new life for old photos

Last week, I wrote a little about the photo restoration project that I’m currently working on. The photos are part of a collection of old family photo albums and other memorabilia. The above is a section of a photo of my mom’s mother (click on it for a larger view). I believe the photo was probably taken sometime before 1915. On the left is a scan of the original image using the 600 dpi setting of a recently purchased Epson Perfection 4490 Photo scanner. On the right, is the same section after I’ve done some repair work using the Adobe Elements 2.0, a digital image processing program.

For most repairs, I use the “Clone” tool to sample immediately adjacent areas of the photo and clone them over damaged portions. I try to be judicious in how I use cloning as I don’t want to do so much restoration that the person ends up looking like someone else. That’s very easy to do if you get a little carried away. Sometimes, I do a couple of stamps with the cloning tool and decide “uh-uhn… doesn’t look right anymore” and I back up a couple of steps to remove the repairs. The other thing I do is play around with the Brightness and Contrast controls. A lot of old photos are too contrasty and could use a bit of lightening. Others are badly faded and can benefit from being darkened a little, or adding a bit of contrast. Really badly damaged photos that have a bad crease or tear across the face can be quite challenging, but if you are a bit artistic, you can usually improve the image quite a bit — as in the above photo.

So far, I think I’ve finished about 60 photos — a few of them quite badly damaged. It’s rather time consuming, but I like the idea of getting these photos up where they can be shared with family members. Last week, I emailed a few of my cousins to let them know about this project and give them the URL to the gallery where I’m posting each image as it’s finished. I’ve had some great feedback so far. Everyone seems very happy to see these images. I’ve encouraged others in the family to see if they have some old photos that they could add to the collection. I’m hoping that they will.

I’ve also been working on a new website to store and display other family history materials such as memoirs, news items and the like. It’s coming along well. I’ve used a blog format to build the site, which makes it very easy for me to add new material as it comes along. I have quite a bit about my grandfather’s hockey career as he played professionally from 1895 to 1913. It’s nice to get this kind of stuff together now. The longer you leave these kinds of things, the more likely it is that they’ll be lost.

Anyhow, this is what I’ve been working on while waiting for the weather to warm up. Daytime temperatures are finally getting close to 0C (32F), so it won’t be too much longer until I can spend more of my days outdoors. So, in other words, I’d better hurry up with this project so that it doesn’t get pushed to the side for yet another year.

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17 Responses to “new life for old photos”

  1. robin andrea Says:

    The clone tool is an old photograph’s best friend! It really does restore what time and damage has worn away. Your use is very beautifully done, and definitely gives new life to old pics.

  2. Mark Says:

    As is often the case, I find your posts inspire me to at least think about doing something. I currently have some WW II-era pictures of my father in uniform as some of my desktop images. The original prints are in pretty bad shape, but I haven’t tried cleaning the scans yet. One more thing gets added to my to-do list.

  3. Mark Says:

    And, by the way, I like that picture. The old prints are like windows into the past where you can, if you look carefully, sometimes get a glimpse of the true person – that sweet smile, the extended index finger and the other gently curved fingers. Especially in your modified print, I can almost see your grandmother rising and speaking to us.

  4. tara Says:

    wow! great work! Now you’ve given me a new project — I have been the archivist for our family photos, and I love photoshop. Isn’t it amazing the feeling of connection one gets from pouring over old family photos? I get the sense of the river that flows on and on…didn’t start with me, won’t end with me….

  5. burning silo Says:

    robin – thanks! Yes, the clone tool is really the best to work with. I like how it matches both colour and texture. You just can’t do that with the various paint tools.

