This endearing image may just be a family snapshot, but it is the only photo they have of their daughter, this first-time mom, holding her newborn daughter. It doesn't matter that it wasn't shot by a professional. It does matter that it is retouched with respect and care, in the attempt to make it the best it can be.
The solution for correcting this image initially looks pretty straight forward - take the yellow out. But this is a deceptively complicated image to retouch. Yes, we need to take the yellow out, but beneath the yellow there are washed out shadows, blurring, and a lack of detail due to underexposure and an aging print.
Looking past the yellowing, I examine the photo and ask, "What are the most important elements in the image?" Obviously, it's mom with her newborn baby. Then, "Of the other elements in the photo, which are important and which are cluttering or distracting?" I feel the chair and the edge of the curtain behind the chair are important. They're sitting in the chair, which is a giveaway to its significance, but it also dates the scene, which is part of the story, and the white chair-covers frame mom and baby. The curtains are less obvious because they do add to the era but otherwise are only important for the atmospheric effect of light passing through them, setting the mood. The scene is lit by two side windows, the visible window being the prominent light source. None of the other objects in the scene are very important, except that they give a sense of space (or lack thereof) in the room, but if they are given too much attention, they will be distracting. The focus should be on mom and baby, so that is where I will work to put it.
Now, about that yellowing...it isn't as simple as color toning the image in this case. Due to the underexposure of the original photo and the low ambient light in the scene, deep shadows prevail in this photo. Deep shadows have no detail and are nearly black to black. But these shadows are more of a muddy yellow-brown due to the yellowing and degradation of the emulsion. The loss of emulsion also creates spotty dark areas intermixed with muddy yellow-brown areas. Even though there are no details in the deep shadows, there are enough that I don't want to lose everything that is there, like the rooster and stand to the lower left of the chair. Simply adjusting the contrast isn't sufficient, as it darkens the shadows but blows out the highlights. I don't want mom and baby to be in hard light that contrast correction alone creates because it is a soft scene naturally lit by soft light, so it needs to stay soft. Yet, it needs some definition. In the end, the best result comes from converting this photo to black and white and adding appropriate color back in.
To achieve lighting balance in this case, it amounts to mixing the scene to achieve the deep shadows and soft light. This is done using one copy of the image with softer contrast and one copy using higher contrast and combining them to get the desired effect. With the addition of softly saturated color (because color was removed when turning it to black and white) and soft light, the use of a high pass filter to define edges a bit better, and the usual adjustments of shadows and highlights, the photo is recreated without the yellowing and with more focus and detail.
There is one other thing that needs correction. Did you catch it? The perspective is distorted. The top is narrower than the bottom, giving the effect that the bottom is closer to the viewer than the top. I knew you would catch that! This is corrected with lens correction of the vertical perspective.
The fact that this photo had no major tears, wrinkles, or blemishes belies the complexity of the restoration and retouching, but with a little TLC, the image is recreated and the moment can continue to melt hearts for many more years.
This is one of my favorite photos, as it is definitely worth a thousand words. Of course, the confident little man's expression and stance captured my attention right off the bat and could have been a great picture with just him in front of a basic backdrop. But this photo says so much more. Before I get to that, however, let's talk about the restoration.
This photo was digitized from a film negative. The negative looked like it was in fair condition. When the inversion from a negative to a positive image, there were several areas of restoration that became more obvious. The edges of the photo show a white vignetting that may be from film negative degradation or from the camera settings or lens . The soft white halo-effect causes a blurring effect to the definition of the edges. While vignetting can be a beautifully subtle way to focus attention or influence the atmosphere of a photograph, in this case it is uneven and doesn't add to the photo.
Next, though difficult to see in this small-sized digital image, there are several areas of brush-like scratches on several areas of the photo. The most challenging area of scratches run from the knee area of his pants down to the top of the bottom stair. There are also several other dings and scratches over the entire scene, including scratches over his face.
On close inspection, it's clear that the grain in the film has broken down and become a bit uneven, making a mottled appearance to the grain. Overall, the blacks aren't black and the whites aren't white. Blacks and whites can have different "temperatures", where the white can be so white it looks like it glares like sun off metal in July (hot!) all the way down to whites that are more gray than white (like in the photo) but we still understand them to be white. Blacks can be so black that no detail can be found in them, like trying to see your hand in front of your face in a forest with no moon at midnight, to blacks with so little density they look more like a dark gray, much like the boys shoes or the doormat behind him. The range of blacks and whites is important because lights and shadows are what give a dimensional feel to a photograph. The level of dimension for any particular photograph is subjective, in that it is up to the creative photographer to decide what feel they want from the image - stark contrast equals a stark feel, little contrast can lead to a soft or foggy/misty feel, but excesses of each will lose dimension.
