brush. But the downside of that is that it can affect the area around the dust spot and create its own eye-catching artifacts. That can be especially noticeable on scans that have visible film grain or shots of fabrics like clothes or furniture.

Photoshop also has a built-in Dust & Scratches filter. You could be forgiven that that’s all there to it. But as you’ll see, the Dust & Scratches filter is a pretty heavy-handed tool and doesn’t do as good a job as it sounds. Yes, it can get rid of the dust spots and scratch marks, but it also makes the rest of the image horribly soft.

So here’s a technique that takes the good from that (removing the dust and scratches) but avoids the bad (softening the image). It is most effective on black and white photos–precisely the kind of images that the dust removal features of scanning software usually have trouble with. It’s a technique I picked up years ago from an early version of Martin Evening’s incredibly useful guide to Photoshop. If you’re a photographer who wants to make use of the power of Photoshop, I highly recommend picking up a copy.

Adobe Photoshop CC for Photographers 2018
  • Evening, Martin (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)

The History Panel

You’ll want the History panel open. If it’s not currently showing, go to Window > History. The history panel logs everything you do the image. We’re going to put that to use.

For this example, I’m going to use this old photo I took of Belém Tower in Lisbon, Portugal. The original was taken with black and white film, and over the years, it has managed to get some dust on the negative as well as some scratches.

Apply the Dust & Scratches Filter

The first step is to apply Photoshop’s built-in Dust & Scratches filter. Go to Filter > Noise > Dust & Scratches.

There are two sliders in the Dust & Scratches panel. Radius applies to adjacent pixels. Threshold refers to the local contrast. If you set it to Radius 1 and Threshold 255, you’ll basically have the original image. If y

You don’t have to go far to see what a mess the Dust & Scratches filter can do if used alone. This is with a radius of 46. As you can see, the image has become very, very blurry, and is totally unusable.

What we want to do is find the lowest setting where all of the offending dust spots and scratches disappear. That’s going to vary depending on the image content, the resolution of the image, and how bad the markings are.

For black and white images, I tend to put the threshold at about 10 and then adjust the radius. In doing this, you can use both the 100% zoom loop (and select which area it applies to by clicking anywhere in the image) as well as the original image. It’s often easier to zoom in on the original image before doing this.

In this example, I’m going to settle for Radius 14 and Threshold 10. But the image is still far too blurry. Yes, the dust and scratches have mostly disappeared, but the image isn’t usable anymore. But hit OK to have the filter applied. Yes, your image is going to look terrible, but we’ll fix that.

I’m going to zoom in here to make the remaining steps easier. As you can see, the image is pretty blurry.

Put the History Brush to Work

This is where the clever trick is. What we’re going to do is use the History Brush. Basically, that uses a special brush that applies history states. Instead of painting with a color, you’re painting with past states. Whoever dreamt up this idea way back when Photoshop was being developed deserves a beer.

In your History panel, you’ll see that the last line is for the Dust & Scratches filter you just applied.

The first thing you want to do is go back to the previous step, the one right before you applied the Dust & Scratches filter. You do this by clicking on that line of the log. In this example, it’s the Open line.

Your image will revert to the original version, revealing all the dist and scratches again.

Next, we want to tell the History Brush which state to use. We want to selectively apply the changes made by the Dust & Scratches filter. So we check the box next to Dust & Scratches. You’ll get a small History Brush icon showing in the box to the left of the Dust & Scratches line.

Next, select the History Brush tool from the tool panel at left.

Change the brush size to something a bit bigger than your dust spots. Then change the mode. If you’re trying to get rid of white dust spots and scratches, as in this example of a scan of negative film, set the mode to Darken. If you’re trying to get rid of dark spots and scratches, as in a scan from a slide or print, set this to Lighten. What this does is limits the corrections only to those pixels that need fixing, and it leaves everything else around it mostly untouched.

