How to Retouch Old, Dusty, or Scratched Photos in Photoshop

How to Retouch Old, Dusty, or Scratched Photos in Photoshop

Found the perfect image for a layout, but realize it’s kind of dirty? These three retouch and repair tools can satisfy image-cleanup needs at any skill level.

Cover image template via Rawpixel.com

Cleaning up images is Photoshop’s bread and butter. In this article we’ll focus on the three tools specifically designed to remove blemishes and unwanted artifacts.

  1. Spot Healing Brush – click on an anomaly to automatically fill and replace
  2. Healing Brush – set the source to fix an imperfection, just like the clone tool
  3. Patch tool – replace a specific area with information from another area

These retouching tools are really useful for designers because they make Photoshop do most of the work. You simply have to know when to switch between tools. That’s what we’ll go over in this article.


Spot Healing Brush

This is the first line of defense in the war against dust and scratches. Photoshop has a feature literally called Dust & Scratches but this is an overall image blurring/softening filter. The Spot Healing Brush is a retouching tool that uses the information around the spot where it’s applied to replace the selection.

Use the Spot Healing Brush wherever there are spots, dust particles, hairline creases, and any other small anomalies on a photo. It’s usually best to use it at small brush size, but depending on the image, a large brush size can actually work.

How to Use the Spot Healing Brush Tool

Click on the Spot Healing Brush in the tools menu, or hit J on the keyboard.

How to Retouch Old, Dusty, or Scratched Photos in Photoshop – Spot Healing Brush Tool

The example below is an image with a lot of dust particles and debris. Click on each particle with the Spot Healing Brush at 25px brush size.

Retouch Photos with the Spot Healing Brush Tool

Architectural image via tostphoto, dust and scratches overlay via siloto

You can also use short strokes to correct hairlines and other clustered anomalies.

Retouch Photos with the Spot Healing Brush Tool

Don’t try to do too much in a single spot. The bigger the brush size or stroke, the more information Photoshop will try to blend and recreate. Sometimes this gets weird and unintended results. Think Jeff Goldblum emerging from the pod in “The Fly.”

After hitting all the spots I’m left with a smooth sky in my image.

Retouch Photos with the Spot Healing Brush Tool


Healing Brush

Like the Spot Healing Brush, the Healing Brush uses brush settings to determine the area of retouching. Only, with this tool you select the area you want to sample from, just like with the Clone Stamp tool.

How to Use the Healing Brush Tool

Select the Healing Brush, underneath the Spot Healing Brush in the pop-out menu. Or, you can cycle through the retouching tools by holding Shift and hitting J until you arrive on the tool you want.

How to Retouch Old, Dusty, or Scratched Photos in Photoshop – Healing Brush Tool

Hold Option and click the area you want to sample. Try to match a similar or nearby object to make sure the light or shading is the same. Then, simply paint over the spot you wish to replace.

This tool is great for areas with an edge that the Spot Healing Brush can’t seem to correct. With your sample area selected, the brush will show a preview so you can line things up nicely.

How to Retouch Old, Dusty, or Scratched Photos in Photoshop – Healing Brush Tool

As you can see, you can do short swipes with this as well, just make sure you stay within a similar sample area.


Patch Tool

The Patch Tool is useful for areas with less defined boundaries. You draw the selection first, then drag it to the source area you want to replace it.

How to Use the Patch Tool

How to Retouch Old, Dusty, or Scratched Photos in Photoshop – Patch Tool

Select the Patch tool in the pop-out menu. You can either draw your selection with the Patch Tool itself, or select an area by other means, and then activate the Patch Tool to drag the selection to the source.

In this example, the Patch Tool is used to select an area and replace it. You can see how it defines the area in a way the Healing Brushes can’t. In this case that fold line through the leaves can be eradicated, leaving the surrounding area mostly unaffected.

How to Retouch Old, Dusty, or Scratched Photos in Photoshop – Patch Tool


Helpful Stuff

Fine-Tune Your Tools with Options

At the top of the screen in the Options menu are some advanced settings for fine-tuning the retouching tools.

How to Retouch Old, Dusty, or Scratched Photos in Photoshop – Healing Brush Options Menu

If you’re retouching at the basic level, it’s usually best to leave these as-is. These tools go pretty deep with functionality, but they are powerful enough in the stock version to get most things out of the way. If you change a setting and can’t figure out why the tool isn’t doing what you want, refer to this image to get back to normal.

Watch for Railroad Tracks

When cloning from an area very near the working area, be it with the Healing Brush or the Patch Tool, be wary of something called “railroad tracks.” This is when an area is copied too closely to the original, causing a doubling of the image along the painting path, like a railroad track. It’s most often seen when trying to do too much in short steps, and with the Clone Stamp tool especially.

How to Retouch Old, Dusty, or Scratched Photos in Photoshop – Railroad Tracks in Retouching

If I pulled a source too close to our selection with the Patch Tool, we’d end up with these obviously-cloned areas in the red boxes. That’s why I pulled from another section of the bush. With the preview function inside the selection, it’s easy to eyeball if a selection will work.

Evaluate with Fresh Eyes

Zoom out and back in to make sure your corrections look natural. Sometimes we get a little zeroed-in and don’t see some obvious cloning mistakes. If you notice some railroad tracking after a long series of corrections, you can touch up the areas again with the Spot Healing Brush to blend the edges so it doesn’t look so “cloned.”


For some more tips and tricks to work with images, check out these articles:

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