How Digital Restoration Works
Digital photographic restoration is the next step in a process that started back in the days of the traditional wet darkroom. Back then, in order to restore a photo, the actual physical image had to be manipulated. All work was either done on the original or on a copy of the original. In either case, getting a clean restore, one that did not look like it had been worked on, was very difficult. It took someone who was part excellent technician and part magician.
Today, we can take an original print, slide or negative and make a duplicate copy by scanning or re-photographing the image and doing all work in the computer. What this means is that the original image source is never worked on directly. All repairs and corrections are performed on the copy, thus insuring the integrity of the original with the added benefit of providing you with an image that most likely could not have been produced by the old darkroom methods, and, with proper care of the master file, an image which can be recreated over and over again with no loss of quality.
Digital restoration is not artistic or fashion retouching. At its core, what I do is not painting, drawing, hand-tinting, or what is commonly referred to as “Photoshopping”. I am not an artist. The only time I will create areas of a photograph is when the original is so badly damaged that there is no information in the image to be recovered. In situations like this, if the client has other photos which show what may be missing, I can “borrow” that is scan, the other images into the computer and copy parts to help rebuild the image I’m restoring. Doing something like this in the past was very difficult and usually left many telling signs.
Digital restoration can work wonders. It most often produces much greater improvements in image quality than traditional physical restoration. If restoring the image, not the physical object, is what’s important to you, then digital restoration is the safest and the best way to resurrect a photograph. However, if the actual physical object that contains the image is what’s important, then the traditional methods will need to be used.
I’ve restored images both ways, and I will take digital every time where appropriate. In fact, I only do digital restorations now. That said, digital restoration can not make a silk purse out of a sows ear. Sorry, I just couldn’t resist quoting my Grandmother.
What Digital Restoration Can’t Help
While digital restoration can seem miraculous, it isn’t. There is a lot of work and time behind every good restoration, and sadly, there are instances where a photo is so badly damaged that it just can not be restored.
There are also problems with images which digital restoration can not improve. While the physical damage can be fixed, a blurred image from camera or subject movement can not be made to look like it came from a high end digital camera, heck it won’t even look like it came from a point and shoot camera. Blurred is blurred.
Digital restoration also can not help an image which just doesn’t have any real details in it. By this I mean the image looks soft, no real sharp or clearly defined edges; close inspection of the image shows only very soft appearing faces and objects; and many times the overall image just lacks a crispness to it.
While there is nothing wrong with having a photo of this type, in fact many are the result of the consumer level cameras we all used back then, you just need to know that this inherent softness is going to remain part of the image. When I see photos like this, I personally believe that this actually adds to the charm and period which the image represents. Below are examples of each condition.