Why restore old photos? Sometimes it seems the cracks and wrinkles, dents and bends add to the story of an image. I appreciate the sentiment behind that, especially since I often take new photos and "add age" to them to enhance their atmosphere, story, and cohesiveness. However, there are times when restoring an old photograph is part of the story itself. It can be a sign of respect, a way to keep the original around, to display the image without contributing to the original image's decay, to share an image, and to bring life back into a family heirloom or historically significant photograph.
I felt the "Before" image shown was worth restoring. It is a photo of my husband's mother (a rare one, as she doesn't like having her photo taken). We would like to see this image passed on to her grandchildren and great grandchildren. I have a photo of my grandmother at the same age as this, and it is a most treasured item, so I would like all of the kids to have one of their grandma, too. She spent much of her life caring for them, listening to them, chasing them around, worrying about them, and occasionally having her heart broken by them, and this photo depicts her before her life story was determined, when kids weren't in the picture and grandkids and great grandkids were decades away (see how well rested she looks?! LOL). This photo will not only be reprinted on its own, but it will go into a bound photo-book as one of the images depicting the Lattin family history. Therefore, it is worth the time and effort to remove the scratches, bends, dirt, discoloration, and add depth and richness into the photo.
The original will continue to be stored safely out of light and heat and moisture to give it the longest life possible. But restoring it allows everyone to enjoy the photo and their memories of her in their lives no matter how far apart they live or how many years go by. And, hopefully they will pass it on with their stories to their children and grandchildren.
In today's digital world, photo printing seems like a throw-away subject. People tend to overlook it because, what's the big deal, right? Well, I say it is a big deal. In fact, I would argue that attention to this detail is as important as it was in the early ages of photography.
The picture shown here of the brother and sister, who are all grown up now, likely with grandchildren and great grandchildren, was special for a moment when it was taken. Because it was special, it was printed in a nice quality paper, presented in a paper photo sleeve, and for years was displayed in a frame for all to see. Then it was moved to a drawer, then a box, a closet, then a basement. Now, it comes into light again as being something special because this was a mom, an uncle. The toys she holds, the dress she wears, his suit and hairstyle each depict an era, a lifestyle, an economic bracket, lives that will never be quite that simple again. It also shines a light on all that has happened since then but isn't even in the picture - loves found, loves lost, marriages, children, jobs....you get the idea. The point - this isn't just some random pic of someone's cheeseburger. It shouldn't be tossed into a pile or digital dump like a snap of a silly moment that has outlived its value and emotion. If we look at this photo with respect, it's obvious that it shouldn't be printed on the cheapest, fastest, who-really-cares-it'll-be-tossed-in-a-drawer-anyway paper.
This image is soft in tones and detail. There's some warmth to it emotionally and tonally. If we want to keep the slight sepia warm tone, we won't want to use a true black and white photo paper. Since we want it to remain soft, we don't want to use a pearlescent metallic paper. Color intensity and range aren't critical in this case either, so the other papers that do that brilliantly aren't quite right, either. No. Instead, we are going to use a deep matte finish photo paper that will maintain the softness in the reflected light and overall finish feel yet provide visual clarity. If we want some texture, we might chose linen to give it an aged feel and affect the way the light moves across it. Any and all of this paper selection is subjective to the desired look the owner wants to achieve. But while the "should's" and "should not's" may be flexible, they are too important not to consider.
Next, we want it to last. To achieve that we'll use archival paper, frame it with UV protective glass and/or store it in archival quality sleeve or box. The word "archival" triggers ideas of very expensive and hard to find, but that's not the case. "Archival" photo products are made so that they don't emit harmful gasses that erode the photo emulsion or the paper. Some glues in wood-based products like boxes, tissue paper(s), envelopes, etc. have acids that will break down the image and the paper over time. Ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun also discolors prints and can break them down, so using UV glass when framing protects the image. Photos shouldn't be hung in areas where the sun shines directly on them, but that can be unavoidable at times, so protective glass and quality framing materials will help preserve the displayed photograph.
All of the photo prints ordered through me are printed on archival paper, reproduced in a multitude of ways on archival quality products, such as books, boxes, boards, canvas, glass, metal, and more - all of which I am happy to help you choose from for your project. Archival quality storage boxes, papers, and sleeves can easily be purchased online and in many photo supply outlets, and UV glass and archival quality frames can be found at framing centers and online.
In the end, the paper matters because the photo matters.
One of the biggest struggles for photo restoration projects is one that is in plain sight but often can't be seen with the naked eye, covers the entire photo, and can be daunting to remove - you guessed it...paper texture. Like the boogeyman who lurks in the shadows but can't be seen until light shines on him, and then you don't know how to escape his presence without total annihilation, such is the restoration artist's nightmare with photo paper texture.
In and of itself, photo paper texture isn't a bad thing. It definitely adds to the literal feel of a photograph as well as the way light bounces off of it, which can add a softness or starkness, can deepen shadows, saturate colors, and make highlights brilliant. Photo paper may not be something the average consumer even thinks much about in our digital world, but when it comes to displaying and preserving an image, the paper on which it is printed is very important. When it comes to restoration work, oftentimes there isn't a negative available to work from, so replication of the photo from a print is the only option.
