Home | GALLERY | SHOWS
about me | contact | FAQs | site map | search | links
care of old photos
| restoration | photographic copyright
printing
| techie stuff | other stuff | editorial & production

These notes are simply the accumulation of my 45 years of experience working with pictures. I have no other qualification in this field, so I give no guarantees!

I am no longer available to undertake restortation work; neither am I available to give advice beyond what you read here.

Restoring old photographs
– an overview
cleaning old negatives and glass plates
storage
books on old photos

Having secured your precious original (see my care page), then you can think about the image it holds. My advice is that on no account should you attempt to retouch or repair that original document; not only is that a high risk, specialist activity but it compromises the integrity of that picture. Make a copy. Re-photograph it or scan it. It is a highly skilled job to achieve acceptable results on an original or even on a conventional photographic copy and in my view, restoration work is best done at high magnification on a digital copy.

Before copying or scanning, be sure that you have copyright clearance to do so.

  

Scanner performance has gone up, while the cost has come down; even quite professional machines won't break the bank. I now use an Epson V750 Pro. Using one which suits your pocket, make sure its glass platen is clean and dust-free; there's not much point in having a pristine print then putting it on dusty glass through which to make a copy. Make a high-resolution scan at 100% size or more; a 300 dpi scan of say a whole-plate photo (give or take, that's around A4) will account for about 18mb or so in colour (RGB). To scan at 600 dpi or even higher would be better. Save the work in tiff file format, not jpeg which loses information through its compression method. I tend to scan even monochrome pictures in RGB because I find that that captures more detail in the highlights and shadows; you can reduce to 'grayscale' mode afterwards if you like. Meanwhile you can look at the three colour channels and choose which you feel best represents the original while eliminating unwanted stains and so on. Few prints are actually black and white; they usually are tones of blue/black or variations on 'sepia' and you may wish to preserve that.

To scan larger than 100% may be acceptable but the higher you go, naturally definition will begin to suffer; experiment and see. It all depends on your purpose. Is it to put a small version back in the album where it will be scrutinised at close range or framed to put high-up in the stair-well to be viewed at 12 feet? To scan at less than 100% is fine, but who knows, you might later decide you need a larger version.

The best results are from glazed or glossy prints; older pictures may be on the lovely textured papers that were popular years ago. However the scanner lamp will reflect off the ups and downs of the surface, effectively embedding an image of that texture on the scanned image, even giving a pronounced sparkle effect. Beware. Sometimes this can be minimised subsequently using noise reduction filters but they bring their own problems [more on that later].

If scanning glass plate negatives, beware Newton's Rings and scratching the scanner platen. You may need to make your own holder. Check here.

An interesting question arises when dealing with tintypes or ferrotypes as they are sometimes called. A tintype is the result of an exposure being made (in the late nineteenth century right through to the early twentieth) on a piece of metal coated with emulsion. This kind of instant picture was often used by itinerant photographers at the seaside for instance, developed in-camera on the spot and handed to the customer; it comprises the original image - the only version. And because it holds the image as it appeared in the camera, that image is laterally reversed, just as it is in a negative. Would you rather see a restored tintype as it was seen by your forebears or as the original scene really was? It can readily be flopped over in most photo software or in making a conventional copy – your decision. By the way, if you do try to scan a tintype, do place it on the scanner platen most carefully; you don't want to scratch the glass.

  

  

Having scanned the original, put it back in its archival sleeve and into its box or drawer. Given great care, it can be made to last for many more years. Don't throw any photos away even if they don't clean up or restore perfectly; they are valuable historical documents and too many are being lost.

And of course, the snaps you take today may be your grandchildren's family treasures. Who knows what technologies they may or may not have available to handle them?

Now for the actual restoration. There are several photo-editing applications around for use on Mac or PC. I use the industry standard Adobe Photoshop (there is a much cheaper but perfectly adequate version called Photoshop Elements which has most of the tools you'd need). And a graphics tablet is preferable but not essential. Photoshop allows repairs to scratches, tears, stains and other damage, using information from elsewhere in the picture and a host of filters and other techniques. Faded images can be brought back to life – colour, light and shade restored. Stock material can be imported, for example skies and backgrounds to replace badly damaged areas. But I'm not a magician; there has to be at least half a person's face visible before I could produce an anywhere near faithful result! (I'm not available to do it any more anyway.)

Colour, brightness and contrast is best tackled using the levels control. You will be amazed to watch as, by dragging sliders in each of the levels for red, green and blue in turn, colour density and saturation returns. It's a bit like a sound amplifier; it takes what signal there is and magnifies it. This can be done with an adjustment layer such that you can come back and re-adjust later if you want. Alternatively, there is a history palette that allows you to go back to what you did earlier. Or you may choose to save a version of the file with a different name after each stage until you are satisfied with your restoration. I recommend saving your work with a different file name from the scan anyway.

