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