This week I noticed some pictures that were posted on a Facebook page. They were old, family pictures that were low quality, which I thought were more from the poor copying techniques of the person who posted the photos than a problem with Facebook, and I am sure the person that added them to her FB page in spite of the shoddy reproductions thought she couldn’t do better. Seeing those poor quality images reminded me of an article that I wrote about copying old photos some time ago, and wanted to remind readers how to do this.
In the article, I had been asked if I could make quality copies of old photographs that a family wanted to use for a book of genealogy they planned on publishing. They required image files with enough quality for good enlargements, and reproduction, and had tried to copy several images using inexpensive home scanners meant for documents (not photographs), and thus far were only able to produce pictures that lacked detail.
I recall they told me they also tried copying the photographs with their little digicams, but that exercise resulted in bright, white reflection spots from it’s flash that obscured features giving them unacceptable results. A camera with an on-camera flash will produce glare on reflective surfaces, and inexpensive document scanners rarely produce good facial identification of old family photos that have languished in boxes for years. The result was much the same as those old, family photos I saw on Facebook.
When I copy photographs I lay the photographs flat and mount my camera on a copy stand that I have had for years, (a sturdy tripod would also do nicely) and use a small level to make sure the camera lens and the photographs are parallel. I use two photographic umbrellas to diffuse the flash. If I didn’t have the umbrellas I could also get reasonable results by placing some translucent material in front of the flashes, or by bouncing the light off large, white cards. Two umbrellas allow me to balance the light. Then I make a test shot to check the exposure for reflection. In any case, the light needs to softly and broadly, not sharply, expose the old photograph’s surface.
The wonder of digital technology is that it allows a photographer to quickly review the image and retake it if needed. I also recommend taking several shots at different apertures. And, of course using the camera’s Manual Mode. I prefer working with slightly under exposed image files. That way I can bring the detail up in postproduction without loosing the highlights in the original photographs.
If the next question readers ask is, “What kind of camera?” my answer will be that it depends on what is the desired outcome. If the final image is going to be a print, or something that is to be big enough to identify a person in the background, the file needs to be reasonably large. I prefer a DSLR, but for a small website image, a digicam that will accept an off-camera flash will do just fine.
If there isn’t access to an off-camera flash then wait for the opportunity to photograph the picture on a “flat” overcast or cloudy day.
The final step for me is PhotoShop, (there are several other programs that will also work) which I use to colour balance (and change a sometimes faded old photograph), and then go on to use for cropping, increasing contrast, and sharpening.
One could purchase an expensive scanner that takes up more room on the desk. But photographers that have already invested in their camera and have lenses that work perfectly well, (which I think are faster to use than a scanner) are perfectly capable of producing very high quality final images.