   Some older gelatine prints take on a hazy bloom in the shadows where the heavier halide deposit in those areas has deteriorated; metallic silver has come to the surface and the efect is sometimes called 'silvering'. The scanner lamp reflects off this and instead of shadow, you get light! It is most difficult to balance those areas with regular techniques like density and contrast levels. One old tech approach may be to attempt to reverse the process in the original; I have heard that old-fashioned liquid metal polish like Globe, Weenol or Hotspot is able to do that but that is clearly a high-risk procedure. Try a small corner of your picture with great caution! And don't blame me if it goes wrong! However, if you insist on being new tech, and if your software allows you, then try looking at the three RGB channels of your scan separately and see which one eliminates most of the problem. The example here is the result of taking a copy of the red channel only and then re-adjusting the levels. Stains can be tackled in a similar way. Another technique, instead of scanning, is to try re-photographing with a digital camera on a tripod, lighting carefully to obviate reflections.
What about actual damage to the print? Start by opening a second window; work in close-up in one and watch the overall effect in the other. Have the original picture by the side of the screen for reference.

The dust and scratches filter needs to be approached with caution. Before using it or indeed carrying out any repair work, enlarge the image on screen so that you can see the pixels, for instance by double-clicking the magnifying or zoom tool. Then you can see the effect of the filter. Try working on selected areas rather than the whole picture at once; use a selection tool with a degree of feathering so that the extent of your work is not obvious. Removing dust and scratches also removes other detail. You must decide your personally acceptable level of compromise. Trial and error. You can easily go back; the guy with paint on a brush could not.

  

 

Sections of a picture can be selected, moved and straightened up using for instance Photoshop's Edit>Transform commands – quite a juggling exercise.

In this example, torn sections were reassembled and shunted into position before cloning over the tears.

Fixing tiny dust marks and scratches may not be enough. Larger areas of damage can be covered by cloning with the rubber-stamp tool from an adjacent and similar area; you will become adept at spotting those and varying your source in case it becomes obvious what you have done. Choosing the right size and hardness of the clone brush is crucial. Keep on experimenting.

Any of these techniques is best done with a graphics tablet and stylus; I use the well-established Wacom.

Photoshop version 7 introduced the healing brush which is wonderful and better than cloning for most of the time; it repairs a flaw by comparing the area to one that you designate, but then works on the existing texture, shading, lighting and shape rather than that cloned from elsewhere. In version CS5, a new 'content aware' function makes it better and easier still. By the way, applications like Photoshop allow you to reduce a picture to monochrome or to give a black and white picture any colour tone (or even duo-tone) that takes your fancy. Once again, beware historical accuracy.

  

  

Badly damaged, torn or stained areas like a background or sky or even completely missing pieces can of course be completely replaced. You must make the judgement as to how far this destroys the historical accuracy and integrity of the original. It involves extracting the main subject from the background, maybe by simply drawing round it, or perhaps using a more serious method. Photoshop itself has an extract command and there are proprietary plug-ins for more sophisticated masking. A new graded or patterned background can then be put behind and noise added to match the original. Skies, foliage or whatever can be brought in from other photos.

I have copied a whole eye area, flopped it over and pasted it on to replace one that was too badly damaged to fix. If you do this, don't forget to re-flop the pupil so's to look in the right direction or else your subject suddenly becomes cross-eyed! Whatever you do, this technique unfortunately gives the face a symmetry which it did not have before; no-one is that perfect.

  

Cropping can remove tatty edges, straighten up crooked shooting or scanning but also remove important background information.

Sharpening filters, like the apparently perversely named unsharp mask, work by looking for the boundaries between lighter and darker bits of fine detail and then increasing the contrast at those boundaries; acutance we used to call it. The resulting sharpness is really only apparent; you can't refocus a soft shot - not by any software that I know of. So approach with caution and use sparingly. Different degrees of sharpening are appropriate for different uses; so carry out this operation on your saved file just before printing, say, but don't save the sharpened file unless by another name.

The Photoshop history palette and history brush are there to give you the freedom to try things without worrying about losing your work so far. There are many other tricks and subtleties but they belong in a much longer article or a restoration manual - which this isn't.

And afterwards? Print it. Whereas increasingly, many of today's inkjet prints are predicted to last around 30 years without the colour fading if kept behind glass and out of direct sun or bright light, those made with pigment inks on archival papers may remain fade-free for up to 100 years or more. I currently use the Epson 2100 machine which is said to provide just such prints.

Finally store and back-up your final electronic file safely on, say, a cross-platform CD or archival quality DVD, as a full resolution, unsharpened tiff file. You might like to save the scan too - just in case. Next time round, you'll do a better job.

Regrettably, I am no longer able to take on copying or restoration work but there are other people who will. You may wish to try:

Restore Old Photos Leeds, Yorks
Amber Photographics Hornton, Oxon
Nick's Photo Restoration Service Medway, Kent
Ctein Daly City CA, USA
Sanna Dullaway Colourising old black and white photos

Other useful links:

Restoring Damaged Photographs
Restoration of Genealogy Photos
Ctein's book on the subject is very good.
DIGITAL RESTORATION From Start to Finish

copyright © Colin Robinson 2012

You may well know more about caring for old photos than I do. If you have anything to tell me, then please email me
or telephone +44 (0) 1869 338 272

While you're here, please visit my gallery

Back to the top of this page

restoration | care of old photos | care of fine art

Home | Gallery | Shows | Site map | search | About me | Links