Digitizing and restoring old photos

adamhiram

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After being stuck at home for more than 10 months, I finally got around to a project I have been putting off for a long time - digitizing and restoring old photos, specifically those that are in poor condition and came with additional challenges. All of these prints are at least 40 years old, and many were displayed in frames that were exposed to sunlight and other conditions that were not ideal for preserving them. I am sharing the techniques I used along with before-and-after images, both to help others looking to do the same, as well as hopefully learn some new methods I can use to improve the results of these and other images.

There are the steps I followed to get the results below.
  1. Capture the image. I built a copy setup to use my digital camera to capture the highest quality of these old prints. This gave better results than a scanner, as it allowed me to capture prints of almost any size, as well as change the angle and direction of light as needed. Most of these were captured at 85mm or 135mm at f/8. For additional information on this setup, check out this thread.
  2. Capture additional angles. For any prints on textured paper or any significant damage, capturing multiple images to stack while rotating the print makes it easier to reduce or eliminate the texture in postprocessing. This is because the highlights and shadow of each bump will be in a different place in each capture, providing more data to work with. I typically photograph with the print straight, then rotate it 10-15 degrees in each direction, then rotate the print and camera 90 degrees and repeat. Depending on the print, I will take between 6-10 captures.
  3. Adjust the white balance. After bringing the images into Lightroom, I like to start with a consistent white balance, even if it has to be adjusted later as part of color corrections. This is especially important when stacking multiple shots of the same print. I took a test shot with a white card (styrofoam plate) to get the correct white balance and set all images to use this setting.
  4. Eliminate or reduce texture in the print. I don't know why, but it seems like every photo from the 60s and 70s was printed on textured paper, which never scans well. Sometimes I wonder if I am making the same mistake when I order prints on luster paper (or coating), but that's another discussion. This method combines two techniques I've used before. In travel or landscape photography, I have used Photo Merge to combine multiple images of the same subject to remove undesired subjects from the scene (such as people). For nighttime starscapes and moon photography, I have used stacking and blend modes to increase sharpness and reduce noise. Both of those techniques seemed appropriate for this application and I think produced decent results. As a side note, I have tried other methods of reducing texture, including high pass filters and even FFT (fast Fourier transform) analysis, and the results were almost always worse, and often resulted in a blurred image to mask the texture.
    1. Open all captures of the same print in Photoshop as layers. Select all layers and use Edit > Auto Align to get them precisely aligned with each other. Sometimes I will need to rotate and crop the image and re-align them again to ensure they are aligned properly. It is important to confirm this layer by layer, since one misaligned layer can ruin the final image.
    2. Select all layers again and convert to Smart Object. Then select Layer > Smart Object > Stacking Mode > Median. The result should be a less noticeable texture in the image.
  5. Clean up the image. From here, I will create a new layer and spend some time with the spot healing brush. I like to do this step before any other postprocessing so if I want to go back and redo anything, I don't have to clean up the image all over again. This step is mostly to get rid of dust and dirt, scratches, and other debris or damage that may be in the original print.
  6. Duplicate and merge layers. Next, I will duplicate these layers and merge the copies into a new working layer. There's probably a better way to do this with smart objects, but this was a simple way to continue processing in a non-destructive way.
  7. Color correction. I have experimented with lots of different methods for recovering colors and contrast, and none of them seem to do a better job than Image > Auto Tone, Image > Auto Color, and various combinations of the two. Sometimes one of them produces near-perfect results, while other times you get what you get. I found that doing a layer with each correction and changing the opacity of the top layer can sometimes help too. I just go with whichever looks best.
  8. Finish processing in Lightroom. Lastly, I bring it back into Lightroom to finish processing. Any tweaks to white balance and tint can be done here, including adjustments in the HSL panel to correct any obvious color casts. I tend to not touch contrast until the end - sometimes a little more is nice, other times it may need to be reduced depending on how auto color/tone processed the image. Often I need to pull back on highlights to reveal a bit more detail, and the dehaze tool can be helpful in enhancing some of the colors, but also seems to require a slight boost to shadows to counter the darkening that results.
That's about it. Some of these turned out well, while others are beyond my skills. I included some examples below, and am always open to suggestions for improvement, and new techniques that may yield better results.

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I am very happy with how this one came out. The paper had no texture, and the original seems to have held up pretty well. I was able to recover the colors pretty easily and didn't have a lot of dirt or damage to clean up.

DSC_1581-compare
by adamhiram, on Flickr

I think this one came out pretty good as well. If you zoom in, you can see that this print had some texture to it that I had to correct for, and the colors were a bit faded, albeit still recoverable.

