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.