Up until the 1960’s, when resin coating became the norm and gave photo paper a smooth, shiny look and feel, photos were commonly developed using the silver gelatin dry plate process, caused by coating glass with an emulsion of silver salts, then letting it dry. One thing that identifies a vintage gelatin silver print is as the print gets older, a discoloring of the darker areas of the photo, called silvering, begins to occur, turning the blacks blue in various degrees, depending on the age of the photo, giving it a blue to silver appearance. Light silvering can be found on photos taken as late as the 1950’s, but is mostly found on early prints, taken before the 1930’s.
When collecting these photos, silvering is very desirable, as it shows the photos age and quality. When digitally restoring a photo, you may wish to lessen the silvering effect but still keep the character of silvering. If so, here’s one method of doing so, but keep in mind this isn’t to completely do away with the silvering, just to minimize it!
I’ve provided a sample image in a .zip file at the end of this article, as I realize that not everyone will have an appropriate image available. This image was provided by a client, so please respect that this is a private family photo and do not use for any other purpose except practice and please do not post anywhere on the Internet! Thank you!
Open your image in Photoshop. The first thing you want to do is to find the dark areas in your photo, as the darkest areas will be where the silvering begins – no matter how silvered the photo is, the darkest areas will be exponentially more. There are many ways to separate dark and light areas. One is Calculations (Image > Calculations),
and another is Threshold (Image > Adjustments > Threshold).
Adjust and play with the sliders to even the darks and lights as much as you like. When you hit okay, however, you’ll notice a lot of the ‘light’ comes back. The next steps will take care of that. With the Magic Wand selection tool, set at a tolerance of 10 (you want the tolerance low enough to only select white) select the white area.
In the layer stack, add a layer mask to the selection. If you remember to have the foreground color black and the background white, the mask will be the way you need it.
If not, and white is the foreground color, simply use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + I (I for ‘Invert’), Cmd + I on a Mac.
With your mouse poised over the mask thumbnail, right click and choose Apply Mask.
This is to be the overlay to tone down the silvering in your restoration. The first step to making your overlay is to fill it with color. With the Eyedropper, select one of the darker tones in the photo. The photo will rarely be a true black and white, and filling the overlay in with pure black rarely looks good. When you have your color selected, hover the curser over the overlay and select while holding Ctrl (Cmd on a Mac) down to select the area. Fill with the color you picked (assuming that color is the foreground color, the keyboard shortcut for this is Alt (Option on a Mac) + Backspace.
Chances are the separation of light and dark, done earlier, probably has more then the darkest tones on it. If it does, now’s the time to clean up the overlay. To do this, add a Layer Mask to the overlay layer and ‘paint’ the lighter areas away with white as the foreground color. Lower the opacity of the mask layer so you can easily see the lighter and darker tones.
Now you should have an overlay that only covers the darkest tones, the ones with the heaviest silvering. Change the layers Layer Blend Mode to Hard Light and lower the opacity to around 75%.
Here’s the before and after, toning down the silvering but not completely obliterating it. Just a subtle change that keeps the character of the aging of the silver but isn’t distracting in the restoration! Thanks to Karen and Rocco for the inspiration! The .zip file of the sample photograph can be found here.
If you’d like further information on this or any other digital photo restoration article or technique, have an idea for a tutorial or a photo you’d like me to look at, follow me on Twitter (@Landailyn), add me as a friend on Facebook (Janine Smith) or email me at janine (at) landailyn (dot) com!
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