How to Remove Dust and Scratches From Film Scans

Using Adobe Photoshop and Spot Healing Tool

13 min read by Dmitri.
Published on . Updated on .
Porra 160 shot in Olympus PEN FV. Unfortunately, the lab returned my film in a terribly scratched-up condition. After some time with Photoshop’s Spot Healing Tool, I was able to bring the film black to a place that’s much more acceptable. Sepia colour was added to highlight the scratched-up areas.

No matter how gingerly you may be handling your film, chances are that dust and scratches will creep in, especially if you’re trying to restore an old archive. There are a few ways to remedy these artifacts — some are software-assisted; others are scanning device-based or mechanical.

If you know how to create layers, select brushes and resize images in Photoshop or GIMP, you should be able to follow this guide.

✪​ Note: I use Adobe Photoshop for all my dust & scratch removal.

When and how to use automation to clean up damaged negatives.

Dust, scratches, and other kinds of film damage can be removed with various tools, including the Dust & Scratches tool in Photoshop. I found that it works well for images that you do not plan to print or display big and with a minimal amount of damage.

While cleaning up film by hand will typically yield much better results, it can take a long time to complete. Thus I suggest first seeing if either Photoshop’s Dust & Scratches, another tool, or your scanner’s Digital ICE software can do the trick for you.

When to use a (Spot) Healing Tool to clean up damaged negatives.

Good automatic restoration software is hard to come by. And even if you find something that works well for you, it won’t perform its best in every case. For example, Photoshop’s Dust & Scratches tool is known to blur images and remove all evidence of film grain/fine detail while failing to especially badly affected areas.

The method described involves some effort on your part, but you’ll have complete control over the image. You will be able to fix blemishes automatic removal tools fail to remedy and retain most of the fine detail and film grain in your scans.

The technique that involves using the Spot Healing Tool will work on all sorts of film, unlike the Digital ICE and similar technologies that use the infrared channel to detect and fix certain imperfections on colour film only. Digital ICE is also not available for scans made with DSLR cameras.

Photoshop is a complex software, it isn’t particularly cheap, but its interface is ubiquitous enough to provide a solid example that may work with many other image editing tools, such as GIMP. The technique discussed here does not rely on any fancy filters, blending modes, or channel separations. It is simply a method of applying Photoshop’s Spot Healing Tool (or just Healing Tool in GIMP).

Download sample scan files.

You can better compare the cleaned-up version to the original scratched-up scan and practice your technique using these ready-made files ☟

➜ Free Download: Sample Damaged & Restored Film Scans (JPEG)

You will be asked to sign up for a free account with Analog.Cafe. It comes with access to more downloadable guides, additional website features, and a monthly community newsletter.

A seven-step process for removing dust and scratches from film scans using a (Spot) Healing Tool.

I’ve separated different aspects of the clean-up process into numbered subsections. You don’t have to go through them in the sequence described, but I recommend you get through the first three before anything else.

✪​ Note: I will be referring to the (Spot) Healing Tool as a “brush” or a “healing brush” for brevity.

1. Set your expectations.

The more time you put into digitally restoring your negatives and the more experience you have doing so, the better they will appear in the end. It’s certainly possible to fix some scans to the point that even zooming into the pixels won’t reveal the “healing spots.” However, this method won’t restore torn film, fix areas that have way too many scratches, or do anything for your optical/darkroom prints.

You should also understand that there are some levels of damage that can not be repaired. For example, if you apply the healing brush tool too much, the quality of the fill-in textures degrades up to the point of becoming a solid colour — which is a serious loss of detail.

2. Choose your candidates.

If your film is damaged as badly as some of the examples in this article, it could take you an entire day — or longer — to clean up an entire 36 exp. roll. Thus if you have different plans, consider selecting only the important few pictures for the job (whatever your measure of importance might be).

If digitally restoring negatives is your long-term project, consider averaging your recorded clean-up time per negative and then budgeting the number of hours you plan to dedicate against the number of frames you have in the “to-do” pile.

3. Consider your film size, print/display dimensions, and your audience’s viewing distance.

Now that you’ve selected your candidates, you’ll need to decide the amount of effort required for each.

How much of the dust and scratches will be noticeable to your viewers? Knowing this can save you a lot of headaches fixing tiny imperfections no one can see. Or it can prepare you for a long day of work if your project demands it. Here’s how you can determine how much of the “bad stuff” your viewers can actually see:

A piece of Orwochrom UT 18 film from old family archives.

3-A) Determine the magnification factor for your final image. Your film format and display medium will determine the amount of enlargement that will take place once it’s “live.” For example, to display a 35mm film scan on a 12” monitor, it has to be enlarged about eight times. But a 4x5 film frame will only need to be doubled. Small scratches and dust particles will likely remain barely noticeable on large formats in this scenario, but they sure do become apparent when blown up from smaller negatives.

3-B) Simulate display resolution. If you’re scanning your film for Instagram, you may not need to worry much about dust and scratches even on 35mm film. To check, try resizing your image to be 1800 pixels wide, which is the maximum resolution that the app stores. You can use the same method of estimation for any online service: find the maximum pixel dimensions, change your scan to fit that limitation and check to see if you need to fix things up.

3-C) Print size and the viewing distance. If you are planning to print your images, you will need to consider the viewing distance of your audience in addition to the print’s size. A billboard, for example, is meant to be seen from afar and could appear in our view no larger than an Instagram post, but a wall mural printed in high resolution will reveal every bit of imperfection.