DSC_1637-compare
by adamhiram, on Flickr

This one included additional challenges. The paper was textured and had quite a bit of damage, the colors were quite faded, and it is pretty clear this was displayed with an oval matting. My method of removing texture worked quite well here, the damage was fairly simple to repair with the spot healing brush, and the colors were pretty recoverable. However I was not really sure how to correct for the oval matting without making it look worse. For now, I think this is as good as it will get.

DSC_1567-compare
by adamhiram, on Flickr

I included this one because 0f a slightly different challenge it presented. This has been hanging on a wall in direct sunlight for close to 50 years, so the fact that it held up this well was pretty amazing. The print had a lot of texture that I was able to improve but not fully remove, and I was still able to recover quite a bit of the original color. However a lot of the contrast was gone, making it very difficult to recover a lot of the shadow detail, such as in the black suit.

DSC_1555-compare
by adamhiram, on Flickr

Now we're starting to get to some prints that were beyond my ability to fully restore. This print was heavily textured, extremely faded with colors I couldn't recover, quite a bit of physical damage to the paper itself, and was clearly in a frame with a rectangular mat. I was able to bring back the contrast and improve the colors, but I wasn't sure if it was just too far gone to recover better color detail, or if a more advanced technique was needed. Again, spot healing brush did the trick to repair most of the damage, and I could probably utilize Content Aware Fill to fix the edges if I so chose.

DSC_1596-compare
by adamhiram, on Flickr

Lastly, I wanted to share this photo that had it all. Heavily textured, extremely faded, unrecoverable colors, oval matting that cuts across the subjects, and a lot of dust and dirt to physically clean off before even capturing digitally. I did my best with this one, but unfortunately didn't have much to work with.

DSC_1585-compare
by adamhiram, on Flickr

Thank you for reading this far, and any feedback or suggestions are welcome!
 
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mountainjunkie

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I’ll have to read your narrative in more detail later but just looking at the results is pretty impressive. Very well done imo!
 

Space Face

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All looks like good work to me. Quite a satisfying undertaking I'd imagine.
 

jcdeboever

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Well done. A lot of useful direction.
 

smoke665

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As always an informative and useful write up. I've been working in spurts to digitize and sort boxes and boxes of slides and prints. Some of the prints are over a 100 yrs old. One interesting thing noted is that the prints prior to the 70's/80's seem to have held up better than those after. Most of the studio B&Ws from the late 1800s on have held up remarkably well. Side longevity seems to be hit or miss, possibly a result of different labs being used for processing.
 
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adamhiram

adamhiram

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One interesting thing noted is that the prints prior to the 70's/80's seem to have held up better than those after.
I found the same thing, although the cutoff that I observed seemed to be sometime in the mid-1960s. Interestingly, this coincides with the expansion of Fotomats and similar services, which might account for the drop in quality of the non-professional prints. The prints that came from professional studios in the 1970s and 1980s held up very well and were easy to restore, but the ones from budget studios or from consumer products and services definitely did not stand the test of time. The ones that are the most fascinating to me are the black and white prints that were colorized by hand, particularly the ones where the color is no longer visible until it comes out during postprocessing.
 

Original katomi

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Having looked at the restoration work you have done, I think that you have achieved some amazing results
Where there were frames and it’s left shadows I don’t think it’s even worth trying to alter, its part of the original you have the main image recovered.
 

crf8

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I have read portions of both posts. The textured paper used in the 1970 s was to keep fingerprints from being visible after you passed around prints to a group of people. More comments later, great job!


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smoke665

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I found the same thing, although the cutoff that I observed seemed to be sometime in the mid-1960s. Interestingly, this coincides with the expansion of Fotomats and similar services, which might account for the drop in quality

I didn't notice it so much during the 60-70's because I was shooting mainly B&W and doing all of my own processing. Those seem to have held up well. I suspect you're right about the quality of the developing by the commercial "quick processing" places that sprang up back then.
 

webestang64

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As someone who does this professionally you did a good job.
Most of the reason prints from the 60s through the early 80's faded so badly was labs were using a chemical process called EP-2, which was not very stable. When labs went to the then new RA-4 the longevity of prints was greater. And oh yes, the textured prints, very popular in those days. Sometimes shooting them in a studio with polarized lights and lens it can help reduce the "reflections" from the tiny texture.
 

rosess

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Whatever you have published so far, your dissertation is quite interesting. Moreover, it is a significant effort of manual editing. Yeah, I have used Photoshop to do several things. The software will restore the fading colors and renew the expired regions. But I'll have to read your review more depth, and I should try them all.
 

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