    Mark – Well, I do hope you will feel inspired to do something with your old photograph collection. The main advice I would give is to start with a good scan. 300 dpi is good, but 600 dpi makes it possible to blow the photos up very large to do the repair work. I do some repairs and then shrink the images down to check them, and then proceed. If your end use is going to be on the net or for something like the desktop on your computer, you don’t need to be quite so exacting. If you want to print them, then I’d work with high rez scans and save at high rez. I did a half dozen photos for my mom last year — ones printed as 5x7s from those tiny old photos that are usually about 2×3 inches. I had them printed by the photo lab that does my large nature photo prints and they turned out just wonderful. The nice thing about it was that my Mom could put them up if she liked and not have to worry about them fading. She had a bunch of old photos framed and up on the wall, and even in a dim part of the house, they did fade over time. Better to let the reprints do the fading!
    Also liked what you said about the photos being like windows into the past. That’s what I’ve been finding too. Many of these photos are, as mentioned, very small. You don’t get much sense of the person from them. However, when they are scanned and up on the screen, they look incredibly different — they spring to life. It’s really quite a thing. One more reason to get these old photos up where we can enjoy them!

    tara – thanks! Yes, get out those old photos and do some tweaking or restoration work. I love working with these images. As mentioned above to Mark, they are so very different once they’re up on the computer screen. I agree about the sense of the river that flows on and on. It’s nice to use this time and the technology we now have to help keep the river flowing along so that the younger generation can connect with some of the previous ones.

  6. am Says:

    Through Internet research in recent years, I discovered that some of my mother’s ancestors lived in Innisfil Township, just south of Barrie, Ontario, in the 1840s. Also, I have a 1937 photo of my grandfather, taken not too long after my grandmother died. The photo was taken while he was visiting with some of my grandmother’s family who were then living in Sault Ste. Marie. I love seeing your old family photos. Thanks, Bev!

  7. Leslie Says:

    I, too, enjoy old family photos and stories. If you still have any grandparents living, sit down with them, open one of their old photo albums, turn on a tape recorder, and let the reminiscences and stories start flowing. I did this one cold afternoon with my Grandma and it’s amazing all the little stories she told in just a couple of hours. Really brought those long departed ancestors and their way of life back and made them real and vibrant.

  8. Ruth Says:

    Your grandmother is beautiful. And it looks like she enjoyed the outdoors too. What a nice picture compared to the standard stiff studio shots of the day.

  9. Cathy Says:

    I agree with Ruth – your grandmother is beautiful. Beyond being so physically striking, she projects an air of confident ease. Going to your gallery I was struck by the attractive vitality of the entire family. They seem so happy. It’s a lovely gift you’re presenting to your relatives. This is a wonderful process for polishing up and preserving the past.

  10. John Says:

    This is fascinating, Bev, and like others I am finding myself thinking about doing a bit of family photo restoration. While glancing through the photos, I kept looking at one of the people in the subject and wondering if she is your mother…I think the woman in the photos is Marian? She looks, to me, very much like your photo in your “About” page. And I admire your Adobe Elements skills…I have Adobe Photoshop software, but not the talent to make it cooperate with me.

  11. burning silo Says:

    am – The internet is certainly making it easier to do genealogy research. As more people get around to putting their reserach online, it will probably get even better. You’re lucky to have the 1937 photo of your grandfather. I always think it’s great if there is even one photo of someone. It makes it easier to imagine what they were like.

    Leslie – I’m sorry that we didn’t do that a long time ago. Unfortunately, most of the family has passed away, so I’m assembling most of this from the photos, some memoirs that were recorded, and old newspaper clippings. But that’s a very good reminder to everyone reading this to get busy and make recordings, write down memoirs, etc.. — and not just of grandparents but parents and ourselves. That’s what I’m hoping to do with the website that I set up… add all kinds of accounts from anyone in the family who wants to write up a memoir or even a short piece on something they would like to share with others.

    Ruth – Luckily, I did get to know my Mom’s mother and she was a lovely person and had a wonderful smile. She used to spend summers in the cottage beside our family cottage on the Ottawa River, so I would see her every day for several summers until I was about 11 or so. I’m going to be writing up a piece about her for the family website, so I’ll probably post it here when I get around to it (hopefully soon).