Next, you essentially want to dab the History Brush on the dust spots and scratches. Despite the precaution we’ve taken in setting the mode, it’s often a good idea only to paint the brush as selectively as possible. If you just paint over everything–especially in tight textures like film grain or fabric–you can still end up with noticeably smoother patches that catch the eye. The image I’m using here was taken using pretty fast film, so it has a fair bit of film grain. Just painting indiscriminately over it doesn’t work well.

Continue dabbing the History Brush on as many of the dust and scratch marks as you want on the image. You can then move on to whatever other edits you want to do or simply save it.

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  • Thanks but it is way too time consuming to go through all these steps when Photoshop should have a much better method of removing Dust and Scratches. I am doing bulk scanning of slides and can not use this approach for thousands of images. I found a program BatchCrop that will remove most of the dust and seems to have no effect on image quality, unlike Photoshop.

  • I forgot to add, that by turning the picture into a smart object, (Layers -> Smartobjects -> Convert to Smart Object) applied filters automatically become smart filters. This way they are non destructive from the get-go, use their very own layer mask and can even be altered at any time. In this example I would be able to change the radius later if I would like to, even after all the painting is done.

  • Even better would be to use a layer mask, as it is nondestructive and therefore a lot more flexible.
    1. Duplicate the base layer
    2. Select the new layer (Layer 2)
    3. Apply anti scratch filter on layer 2
    4. Apply a layer-mask on layer 2 (press and hold alt while clicking, to fill the layer mask with black, or fill in the layer mask with black by using the bucket tool, or pressing alt+backspace or ctrl+backspace/apple + backspace on mac)
    5. Select layer mask
    6. Select brush tool
    7. Paint in 100% white on the picture, while the layer mask is selected.
    7.1. If you made a mistake, just select 100% black (press x to change active color swatches and d to restore black and white)
    8. ... Profit

    Pros:
    - Original picture is untouched
    - Mistakes can be easily fixed
    - Workflow is slightly faster

    Cons:
    File Size becomes slightly larger if layers a saved.

    Cheers

  • Hi David,
    Ive just come across your much needed post. I tried other remedies in PS to remove spots on images and by far this is the most non-destructive and time consuming approach yet. Like another person who commented, I too am book marking this for eternity. Your steps are easy to follow, well if i can follow they must be. Thank you very much for your effort

  • It becomes easy as pie with your guide! Thanks to the use of the history brush as you showed, I could revive some of my cooking photos to their former selves.

    Truth to be told, I am not a graphics or image expert by any means and dreaded the use of Photoshop for the technical jobs. I just so happened to bump into your guide and I am glad I did. Although not like the professionals, I handled the images well enough using the filter method and the history panel to my own liking.

    I am bookmarking this blog right away! Thanks for making this process clear as a crystal.

    • I have just applied what I have learned in this blog and I am very impressed with the result.

      By removing dust and scratches in my own way, I would always end up with a smooth, blank patch of pixels like you described in this article. That just wasn't good enough for me. By using the method you describe, I can remove dust and scratches without leaving a soft, blank patch of pixels behind.

      Thank you for sharing this article. I feel I am much closer to employing best practices, much closer to employing the full power of Photoshop now.

    • Glad it's useful! And a hat tip to Martin Evening and his book, from where I originally learned it.

  • Awesome and simple, thanks! Having to click even 1 less of a key (control key while I was clicking spots while using healing brush) makes a huge difference. I was beginning to feel worn out these past few months of removing dust from hundreds of images - needed a more efficient workflow. I love working with analog, and post-processing can be grueling

  • Oh man! THANK YOU! It was frustrating me that no matter how much I cleaned my scanner glass with a microfiber cloth, there would still be dust and dog hairs (haha) on my art work. Your tutorial is god-send! Thank you again!

    • Glad it was helpful! And yes, sometimes now matter how much you clean or dust it you just can't get it all. Especially with black and white film.

  • Sorry. I later discovered I had a lasso section sill active. The Dust&Scratch tool is working just fine, and the tip is working very well. Thanks.

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