Digital Restoration from Start to Finish: How to repair old and damaged photographs

Digital Restoration from Start to Finish: How to repair old and damaged photographs

by Ctein

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Digital Restoration: Start to Finish 2nd edition guides you step-by-step through the entire process of restoring old photographs and repairing new ones using Adobe Photoshop, Picture Window, and now Elements. Nothing is left out, from choosing the right hardware and software and getting the photographs into the computer, to getting the finished photo out of the


Digital Restoration: Start to Finish 2nd edition guides you step-by-step through the entire process of restoring old photographs and repairing new ones using Adobe Photoshop, Picture Window, and now Elements. Nothing is left out, from choosing the right hardware and software and getting the photographs into the computer, to getting the finished photo out of the computer and preserving it for posterity.

Scan faded and damaged prints or films
Improve snapshots with Shadow/Highlight adjustment
Correct uneven exposure
Fix color and skin tones quickly with Curves, plug-ins, and Hue/Saturation adjustment layers
Correct uneven exposure and do dodging and burning-in with adjustment layers
Hand-tint your photographs easily
Correct skin tones with airbrush layers
Clean up dust and scratches speedily and effectively
Repair small and large cracks with masks and filters
Eliminate tarnish and silvered-out spots from a photograph in just a few steps
Minimize unwanted print surface textures
Erase mildew spots
Eliminate dots from newspaper photographs
Increase sharpness and fine detailand
Maximize print quality

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[A] top pick.. It tells how to make a range of corrections, how to hand-tint photos, repair problems in lighting, and even erase mildew spots and eliminate pixel problems. A fine specific guide any digital photographer needs!"Midwest Book Review

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Digital Restoration from Start to Finish

By Ctein

Focal Press

Copyright © 2010 Elsevier, Inc.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-08-095863-7

Chapter One

The Big Picture

Where Do You Want to Go Today?

When I sat down to plan this book, I quickly realized that the ideal photo restoration workflow was an elusive and possibly even mythological creature. Oh yes, in the broadest sense there's a clear-cut pattern: Scan the original photograph into your computer, use the image processing program of your choice to correct the defects, print the finished photograph, and archive the restored image's digital file. The organization of this book reflects that flow.

The problem with that facile prescription is that it glosses over the real work that's hidden in the three magic words correct the defects. The majority of this book is about satisfying that modest phrase.

Figuring out how to tackle a restoration job can be challenging, which is why I added a "Quick Diagnosis" guide before this chapter. Look for a photo on those pages that illustrates the restoration task you're tackling. Next to that photo you'll find pointers to the pages in the book where I take on that problem.

Hanging over this discussion is the larger and more serious question of just what it is you're after. Photo restoration covers a lot of territory; goals are situational. For example, are you trying to be historically accurate, or are you aiming for the best art? The answer depends on the job.

So, before diving into photo restoration, think about your situation and contemplate the following questions:

Who are you, and whose expectations matter?

Who are you trying to make happy?

Are you trying to recreate an historically accurate photograph?

How important is the photograph, and how much scrutiny might it be subject to?

Of course, these factors are interrelated, but the answers to these questions provide a framework for organizing your thoughts.

Who Are You, and Whose Expectations Matter?

Are you doing a restoration to please yourself or to please a friend, relative, or client? Are you restoring the photograph as a hobby or favor, or are you doing it professionally?

The difference between a professional and a hobbyist in this case is not one of skill or talent. It's that the professional must satisfy a client whose desires come first. Those needs control the kind of work you do.

Who Are You Trying to Make Happy?

Aunt Sarah and Uncle James will most likely be delighted with anything you do to make that family photo look better (Figure 1-1). Their pleasure is more important than perfection. On the other hand, a professional client who is paying you big bucks for a restoration will likely demand considerably more of your skills.

I've written this book from the point of view of the professional and the perfectionist. When I restore an old photo, I like feeling as though I've waved a magic wand that perfectly and invisibly undid the ravages of age. If I can take it one step further and make that photograph into something that's even nicer than the original (Figure 1-2), it's even better still. Making "the best of all possible prints" from the damaged photograph is what makes me happy.

If you master all the techniques I present in this book, I guarantee you'll be able to do restorations that will please just about anyone. But you may not want or need to go to the extremes I do. Don't slavishly follow my goals. Figure out what will satisfy you in a restoration, and aim for that. I may take a restoration job from A to Z, but you might feel that stopping at K is entirely satisfactory.

My obsession shouldn't drive you. It's possible to spend unlimited amounts of time playing with a digital photograph, trying to make it absolutely pixel-perfect. If that's what tickles your fancy (it does mine), that's great. But if you're doing professional restorations for clients, they're not going to want to spend unlimited amounts of money, and you have to know when to call it quits. And if you're doing restoration for your own enjoyment, never, ever forget that it's about having fun. If you reach the point where following still one more recommendation of mine feels more like work than play, then don't do it! You can achieve good restorations without it.