    Cathy – Yes, my grandmother was a very confident and capable person. She knew so much about many things – she used to work as a bookkeeper before she got married, but then switched gears and raised a family along the St, Lawrence River, catching fish, milking a cow, and doing many other practical things. She was also very interested in nature and learned a lot about medicinal plants – probably mainly from some native families that lived along that section of the river as they used to visit her in summer. All of my Mom’s family were real outdoors people.

    John – I hope you do get our your family photos and at least get them scanned and saved in a digital format. The restoration can then be done as you have time, but at least the photos are all together. Yes, my mom is Marian. A lot of people see the resemblance, although I also look very much like my dad. Regarding Photoshop and Elements – they’re both programs that take time to learn. As I do so much nature photography, I’ve spend hundreds of hours editing photos, so I can work quite quickly with just about any of the photo editing or graphics programs now. Photo restoration is a whole other branch of editing and seems more like art to me. It’s challenging, but also fun to figure out ways of repairing seriously damaged photos. I’ve learned quite a lot just in the past few days!

  12. Wayne Says:

    That’s a fantastic job on restoration, Bev. I’ve a number of scans that I’ll send you for restoration! :-)

    Seriously, I have accumulated from my father similar sorts of things, and yet I hadn’t even thought of restoring them. Some are bleached out, and some show that the photographs were damaged or creased. For whatever reason, I had this knee-jerk feeling that they should be left as is, but why should they if restoration can be done without introducing unfaithful character?

    I’ll probably wait until it’s too hot to go outside during the day, which is the inverse of your schedule. That would be along about midsummer, a fine project to occupy the searing hours.

    Do you see a resemblance in your grandmother? She looks like she’d have been right at home hiking along with you and Don.

  13. burning silo Says:

    Wayne – Thanks! I was wondering when the first person would say, “Hey, those look good, can I send you some of mine?!” (-:
    Regarding restoration, I shared some of that feeling about “not restoring”, but the nice thing about digital restoration is that you still have your nice faded, scatched, beaten up original, but also a nice restored digital version to look at on your computer, or printed and displayed on the wall. As mentioned to Mark up above, I should have done this some time ago as some original prints that were in frames at my Mom’s house, have faded quite noticeably over just a few years. She has since removed them, but we could make new prints and put them up instead if we felt like it. Anyhow, I think you can be as conservative as you like when restoring — fixing rips, etc. If you want, you can go a little further. For example, in a family portrait, there was a small piece of the print torn away right on one person’s eye. I cloned the other eye, reversed it, and pasted it onto that spot to replace the eye. I don’t have a problem with that kind of thing. Some of our prints have some ink writing on top of them, so I like to get rid of that too. Some are stained badly, so I fix those when I can. What the heck… all of these damages weren’t part of the “original” picture, so why not try to get them back to being as close to the way they were — especially as we’re just altering the digital copy of the original. Seems like a great project for you this summer!
    Yes, there is quite a bit of resemblance to my grandmother, but I also very much resemble my dad’s mother – photos I’ve seen of her when she was young. An interesting thing about my parents is that some people used to meet them and think they were brother and sister, so it’s probably not that odd that people say I look a lot like one or the other. I definitely have my Dad’s smile. At my Dad’s funeral, some of his friends who hadn’t seen me since I was 4 or 5 years old, came right up to me in the room full of people and said they knew me right away from my smile as it is just like my Dad’s (kind of a nice thing to have in common, actually). As for my grandmother, I’m going to write a post about her later this week after I get a few more photos fixed up. She loved the outdoors and was a very knowledgeable naturalist, and when at the cottage in summer, she loved to begin her day with a long walk before and just after dawn. However, for this morning, I have to get back to working on a post about snakes! (-:

  14. Wayne Says:

    Bev – I hunt for resemblances in the photos I have of my great grandparents and grandaunts and uncles, but don’t particularly see them. Looking into the next generation, particularly one of my nephews, I don’t see the resemblances there either. Leaving aside the scurrilous speculations, I think I just don’t have a very good eye for human resemblance.

