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The Art & Science of Restoring Old Photographs (it's mostly art)

It's weird to think, for most of humans' time on earth, there was no photographic historical record. Knowledge of our ancestry were just stories and maybe some old letters. The ability to see images of past weddings, photos of ourselves as children, our changing home towns, and of our long passed loved ones has only been a reality for the average American for the last 100 years or so. It's easy to have thought those memories preserved in dyes on fragile photo paper would last forever but our family photographs are fading away as you are reading this.

Photo from the early 1970's required extensive color correction

"So what causes my photos to fade?"

In the 1960's and 70s the dyes that composed most color prints were similar to food coloring. These dyes are sensitive to light and heat and certain hues will fade faster than others, usually the blues first, then the greens, leaving only the red colors behind. If your old prints were exposed to tobacco smoke they could have developed further discoloration and humidity will make them stick to one another which once pulled apart, leaves little torn white spots behind. Exposure to other papers in old albums and scrap books can lead to further degradation as those pages have a higher acid content which causes chemical reactions to eat away at the pigments. There are so many other factors that have contributed to your photos looking dull and dingy, but mostly it's just time taking it's toll on them as your old color prints were never expected to last longer than a decade. Remember that in the 1950's the majority of amateur photos were black and white and color film and processing was a relatively new technology for consumer grade cameras back then.

This photo from the early 1960s was very small and lacked sharp details

"Is it too late to save my old family photos?"

The sooner you take action, the better. The first thing you need to do is get your old photos out of the heat of the attic or out of the damp basement and store them inside in a cool, dry, dark climate controlled space. If your photos are in old albums, remove them and place them into newer albums that use acid-free paper or put them in acid-free paper or envelopes available at photography or craft stores. Do you have a favorite old family photo in a frame on the wall or on the mantle that receives daily doses of sunlight? Those UV rays are also destroying your photograph causing it to fade. Ask your local framing store about Ultra Violet protected glass frames. Or maybe consider making new copies of your old cherished photo and save the original.

Human input is integral to this restoration. Having knowledge of the proper color for the subject, the vehicles, and the background lends to a bright and clean modern appearing image.

"What is photo restoration?"

Today, restoring a photograph doesn't mean that your actual print is cleaned and physically corrected. In fact, your original photo is completely unaffected by modern restoration processes. The steps required all happen digitally. Your old photo is scanned with a high resolution photo scanner then edited on a computer to remove spots and damage and then color corrected to restore the vibrancy, contrast, and saturation your photo once possessed. Then the image is run through a series of digital filters that sharpen edges and remove aberrations. Lastly, sophisticated new Artificial Intelligence applications are employed to further define facial features and rebuild tiny details that had once existed in your photographs. These newly restored images are then uploaded to an online server for you to access and download. Your original images are returned to you, unharmed.

Advanced Artificial Intelligence is utilized to return details to old blurry images. This is actually a cropped version of the above photograph!

"Is it possible to do D.I.Y. restorations?"

Yes, it's possible to restore your own photographs! There are even apps that let you capture and correct images on your smartphone and some even employ advanced A.I. to enhance facial features. Keep in mind that your phone's camera, no matter how good, is no match for a quality flatbed photo scanner and those neat apps can carry a hefty subscription fee...some as high as $75 per month! So read the fine print! Also, those apps lack lack in some features and aren't going to recognize that grass should be green or discern the difference between the sky and the ocean. The app's A.I. might even distort facial features or even add an extra eyeball! These hand-held high-tech approaches are pretty neat to try...but they can be a costly experiment and are not likely give you the results they advertise.

Often damaged photos can be repaired and details brought back to faces with the implimentation of high powered computers and advanced software...but it's mostly a photographer's eye that makes all the difference.

"After my photos are digitally restored...then what?"

Once you've received your restored digital copy the next step is to share it with your friends and family! Post these newly rediscovered images on Facebook and email them your relatives. Marvel in seeing the fabric of you're mom's wedding dress, revel in the bright optimism of the your young grandfather in uniform, soak in the background details of an old house or car that you haven't seen in years. Your newly restored images not only look brighter, cleaner, crisper and more colorful, they're also enlarged now revealing things you've never noticed before! Now it's time to make some new prints. Many drugstores like Walgreens offer photo printing services where you can upload your images to their website, choose a location near you (or near a family member) and then select the size of the print and how many you want and in a few days you'll have new physical glossy printed photos and you'll have preserved those moments for many more decades to come.

In a few short years this moment would only exist as a dull, color-less and faded image without having been preserved and digitally enhanced.

With each passing day, your old photos fade a little bit more. Go get that old box of photos on the shelf in your closet and start the journey to save your family's past for future generations. Feel free to reach out to me if you are interested in learning more about digital photo restorations. Email me by clicking the big red button below.

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