So, what's the big deal? Just throw a little Photoshop blur on it and away goes the "dust and speckles", the "noise", the honeycombing, linen lines, and hair-like fibers, right? If only. But no. It isn't that simple. If I add enough blur or reduce enough noise in either of the images above to remove the patterning, I will also destroy the details in the eyes, hair, clothing, and everything else. That's not an option. Those are the things we are trying to preserve, after all.
But, we also can't go in and work on every single honeycomb line and every single fiber line. So, to make it work, like with all great things, we must find a balance. There must be a little give and a little take, a little blur here, a little smudge there, but not over here and not over there. With the honeycomb pattern, in particular, I have found it advantageous to polarize the light source upon replication in order to minimize direct reflections. This cuts down the intensity of the patterning to a reasonable, workable degree.
When choosing where not to blur, where not to smudge, it is important to consider what you will lose and what you will gain. In the grainy photo on the left above, the baby is wearing a knitted onesie with fairly nice detailing in the knit pattern. I don't want to lose that pattern in order to get rid of the graininess, so I remove the most intrusive grains and enhance the detailing of the knit pattern in the shadows in order to override and incorporate the remaining grain.
In details like the skin, blurring and smudging will be beneficial to smooth the texture and even out tone. But it's important not to blur the detail in and around the eyes - blur the whites, a little is okay; blur the irises, no-no. If some blurring in these high-detail areas must be done, a light touch followed by reintroduction and enhancement of shadow lines, highlight points, and details needs to be accomplished. Discernment is key in these situations because sometimes simply breaking a line is all it takes to stop the eye from being drawn to an area, so we don't necessarily need to remove every little defect.
All of this may make restoration work sound a bit tedious, but it isn't. It can be challenging, yes, but never tedious. Once the work is done and the image has been saved and enhanced, it is a beautiful moment all its own.
All photos and text copyright protected. ©Tricia Lattin
This photo of a wiggly little sister and ever-so-patient big brother is a good representation of a mid-level restoration photo. The tear and creases run through the middle of the photo, across the children's faces. The tear is significant in length and width, and there are many small wrinkles that spread out around the tear. There are also several other areas of branching wrinkles, dents, and blemishes that are more difficult to see on the photo at this size. There is also some yellowing from tape in the lower corner and some minor discoloration.
Since the primary tear runs through important detail areas for the image, it takes attention to detail to remove the deficiency without what looks like a digital scar. This "scarring" is when the repair work leaves behind an unblended or blurry, undefined area. This scarring, depending on the extent of it, can either be very distracting or subtle but obvious enough to look wrong. This is when running a self-healing or cloning tool over the image and letting the program do the dirty work just isn't enough. For this, you need to zoom in and work in small, overlapping areas while maintaining a mental position and vision of the overall photo. It's easy enough to lose track of what exactly your fixing and end up making the problem worse instead of better, so every now and then you need to "step back" by zooming out and get a feel for how the entire photo and correction are coming together. This keeps one from having to correct the corrections, saving a great deal of time and frustration.
Adjusting the color tone and removing the small area of yellow tape discoloration in this case is quick and easy. Adding some highlights and shadows helps add depth to the details and define areas a bit more. Overall, the image is repaired, corrected, and refined back to its original character.
This is a photo of my grandma (on the right) and her brother and sister. It may not look like much of a photograph to anyone that isn't in my family. It's a basic snapshot. But to me, this is an important photograph. I don't have many photos of my grandma and even fewer with her siblings or other extended family. Also, I remember this dress. I remember those glasses. For some reason, I also remember my great aunt's dress (it is unique, after all). So seeing this photo brings back a lot of memories. I really don't care that it isn't a professional shot with flawless lighting, that it isn't a gorgeous location, that it isn't a historical moment in time, or anything else someone might find wrong with it. It's my grandma, my great aunt and uncle, I love them, I miss them, and I want to preserve this moment because the original photograph is fading away. Any of these reasons, all of these reasons, or any other reasons are all good enough reasons to restore a photo.
My objective is to bring out some detail that has been lost to time and was probably never very sharp to begin with. The image is a bit blurry in the most important places - their faces - and there are some other details I want to enhance a bit because of what they add to the meaning of the photo. For instance, my uncle was a big man with big hands (now I know from which side of the family my brother and I get our height), and he has quite a squeeze on both of his sisters. It's hard to tell in the blurry photo, but he is pulling them both in to him enough that it wrinkles their sleeves, and I want to see more of that affection than the blurry photo has to offer. Also, my grandma's corsage is beautiful but washed out. It needs a little pop added back in, though not too much because Grandma never would have worn a garish corsage. Overall, the skin tones and other significant colors need some saturation put into them. Of course, dust, scratches, and some small but distracting and unnecessary elements need removed.
This is what I would consider a basic-plus restoration and retouching. The dust, scratches, and repairs are minimal. To bring back lost detail and color is more exacting. Every centimeter of the photo was gone over to fix minor blemishes, but not every detail was given precision attention.
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.