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Q & A With The Restorationist Janine Smith

This week, with the indulgence of the Honorable Mr. Squirrel and you, the reader, I’m going to attempt to answer a few questions. You see, I get asked these particular questions a lot, on a fairly regular basis, so maybe by answering them here I can save someone the time of writing the email. Or you can still write me, but with a different question!

Can you remove the watermark from this photo for me?

Well, yes, I can. Anyone that’s fairly competent with tools that have been in Photoshop since the beginning (i.e. Clone Tool) can remove a watermark, which  makes all the people getting all up in arms over the Content Aware features in CS5 pretty funny, actually. However, just because I can doesn’t mean I will. In fact, let me be blunt: I won’t. There’s no reason you’d need me to take a watermark off your own photo – none I can think of anyway. But while we’re on the subject of watermarks, if you put watermarks all over your photos, maybe you should reconsider that. Personally, I think the only thing a big fat ©in the middle of the photo, or your name repeated over and over across the entire image does is prevent people from seeing your work. If someone wants your photo bad enough, go back to the beginning of this answer and read the part about “anyone that’s fairly competent”, again.

I’ve heard you say (over and over) that retouching and restoration are not the same thing, but I know a lot of people that say “retouching” and mean restoration. Why do you keep saying that?

Because they aren’t the same thing. While it’s true that old school restoration artists referred to their craft as “retouching”, I still maintain they are two different disciplines. Restoration is the art of restoring, literally, something (a photo, a painting, a house) back to its original condition. If it’s done correctly, you use original material – in the case of digital photo restoration, this might mean borrowing areas, or pixels, from the original to repair damaged areas, or, if there’s no other choice, materials as close to the original as possible. For example, if there’s a football player in the damaged photo and he’s holding something, one can assume by taking the context of the photo into consideration, that the object is not a loaf of bread or a baby, correct? So compositing and integrating a picture of a football into that space would not be amiss. Retouching, on the other hand, is a form of photo manipulation, changing aspects of the photo, taking away from and adding to the original. That’s not to say that aspects of retouching are not ever used in restoration, and vice versa, but they are two different disciplines. Not all retouch artists are restoration artists any more than all restoration artists can do retouching. I like to think of it this way: Retouching is taking a photo to the next level; restoration is taking it back to the first level.

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I took my old photos to a photographer and the restorations were awful! Since restoration is part of photography, all photographers know how to restore, right?

Right! And all pilots know how to fix planes, right? It’s all aviation…right? First of all, speaking in the digital sense, of course, the last time the damaged photo had anything to do with photography was when it was taken (unless you take a photo of the photo before restoration, but that’s the next question). Not every photographer knows, or wants to know, how to use Photoshop. Some are really good, brilliant even, at taking great photos directly in the camera! Some know how to do editing adjustments to their work in Photoshop , of course, but what part of taking pictures and adjusting their photos has anything to do with repairing a 100 year old photograph? I do believe that photographers, who happen to have excellent Photoshop skills, have a better chance at becoming a great restoration artist because if they’re great at their craft, photography, they have a great “eye”, something essential in great restoration. If you don’t have any artistic sensibility at all, you probably aren’t cut out for the work, anyway, because knowing and understanding the composition and structural and physical elements in a photograph are crucial to successful restoration, especially if you’re ever going to rise above the basics. Sure, most people can fix a few spots here and there, but only an artistic eye is going to be able to do the really hard stuff. That’s why artists, especially those who know human anatomy, are also great candidates for exemplary restoration artists. Let’s put it this way, I’m a fairly competent photo restoration artist and I know enough about Photoshop to, probably, be considered an expert. I also own a camera. But you won’t ever be catching me out claiming to be a photographer, or a pilot, either, for that matter…

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I want to restore my photos; is it best to scan or photograph my originals?

This is probably the question I get the most and the answer is: it depends. I know, I live to be difficult, but the truth is there is no pat answer. Sure, I know people who state loudly, for all to hear, that you should always, always I say!, photograph the original. I will lay you odds, right now, that those people have, at least some of the following:

a)      A good camera (also a good bet that it’s a DSLR, not a point & shoot),

b)      A lighting set up of some sort,

c)       Filters

d)      A copy stand

e)      At least a modicum of photographic talent

Why do I say this? Because I have a Canon S70 point & shoot, no lighting set up, no filters and no photographic  talent and frankly, when I try to photograph originals, they pretty much come out on the “suck badly” end of the Wowser Scale. In other words, friends, you most likely won’t be able to take a photo of your original, bending over it while it’s lying on the kitchen table under the overhead light and expect it to be better than a scan. Then again, if the scanner retailed for $29.95 at Pipi’s Bargain Electroniks Sooper Store when you bought it last month, the point & shoot thing might not be all that bad. It’s all relative, you see. A decent scanner with good software is always going to out trump a camera outfit you don’t have. At the same time, if you have both a good camera set up and a good scanner, I suggest trying both to see what results you come up with and go with the best one. That being said, sometimes you won’t have a choice. If you have an original that cannot go into a scanner, for instance, such as a convex oval crayon portrait in (or out of if it’s not broken and flat) its frame, no matter what type of camera you have, a photo of it will be better than nothing at all. At least there would be a digital record. If you’re lucky enough to have a number of them, or any old photos in their original frames, it might be worth it to rent a camera set up, or ask a friend to bring theirs!

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Thanks for bearing with me! I hope this answered someone’s question, somewhere!

About Janine Smith (114 Articles)
Janine Smith is the owner of Landailyn Research and Restoration, a Fort Worth, Texas based company whose services include family history research and photo restoration. Janine honed her skills in restoring badly damaged photos as a volunteer with Operation Photo Rescue, a non-profit organization whose mission is to repair photographs damaged by unforeseen circumstances such as house fires and natural disasters. <br> Janine’s work is well-known in the world of genealogical and historical societies, museums, libraries, university archives, and non-profit organizations; appearing on the board of directors for several organizations and institutions. She is a sought-after lecturer on photo restoration and preservation to libraries, genealogical and historical societies. <br> In addition to being a Lynda.com author, Janine is the author of many articles on research and restoration appearing in newspapers and magazines, both on and offline. Janine's history and photo restoration columns appear regularly on TipSquirrel.com and in the popular Shades Of The Departed Digital Magazine. <br> Janine is the winner of the 2010 “Photoshop User Award” in the photo-restoration category.

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