Are You Trying to Recreate an Historically Accurate Photograph?

If so, it's of paramount importance not to introduce any extraneous detail that wasn't there or to remove any significant detail from the photograph. That can severely restrict the kinds of gross repairs you can do, especially if entire pieces of the photograph are missing.

In Figure 1-3 no important information would be lost or altered by cropping the photograph or cloning in the lawn to fill in the missing areas. Figure 1-4 is another matter; there's no way to repair the two figures on the right to accurately show what they're doing or even who the rightmost man is. Artistically, we have a free hand in restoring this photograph; historically, most definitely not.

More subtly, does the photo need to be technically accurate? That will rarely be the case, but when I restored this astronomical plate (Figure 1-5) I had to decide whether I wanted a photograph that looked good or one that remained astronomically accurate. I went for "looking good" and invisibly repaired cracks and gaps, with bits of the star field brought in from intact parts of the plate. Consequently, the "restored" image contains a certain number of stars that don't actually exist! Well, it's my photograph, so it's my call. Were I doing this repair for an astronomer or a scientific collection, I would not do that!

If the restoration requires accuracy, you'll need to know something about what photographs of that type are supposed to look like. James Reilly's book, Care and Identification of 19th-Century Photographic Prints (recommended in the introduction), is a fine reference up through the early part of the 20th century. I don't know of any comparable book for modern color images, so be prepared to do some research on what the color photograph is supposed to look like if you're asked to do an accurate restoration.

Most of the time your goal will be artistic—to make the best restoration you can that looks good. This brings me to my next question for you.

How Important Is the Photograph, and How Much Scrutiny Might It Be Subject To?

The ordinary family photograph that Aunt Sarah and Uncle James proudly placed on their mantle is not going to be closely examined or subject to critical analysis. You can take many liberties in your restoration as long as you remain true to the spirit of the photograph. Slight carelessness in technique will never be noticed.

On the other hand, photographs of historic events or famous personages, as in Figure 1-6, may receive closer examination by future viewers. Minor details matter to the historian; for example, a missing button or frayed collar may tell them something about the financial state of the subject when the photograph was made. Historians look at time sequences of famous personages to gauge their health and guess what effect the strains and joys of life and work could have had on them. Even modest cosmetic retouching of the sort you would do to any ordinary portrait to make the person slightly more attractive can have the effect of distorting history.

How Big Will the Restoration Be?

Most restorations are the same size as the originals or only modestly enlarged. You're not likely to need to make repairs down to the single-pixel level of detail. The more the original photograph is to be magnified in the final print, however, the more detailed and extensive your work has to be, because flaws and unrepaired damage that would never be noticed in a life-sized reproduction will be obvious in a 3 x enlargement.

These questions are not a quiz. You're not going to be graded on your responses. These are only questions to think about before you embark on a new restoration. They'll help you frame the problem in your head as you contemplate the central matter: What restoration challenges will you face?

The Art (and Craft) of Restoration

Most of the work I do to restore photographs falls into one of the following five categories:

Restoring tone

Restoring color

Fine-detail repairs and cleanup

Major damage repairs

Repairing uneven damage

Restoring Tone

Photographs in need of restoration usually don't have very good tonality. Fading and staining will wash out blacks and make whites dingy and dark. A severely faded photograph will have a very narrow tonal range. A big part of restoration is expanding that compressed set of tones back to its original natural brilliance.

You can accomplish a lot simply by making a good scan of the photograph, and I've devoted Chapter 4, "Getting the Photo into the Computer," to that subject. As you'll discover, the process requires some care and attention to detail, but it's a pretty cut-and-dried one.

Beyond merely getting an acceptable tonal range from black to white, one must refine the tonal placement within the photograph so that the highlights have their sparkle, shadow detail is brought out, and overall the print conveys the feeling of a fresh, new photograph. This is where the art and your talent and skill come in. The Curves tools in your software program are powerful tools for achieving great tonality, and once you master them you'll use them a lot. They're not the only tricks in the bag, though. The Shadow/Highlight adjustment in Photoshop and dodging and burn-in adjustment layers (see Chapter 5, "Restoring Tone") go way beyond simple Curves in their power. In addition, there are some third-party plug-ins (Chapter 3) and specialized techniques (Chapter 10) that go further still in letting you control tone and color rendition.

Restoring Color

Both B&W and color photographs need their color restored. Some B&W photographs will come to you with a pristine, neutral image, but in most of them, what was originally black and white may now be brown and white, brown and yellow, or even dark brown and not-so-dark brown. Part of the restoration job is getting that photograph back to its original hue. Not all photographs started out as true B&W; many of them were sepia or brown in color. Still, it's a pretty safe bet that the deteriorated photo doesn't have the color it did originally.

Color photographs (prints, slides, and negatives) almost always need color restoration. That's by far the most common reason someone will ask to have a color photograph restored. Only occasionally does one turn up where the color is just fine and there's just physical damage.