    Yes, the good thing is that the original photo is left untouched and so that points to my reluctance to photoshop photos as largely irrational. I must put that on the agenda, as I have a feeling that it won’t get done otherwise.

    I’m viewing those garter snakes in the next post with great envy. My childhood was filled with the desire to have garter snakes, and even now I don’t see them. What we got were DeKay’s snakes. They were marvelous little fellers, and utterly entertaining, but a quantum drop below my expectations as a kid. Still, my little captives did thrive on snails, earthworms, and slugs. Oddly, they’re still the number one snake that I find these days. It appears that little brown snakes will preempt garter snakes for the rest of my life.

  15. burning silo Says:

    Wayne – Family resemblances are an odd thing in any case. Some large families exhibit such a diversity in appearances between members, that you have to wonder just how much such things as facial features pass between generations. I’m more inclined to think that interests are almost a better indicator, although not always in that case either. In my own case, both sides of my family were very attracted to spending time on or around the water. As a teenager, my dad’s father took off with a friend in small sailing skiff and got in big trouble for spending a whole day sailing somewher off the shores of the Isle of Man where he grew up. His family were all active in the herring fishery there. My dad had a sailboat for many years too and loved to spend summers on the Ottawa River. Meanwhile, my dad’s mother’s family sailed to all parts of the world out of Liverpool. On my mom’s side of the family, several of her brothers were in the merchant marine or served in the navy during WWII. Her family grew up on the edge of the St. Lawrence River and boats and fishing were part of their way of life. Many of the cousins on my mom’s side of the family spend their time off in boats and/or fishing. I’m very at home in a canoe, or swimming around in a river like an otter, so I probably inherited that same love for water. I think most people can learn to like the water, but I think there’s a whole other level of feeling “at home” in the water and that seems to be present in both sides of my family. It’s all interesting stuff to contemplate.
    I’m sorry to hear that you don’t see Garter Snakes around there. Are they present in your range and you’re just not seeing them? I must check into that. They really are quite lovely snakes. Don didn’t think so when we first moved here as he (possibly inherited!) a dislike for snakes from his dad, but he has since converted to being a snake fan.

  16. Wayne Says:

    Bev – my nephew and I have actually talked a bit about sharing a quarter of our genome. But he’s right-brained, and I’m left-brained, or so we’re told, just to make what amounts to a pop-psy observation. As you might suspect, we both go beyond that and neither of us is very respectful of authority. Chromosome 15? Chromosome 7?

    We do have garter snakes around here, and for whatever reason I just don’t see them. And yes, they are beautifully stiped, and to think that their gentle personalities match their beauty!

    I sometimes wonder if the reason I don’t see the riot of birds that others see, and snakes too, in particualr, is because I live in a relatively wild environment, where larger vertebrate animals are free to do what they normally do when they hear me coming – hide. That’s in contrast to an urban environment where they might like to hide, but cannot, and so they are seen.

  17. burning silo Says:

    and neither of us is very respectful of authority.

    Ha! Are you my long lost brother?? (-:

    I don’t know about the wild environment vs. urban environment. I’ve considered that as well. I know that some birds can become very accustomed to human activity and ignore it after awhile. Also, many birds can be approached in a vehicle, but if you’re on foot… poof…they are gone. Same goes for mammals. We find snakes in very wild places, but we find them as much by sound as by sight. People laugh when I tell them that, but both of us usually notice the sound of a snake moving through leaf mulch before we see it. If we hear the sound, we freeze and look around and often find the source — very often a snake. They’re very sensitive to sound and vibration too, so it’s really a case of noticing them before they notice you. One “aid” to snake-hunting is that Sabrina finds snakes for us sometimes – no doubt by picking up their scent as we’re walking along. She finds frogs in the grass for me too.