Restoring Old Photographs

The recent rediscovery of some images taken for a photo restoration project prompted me to write this blog article. I get great satisfaction from taking an old, damaged picture and restoring it to its former glory, although I have spent less time working with this kind of material than I would like recently. Other more recent work seems to get my attention leaving this corner of my interests to gather dust.

Most of my efforts concerning restoration work have been concentrated on my family, who have tasked me to restore faded colours, remove scratches and water stains. There were also a few jobs I had personal interest in, particularly efforts to recover positive images from century old glass plates that had been discovered in an aunt’s loft. 

Basic Image restoration can be done quite easily thanks to many software packages available today, as they contain dust and scratch removal algorithms that make the process pain-free (albeit very time consuming in some cases). More difficult projects such as rebuilding parts of an image that have been destroyed, or removing background subjects can be more challenging but very rewarding. 

Here are three of my personal favourites. 'Before' and 'after' images can be found in the slideshow at the bottom of the page.

  1. An image taken from a high resolution digital scan, the source material being a 16x12cm glass plate, circa 1890's. A positive was taken from the negative and cropped to remove the untidy edges. Some damage was evident in the form of scratches and fingerprints, which were removed via a layer added for this purpose. The emulsion had deteriorated badly, giving the image a very grainy appearance. Additional layers utilising noise reduction techniques and texture preservation corrected this. Gamma correction was used to fix the mid tones, whilst highlights and shadows were adjusted using curves. Finally, a small amount of sharpening was carried out. The final image shows the spa village of Matlock Bath in its twilight years of the Victorian era.
  2. An early photograph of me, taken when I was around two years old. The original is in my mother's possession and has suffered colour loss and staining. The sweater has some nasty brown staining, not particularly visible in the scan. I cloned samples from unaffected areas onto those damaged. There are many dark spots on my face which I lightly airbrushed over, using colour and tonal samples from 'cleaner' parts of my face. The picture in general has suffered scratching in many places, to both subject and background. These also I airbrushed or cloned out of the image. The original picture is quite grainy but soft and I am not sure if this is intentional or not. My own preference for this kind of subject is to be a little on the soft side, therefore I did not sharpen it in any way. The original has been hand coloured and was typical of early 1960's professional portraiture. It is a wonderful effect and one I wished to preserve in my reproduction. Because of this, I respected the colour balance and overall contrast. The edges of the print are tatty and the card frame it is stuck to is in poor shape. I removed these from the reproduction to tidy up the final image. When reprinted on high quality paper, the result was excellent and good enough to hang on a wall. This image would also make a suitable candidate for a canvass print.
  3. My wife Alison's parents, on their wedding day in 1962. Alison's mum wanted a copy of this picture without any of the people in the background. The original image was a 35mm slide which had been stored well. There was little damage to it, other than small scratches and colour loss, both of which were easy to restore. The real challenge was creating various sections of church wall, after removing the people stood in front. This was especially time consuming in the lower left part of the image. I decided to crop the image severely in this area, which helped balance the subject. I then cloned blocks of stone from various parts of the wall and 're-assembled' them in the void where the people had been removed. The result was quite pleasing and made an excellent print.

In the rush to create new images with latest technology, it is easy to forget those once important pictures gathering dust or decaying away in attics. I think it is important to revisit these from time to time and preserve them not only for personal use, but for future enjoyment. Over the years, I have taken thousands of photographs and slides, the majority of which have never been digitally archived. It is very unlikely I will digitize my entire collection, but I should at least preserve the more important ones, particularly those that are deteriorating like the three examples above. A retirement project methinks…