Just as with B&W photos, a good scan helps a lot; it's a necessary prerequisite to doing good color restoration. Occasionally a scan will accomplish most of the color restoration all by itself, as Figure 1-1 illustrates (I demonstrate this in the online examples at Most of the time, unfortunately, a good scan will provide the raw data I need but no more than that.

Curves are my constant companion, just as they are for restoring tones, but they're by no means the only tools I depend on for restoring color. Hue and saturation controls are very important; I also make heavy use of specialized plug-ins such as Digital ROC.

Fine-Detail Repairs and Cleanup

Old photos invariably need to be cleaned up. They will be dirty and scratched and have fine cracks or crazed surfaces or annoying textures. Every photo you restore will have one or more of these defects to some degree.

This kind of fine-structure repair often consumes the majority of the time I spend on a restoration. Much like picking up litter, it's not intellectually or artistically stimulating, and it's tedious to do, but the landscape looks a lot nicer when I'm done. My way of dealing with this task is to put on some music so I don't get too bored by the repetitive activity and so I can relax and go at it.

I cover many tools in Chapter 8, "Damage Control," that make this work go faster. The right filters and plug-ins attack the noise and "litter" more than the photographic image I'm trying to recover. I have a collection of masking tricks that select for the garbage, so I can work on it more aggressively (and quickly) without messing up the rest of the photograph. All these tools aid the repair efforts, but they're not a replacement for close-in, pixel-by-pixel adjustments. They just make my efforts much more efficient.

Cleanup work is often highly repetitive. For that reason I try not to dwell on it; it's sufficient to tell you, "I painted over the scratches with such-and-such a filter with these settings." That tells you everything you need to know about how I did that bit of repair work. This glosses over the extremely important fact that executing that one cleanup step may have taken more time than all the other stages of the restoration.

Major Damage Repairs

Now I'm talking about the big stuff like tears, missing emulsion, and photos that are in pieces. These types of repairs require very different tools and approaches than the fine-structure cleanup I just talked about. The damaged or obliterated areas are going to be larger than much of the fine detail in the photograph, so I cannot use mechanical fill-in and erasure tools.

Repairing these problems always requires some degree of recreation of detail. Sometimes it's as easy as cloning in material from the surrounding area, as in Figure 1-3. Automated patching tools such as Image Doctor or healing brushes in Photoshop are a big help to me. Often, though, these repairs require serious retouching and illustration creation skills. I'll be honest and admit that major retouching of this type is what I'm worst at. That's a big reason why I recommend Katrin Eismann's book, Photoshop Restoration & Retouching, because she is so good at doing that.

Repairing Uneven Damage

I use the same tools for fixing streaks and stains in a print or tarnished and bleached spots that I use for correcting tone and color overall. The difference is that I have to fix those areas of the photograph separately from the rest. One way to do that is with history brushes or cloning between versions, to paint in the corrections just where I want them. A more powerful way to do it, when I can, is to create a special selection or mask that contains only the differently damaged areas.

You'll find that masking crops up a lot in my solutions to restoration problems. That's why I give over all of Chapter 7 to masking techniques. Masking doesn't let you do much that you couldn't do by hand, but a good mask can save you most of that handwork by automatically placing the corrections where you want them and preventing them from leaking over into other parts of the photograph. Masks are also key to effectively combining layers, both image and adjustment, with the original photograph.

Fooling Around

Figuring out exactly how I'll repair a particular photo is, intellectually, by far the toughest part of the job. Making the corrections can take me a lot of time and work, anywhere from an hour to a day or more, but that part of it doesn't strain my brain. Mapping out the strategy that will get me from A (lousy image) to Z (great photograph) is the tricky bit.

The very first thing I do when I get a new restoration job is to play with it. I scan in a small version of the photograph. It can either be a low-resolution image or a high-resolution scan of a small portion of the entire photograph; often I do one of each. What I'm after is a small file size, so that I can get it into the computer and mess around with it quickly.

These first scans give me the lay of the land, to figure out just what I have to work with and how far I might be able to take it. Many of the photographs I restore come to me as unintelligible (and sometimes nearly blank) pieces of paper, like Figure 1-7. I simply can't tell by looking at such photographs with the naked eye how much photographic information is hidden in that tabula rasa, let alone how I might fix it.

Even after years of experience, I am frequently surprised by what's possible. I've learned not to tell clients whether I can give them a good restoration based on my visual examination of the photograph. Too often I'm wrong; I underestimate how much quality photographic data is buried in that seemingly hopeless piece of paper or film and how much my hardware and software and skill can mine it.


Excerpted from Digital Restoration from Start to Finish by Ctein Copyright © 2010 by Elsevier, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Focal Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Ctein is a photographer and artist living in Daly City, CA. He is a photographer, artist and contributor to The Online Photographer and co-author of the bestselling thriller Saturn Run.

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