Oftentimes the first step restoration artists take is to run settings that remove light dust and scratches by essentially blurring the image. That is often the most efficient and effective way to clean an image. But I didn't want that in this case. To blur this image to any degree would mean that the gorgeous texture of his felt hat and his wool pants and jacket, and the knit texture of his sweater would be lessened, at best, and destroyed, at worst. These textures are important to the story of the photograph, so I don't want to lose one scratchy-looking woolen hair. So instead of blurring the entire image and then going in to repair the largest scratches, it means I zoom in very close and clean up each scratch and ding individually. It's absolutely worth the time, and I would have done it anyway to make sure I caught all the blemishes.
The remaining work revolved around adjusting blacks, whites, and grays. This is done by adjusting the overall tone of the image. It should be black and white, not that off-putting yellowish tone. Then comes balancing out the vignetting so there is no inappropriate white fade on the edges. Finally, I smooth out the grain where needed, amplify shadows and highlights, and redefine edges.
When all is done, we have this stylish little man dressed in his Sunday best, sporting his new hat, new suit, not-so-new sweater, and Sunday-worn shoes. He stands on the small, weather-worn porch that have had many working hands touch the post over years. One can almost hear the squeak of the screen door as it pulls open and the smack and bounce of it as slams shut. It's clear that funds were not abundant for this family, but that didn't stop them from living well and being grateful for what they had. It's this kind of honesty and these true-to-life images that make my heart swoon and why I love doing restoration work and why we can't let moments like these be lost. They remind us where we came from, who we came from, and that we have so very much for which to be grateful.
 Vignetting: Wikipedia
Today's picture has some common issues that we run into with old photographs: color distortion, tears, and wrinkles.
This photo was stored in a photo album in a plastic sleeve, which seems like one of the best ways to store a photograph. It is. And it isn't. There were a few things that went sideways in this case. First, the photo album was made out of a polyvinyl plastic, which gives off a gas that can discolor photographs. Second, the plastic sleeve was stiff and inflexible, though it probably wasn't so when purchased, and the photo didn't fit in it properly. Over the years, extra heat in the storage area and simply the effects of time caused the plastic to stiffen, off-gas, and cause yellowing.  Acording to the American Institute for Collections, the worst things for your photographs sums up as: acids, gases, heat, and moisture.  In future articles, I will go into more depth about the best and worst practices for storing photographs.
The objective for this photo is to return the colors to their original glory, fix the damage from the tears and wrinkles as well as the uneven scissor line that cuts off the bottom edge of the photo. What I don't want to do: change the feel of the photo or make it look repaired. I don't want this photo to feel as if it was just taken yesterday, because it wasn't. It has its own feel, color values, and lighting effects that reflect the era and film characteristics of its time. Repairs to the damage should disappear into the photo, as if they never existed. If you have ever seen a photo where it's obvious that someone "photoshopped" it, then you know what I'm talking about: the colors are flat, almost like someone took one color of paint and daubed it over the boo-boo, and edges are distinct, as if they were cut out with scissors and glued on. No. No. No.
I also want the pixel count to be large enough that reprints can be made in larger sizes with little to no degradation. For that, I need to start with a large file size. For those who are unsure what pixel count is, the higher the pixel number, the clearer the image is for enlargements, the greater the color range, and the more detail in the highlights and shadows. If your digital image starts with a low pixel count, you can't add pixels to improve the quality, so it is best to start with a lot of pixels and down-size from there, as needed.
The work on this photo was actually pretty straight forward, so even though there were several objectives, they didn't take a lot of time to accomplish. Most of the time was given to repairing the damage to make sure that it is seamless. With that, it took approximately an hour to turn the starting photo into the one below.
