I’ve been digitally restoring photographs for a long time, using Photoshop even longer, and I’ve picked up a few things over the years; simple tips on tools or workflow which have made my life a bit easier. I thought I’d share a few of them with you. I’m not putting them out there as the “Top Ten Tips of All Time” or anything, just a few things that have worked for me. So here, in no particular order of importance, are ten things…
If you’re like me, you keep an “external original”, an archival scan of the original in its current state of decay, apart from the copy of the image you’ll be restoring. I also make a flattened copy in .tif format of the finished restoration. But I always keep a complete, un-flattened .psd file with all layers intact and a copy of the original at the base of the layer stack (as the “background” layer). Why do I do this? There are many reasons, paranoia being the foremost among them, but also for things such as reference – you never know when someone might ask how you did something or when you, yourself, might wonder the same – or when you might see something you missed or could have done better. Keeping the entire work file keeps the “tweakability” factor viable. It also makes for quick “before & after” peaks, which show just how far along you are with your restoration! Yes, my kind of digital photo restoration requires a lot of hard drive storage space…
Work Big and Carry a Small Brush
One reason for scanning a photo in at as high a resolution as possible is that the tighter in you can zoom an area, and still have it remain clear and sharp, the better the finished result will be. If you think about it, fixing a space filled with tons and tons of teeny, tiny little specks and spots, which when viewed regular size looks like a vast solar system of ickiness, zooming in really tight and use a small brush just makes sense. Well, it does to me, anyway. The larger the brush you use, in many cases, the worse the repair looks.
Stay True To the Original
Seriously, this is photo restoration we’re talking about, not RETOUCHING! Grandma doesn’t need wrinkle reduction – she earned every one of those wrinkles and they are part and parcel of the story of the photo. If you must manipulate a photograph for some reason, do it in context. Let me explain what I mean by “manipulate”. Sometimes, in the course of a restoration, I’ve found it beneficial to repair, or replace an element, add a bit of grass texture, replace a tree or repair an eye using the other eye, or even one from another photo of the person. In one recent project, I replaced facial features that had been drawn in with marker and correction fluid on an over exposed photo. The main considerations when doing this is to always keep it “real”, only replacing or enhancing what is or was actually there, and to do it in a way that, hopefully, no one will ever know it was actually added. In my aforementioned recent project, the facial features were mere hints of features, using faces from photos I actually took, not drawing things in, faded so much into the photo that you have to really look to see them. Since the faces were so far from the camera, this worked very well, even better when I found out that the photo in question will be enlarged considerably and put in a museum. The facial features won’t be readily discernable, but the ink and correction fluid would have been.
Don’t Give Up
Even if you think that there’s absolutely no way to fix whatever it is that is wrong with a particular photo, there probably is. I’ve restored a lot of photos, thousands of them, and believe me when I say that very, very few have been un-restorable; the majority of them, now that I think on it, were from my early days and I could probably come up with some way to fix them, at least a bit, now. Sometimes you have to try everything you can possibly think of, you may need to ask others for advice, you may even need to invent your own methods, but, as my Grandmother used to say, where there’s a will, there’s a William! When it’s all said and done, you may well find that you really can’t fix it, maybe you just don’t have the time or the Photoshop skill to make it happen, maybe the photo really is beyond all hope. But at the very least, you may learn something new and will hopefully feel better for not having thrown in the towel!
Cropping Is For Wimps
This is not a tip as much as a comment. If you’re going to work and learn and be the very best you can be at digital photo restoration, quit cropping all the “around the edges” damage –every single time -and learn how to restore it! There. I said I it. Which brings me to…
There have been a lot of arguments (most of which I inadvertently start) over whether it’s unnecessary to repair all the damage you can in a photograph, or just fix as much as you think the average person (or the customer) will see or what is expedient in terms of time vs. amount charged. My take on this is different, apparently, than most in the professional digital restoration field; in that I take pride in my work to the extent that I want it done as well as I can possibly do it. For me if that means repairing every little speck and spot, so be it. If I end up losing money on the deal, I’m ok with that, also. As it is, I look back at the majority of my work a year after I’ve done it and shake my head that I could have done so much better. How much worse would the self-chastisement be if I let things go that I felt were just “good enough”? We all have our own standards and our own reason for those standards (time, money, whatever), but all I know is I wouldn’t want someone with less than the highest standards working on my family photographs. Then again, that’s just me…
Black & White Rules
Things are easier in black & white. Seriously, nine times out of ten, restoring a black & white photo, or converting it to B&W before restoration makes the process easier all around. But just because it’s easier, doesn’t always make it better – and sometimes it does. Confused yet? Sometimes the patina of an old photo just rocks and you want to keep it, so B&W isn’t an option, but you should at least put a B&W adjustment (non-destructive) on it to see what happens. You can always put a faux “color wash” on it to mimic the tones of the patina later. I’ve also found it useful, at times, to restore with the original aged tones intact and do the B&W adjustment at the end to even out any tonal inconsistencies. One word of caution about B&W adjustments, though: be careful to not do the same thing on every photo you restore. You want people to know it was restored by you because of the excellent quality of the work itself, not because it looks exactly the same, every time. This also applies to things like colorization. If all you ever do is colorize every old photo you run across, you become a bit of a one trick pony. Change things up and grow!
A Well Done Mask Is a Thing of Beauty
I’ve been called mask obsessed by some, but in my opinion a well done mask is never a waste of time! Whatever your mask making method of choice is, be it Quick Mask, Calculations, adding a vector mask and painting it in, whatever, taking the time to paint in a concise mask will serve you well when it comes time to lightening certain areas while darkening others, or when colorizing, or doing any number of things to improve your photo. While masking can seem daunting, like anything else, once you learn and become comfortable with the process, it gets easier. I highly recommend learning the art of masking!
Curves Are My Best Friend
I always try many ways to tackle a restoration problem. Even though I might think “Oh, I can do that in two minutes by using (insert random filter/tool/adjustment name, here)”, I still will try at least a few other methods just to see if maybe, maybe it will bring about a better result, just because you never know. But more often than not, I find myself using Curves Adjustments. In almost every restoration I do, in fact, Curves figure in some way, usually to lighten or darken certain areas, or to add highlights or shadow. Curves have become a mainstay in my restoration toolkit. But that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t
Try Other Things
Sometimes Curves won’t work, or something else actually works better. If I automatically stuck with Curves, I’d never know that. That’s how I found out that the Dodge or Burn tools work better in some instances than Curves. Or that Variations sometimes do a better job at color correction than Curves, or Levels, or anything else. You never know until you try, “try” being the operative word, here. Experimentation is the key to learning, at least for me, and without learning you start to atrophy.
Like I said at the beginning, these are a few things I picked up along the way that have made a difference in my world. I’m not putting these things out there as the be all and end all of the restoration world. You may have vastly different opinions which is, of course, your right. Since I know everyone has personal favorites, I’d love to see some of yours in the comments!
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