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The Process of Digital Restoration

The Process of Digital Restoration

Vintage images are rarely in pristine condition. Most of the time, the original negatives/slides/plates have aged and acquired damage over the years. Some of the images in our collection are over 100 years old, so it’s only reasonable to expect there to be some work to do to get them back to their original condition.

Preliminary Tonal Adjustments

Most commonly, the first thing we do when working on digitally restoring an image is to make some preliminary, overall tonal adjustments. This sets us up to be able to get all of the restoration work done on the first pass. 

Contrast 

Given the age of vintage images, fading is all but guaranteed. Because of this, our first step is making an overall contrast adjustment to even out the light and dark levels in the image. We do this before doing any of the restoration/cleanup work because increasing contrast will also accentuate the dust/dirt on the image. If we started with the cleanup work, then adjusted the contrast, we would end up having to go back over the image to remove any of the dust that was previously missed. 

Color Correction

If the image is in color, there has likely been fading and color shifting over time. As with the contrast adjustment discussed above, the color correction adjustments we make in these early steps are generally overall adjustments to get the image to a reasonable starting point, close to what the original color would have been. 

A side by side comparsion of before and after digitally restoring a color photograph

Restoration

Once we’ve made the first adjustments to the file, and have a good base to work from, we start on the digital restoration. Depending on the condition of the original medium, this can be very precise and painstaking or can be a quick cleanup. Every image is different, and we handle each one individually to ensure the best final product possible. 

Types of Damage

The extent of damage varies from image to image, but here we will discuss the most common issues found in vintage photographs.

Scratches 

With vintage photographs, scratches are a very common issue. Even if the originals were handled with care, they are still likely to have picked up at least a few scratches in their time. As with all damage, the difficulty of removal depends on where in the image it is. A scratch in a wide open sky takes seconds to fix, whereas a scratch through a highly detailed area, like a person’s face or patterned clothing, takes a much more careful hand to seamlessly remove. 

Dust/Dirt/Spots

A before and after example of digitally restoring cracks and damage on a vintage photographAccumulation of dust and dirt on older photographs is incredibly common and is especially prominent if the original wasn’t cleaned prior to scanning. We don’t want any of this dust to appear on our prints, so we carefully comb over the image to spot remove all dust and dirt. 

Cracks/Missing Pieces

When originals age they can become more brittle and prone to cracks/breaks if not handled very carefully. This damage needs to be digitally fixed before we make any prints so our prints show the original condition of the photographs. As with scratches, the difficulty of removal of these issues largely depends on their location within the image. Busy, detailed areas are more difficult to seamlessly fill back in when pieces have broken off. Very occasionally we have to pass on images because the missing areas are simply too significant and detailed to be able to fix without the digital work being very noticeable. The majority of the time our skilled technicians are able to carefully and seamlessly reconstruct the image. 

An example of digital restoration, showing a before and after of filling in a missing piece from the original photo

Final Adjustments

After finishing the digital restoration, we do our final adjustments to the file, which are more fine-tuned than our preliminary contact/tonal adjustments. 

Localized Tonal Adjustments

In these last steps, we make more specific adjustments to the image. If there are any areas that are too light or dark, we will correct those specific areas. With color images, we will also make more localized adjustments if any areas of the image are more significantly color-shifted or faded. Once this is done, the restoration work is complete, and we’re ready to print! 


To learn more about our prints, check out some of our related articles:

Archival Ratings of our Materials

What Makes us Different

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