This photograph from the early 1900s shows three children dressed up and riding horseback. I can only assume that they were on their way to somewhere important because of their attire, and it demonstrates what a hardy breed of people they were, because they don't look all that miserable! I tell you all of this because it's difficult to see that in the photograph as it is. The detail in the faces appears nearly completely lost. There is some minor surface damage. But my biggest concern is recovering details. I can see that it was a bright but overcast, white day, creating a low contrast light, which can make for a very flat image because shadows are nearly nonexistent. In this case, it's not a huge problem because there is enough tonal variation in the clothing, animals, and plants to give the photo some depth.
I want to have a large pixel count for this image, because I want as much data to work with as I can. This will save me time and provide flexibility in how I recover the image. I don't want poor digital quality to hinder photo quality and put limits on restoration or reprinting. That said, with this photo I didn't scan it; I took another picture of it to get the format I wanted. This was a good option for me, though others may choose to scan it.
After some adjustments to color, exposure, contrast, etc, I cleaned up the damage and got to work on the details. Clearing the haze brought a surprising amount of detail back in, but the children's faces needed some definition and the tonal values in the horses and clothing, as well as background needed freshened up. After adding some highs and lows, and even some light shadows under the horses, some dimension and texture came back into the picture.
While it is great fun to exaggerate and dramatize images like is often done in today's creative photography, with historical restoration images, the objective is to make it look as if it is refreshed rather than looking recreated. To do this, it's important to respect the original integrity of the photo and enhance rather than recreate the image, to the extent possible. This way there is still a sense of age and character to the photo while simultaneously being refreshed and repaired. Even though I spent hours on this photo, I don't want it to be obvious that I was there.
When I first started working on this portrait, I wasn't so sure adding color was going to improve the impact of it. After all, it is lit beautifully, the vignette is subtle but adds to the soft femininity of the photo, and her features are flawless. The only correction it needs is to remove the yellow color degradation caused by time and less-than-perfect storage. On the other hand, this image would have been a perfect candidate to be hand-colored, since it was popular in the early 1900s up to the 1950s to colorize black and white photos of special occasions . This photo is what would now be considered a glamour shot for this young woman's high school graduation and offers a nice range of tonal values, without too many deep values, providing a nice base for the image and color to blend in a complimentary fashion.
Original monochrome photographs were colorized using a variety of media, including thin layers of dyes and watercolor as well as tints . I wanted to color this photo with the same translucency thin dyes and watercolors would provide, but I didn't want a wash of flat color. If you ever saw the black and white version of The Wizard of Oz when they first colorized it, you will know how terribly wrong colorizing can go when there is a wash of flat color over a tonal background...hello Oompa-Loompa.
But before I tackle the coloring, there are a few other not-so-obvious challenges with this photo. These include the texture of the photo paper. It is a very soft, feathery type of paper that produces a texture that needs to be cleaned up in order for the new print to look clean, and there is some mild yellowing caused by time that needs to be removed while leaving a faint sepia tone. Those problems are addressed before any color is even considered, and any defects from the reproduction phase are also cleaned up, such as fine speckles, dust, and scratches. As you can see, there was little in the way of damage to the photo, so this part of the restoration process was quick and straight forward.
Though we say we have blonde or brunette or red or black hair, most actually have a variety of values in our hair, and when the light hits our hair, it brings out variability. Considering this, we don't want a simple wash of brown or yellow applied to the hair, we need a range from brown blondes in the shadows to a white blonde in the highest highlights. Of course, the highs and lows and color ranges are determined by the overall tone of hair as well as ethnicity, but regardless, a nice range of highs and lows is needed for a subtle but appreciable effect. The same tonal variation is true for our skin and lips, and even though we have very dark tones in the shadows of our mouth and lips, and around our nose, they are not a pure black. This is where the time for this particular photo came in...choosing the right tonal ranges and laying on color that blended together and enhanced the area without overpowering it.
Now for the fur coverlet, I wanted to bring in the blue from her eyes into the whites of the fur to give it a more painterly and balanced look. However, I didn't want it to compete with her eyes. Instead, I wanted it so subtle that you hardly noticed it was there. After all, this is an elegant photo of a beautiful young woman, not a snapshot of someone living it up big in a neon boa while she rages the Vegas strip. Applying the color to the fringes of the fur, having it co-mingle with blush of her skin without leaving a sickly blue hue or hard line to the skin was critically important. This took some time, but it was well worth it.
Here's the final result. When I started I wasn't so sure the color could add much to the photo, but in the end, I feel it gave it just enough to make it more dramatic while maintaining its original integrity.