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The Myth Of Fingerprints

There was a bit of a debate among the genealogical community a couple of weeks ago as to the correct way to handle old photographs, documents and other artifacts. Was it the time honored method of wearing white cotton gloves or the newfangled ways which are disposable, non-latex exam gloves, or washing and drying your hands. Actually, there wasn’t much of a debate at all, just a bit of education, which we are always pleased to get (right?), but the bottom line, no matter which side of the debate you come up on, is to never, ever handle photos without washing your hands and always handle them by the edges, only!! Why? Because fingerprints will eat your photos for lunch! And that, my friends, is no myth.

The cute little tyke is my big brother, Mark.

Fingerprints are impressions of friction ridges, raised portions of your skin which are actually all over your entire hand. They assist in gripping and identifying you if you leave said prints at the scene of a crime. Like on your photos.

Fingerprints are left on everything we touch. Anything that happens to be on your fingers when you touch that surface is also deposited, things such as dirt, sweat, grime and acids. When you pick up an old photograph or slide, or negative, and leave your fingerprints, the acids that are deposited then begin to, literally, eat into the surface. You may not be able to see it easily with the naked eye, but once it’s scanned and enlarged, Whoop! There it is! If it’s on the photo and you’re going to restore it, even if you can’t see it with the naked eye, it’s my opinion that you should take the time to do it right and get the fingerprints out!

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I know when you come up against a big pile of lines all over your photo, it can be pretty intimidating, but just go about it like you should go about everything in photo restoration: a little bit at a time. Obviously, it’s going to be a lot easier to fix the fingerprints if they’re in a wide open, uncluttered area. If this is the case, the Patch Tool may be your best bet. You could possibly, with the tool, do a large section at a time, knocking out a huge fingerprint in a single bound!

This, of course, works better on a fairly uniform background. This particular space has a light texture, but is uniform in color. Before you begin, make a copy of the layer. Whether this is the first bit of restoration you do on the photo, or you’ve done some previously, you’ll need to have a combined layer, other than the background layer. Ctrl (or Cmd) + J if you have only the background layer, or Shift+Ctrl+Alt (or Shift+Cmd+Opt on a Mac) +E if you have multiple layers.

That will work better than, say a swirly studio background with lots of variation in tones. If the area is still wide open, not on top of details, you can still use the Patch Tool, I’d just take it in smaller increments. Of course, every situation is different and calls for different tools and solutions. Always try a variety of options to see which work best for you!

Unfortunately, the pesky prints don’t always show up on the background, or around the edges. No, they somehow always seem to leave their mark right smack-dab in the middle of the most detailed part of the picture, like someone’s face! I understand why, so-and-so is showing whats-her-name photos and says “That’s your Uncle Whosits” and points to his face, touching the photo, leaving behind a little bit of themselves in the process. Don’t get me wrong! I’m all for keeping a piece of our ancestors! Just not on the restored copy, thank you.

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The prints left on the detailed portions are naturally going to require a bit more detail to fix. Repeat after me: Close up, small bits!

In the most detailed areas, such as the eyes in the photo, it would be better the work with a detailed tool, such as the Healing Brush, or, better yet, the Clone Stamp Tool. That way you can determine just what pixels go where. Use the Clone Stamp Tool on it’s own blank layer over your combined layer with Current and Below selected for your sample area. I’d use the Clone Stamp Tool, again, for the eyebrows, but once you get into the more open areas of the skin, you can go back to the Patch Tool, if you like, sampling from the other, un-fingerprinted, areas of skin.

Fingerprints are another one of those types of damage that you will find on your photos! The only ‘trick’ to getting them out, patience. Also, don’t forget to prevent this sort of damage in the future by, at the very least, washing and thoroughly drying your hands before you handle photographs, and only handle by the edges!

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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