As family historians, our job is to research and collect documents, information, stories, artifacts and photos about our clans. If you are lucky, you will come across some old family photographs. And if you are very lucky, you will discover grandma’s very own photo album full of all sorts of images and even (be still my beating heart) captions and descriptions.
But discovering old photos is not always the end of the journey. Creating digital copies is the next thing you really need to do. That will give you the ability to share the pictures around the cousins, and it will give you a vital backup should anything happen to the originals. And after that, the question will arise: should you also do a little photo repair and restoration? Is that needed; is it even “right”? Here’s what you need to know.
Restoring and Repairing Historical Photos
An old photo can take on the character of a fetish item – something to be revered for its own sake, revered as much for what it is and its journey to you as for what it represents. And that is fit and proper. The photo may have scars and scratches – and they are part of what it is and part of its character. The object as is should be valued and venerated. Agreed.
But an old photo is not just an item to be venerated. It is part of a family narrative and it has had a history and a purpose. Starting out, it was pristine and conveyed – as well as the photographer’s art and the darkroom technician’s skill allowed – the pictorial information to best advantage. And, over time, it was held and beheld and maybe even clutched and stroked. And it got old and faded and that is what you now hold. If you have a chance to sympathetically and carefully restore an old image you should – you are no more than recapturing the original purpose behind the image: displaying the person to best advantage.
The restored or repaired photo is not the original image and it not a substitute – but it is a very useful adjunct.
Physical Repair or Digital Photo Restoration?
There are purists who insist on a physical repair of an old photograph. Sadly, outside of large museums, the skills needed to wield the inks, oils, brushes and even pencils to match the hues just so and brush in the near-invisible repairs are very scarce. And for most of us, we simply do not have the hours or the budgets for the time consuming process which is physical photo restoration.
It is also true that the tools available to the digital restorer are superior to the brushes and inks of the professional. You can match colors with 100% accuracy and repair large areas of damage – even bringing in “lost parts” from matching contemporaneous photos where that is needed. And you can restore contrast to the whole images and correct for color shifts – something which is impossible which physical restoration.
Scanning the Old Photo
When scanning old family photos try to use as high a resolution as your scanner allows. For very small photos or small negatives/positives, scan at 2400 dpi or higher. For small photos, scan at 1200 dpi; for medium (around 6×4) scan at 800 dpi or so; for larger use 600 dpi. Always clean your scanner glass first; scan with the “photo” (not “documents”) setting; and always scan in color – even for black and white images. There is information in them thar color channels, don’t throw it away and (don’t allow your scan contractor talk you into black and white scans as a way of saving space or money).
Another pro tip is to turn off any “auto enhance” functions that might be enabled in your photo scanner. You may want to adjust contrast and saturation down the track should you choose to restore the photo, but at least create an original that is as true to the original photograph as possible. (Most pro-restorers will have a calibrated scanner that will create a near perfect image copy (something that is not as easy as it sounds given that you are going from the cyan/magenta/yellow/black color space of a printed image to the red/green/blue color space that your computer and all screens use).
Photo Repair and Photo Restoration
For old images, the challenge is to retain the historic flavor of the original. That means that if the original photograph was sepia-tinted, then the restored photo should also be sepia-tinted. But all dust marks, tears and scratches should be patched. And fading should be certainly be corrected.
A more difficult question is what to do about the natural yellowing that afflicts most fiber based paper over time. You could restore the yellow to white and have the restored image look as if it’s fresh out of the developer and just fixed. But that looks “too new” or “fake” to some people. The other option is to leave the yellow as is: but that is not how the photo originally appeared! The middle ground may be to leave in some yellowing (say 15%-25%) to give the image an olde patina-look but with its impact reduced.
Using Professional Photo Repair & Restoration Services
There are many reputable Professional Photo Repair & Restoration Services available, if your are unable to do this work for yourself. Ask to see samples of the work, learn about the experience of the restorers, and try to get a firm estimate. Insist on a side-by-side before and after preview and, if you are not happy, make sure that the proper adjustments are made. And, if you decide to go to the expense of a photo repair or restoration request a digital copy of the image as well as a physical print of the image. You may want to get the digital copy in a range of sizes – something suitable for a print and something suitable that can be emailed, posted to a website or stored on your phone!
Your Story Here has been restoring photos for over 10 years now and has recently set up a dedicated division specializing in restoring and repairing old images called PhotoFixRestore. Click on over and learn a little more about the process!