Copying Photographs   


Violet Walch copy

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.

Photographing a Christmas Concert.

There is nothing like a well lit photograph.

There is nothing like a well lit photograph.

The Yule Log Fireplace channel is now available on TV. That must mean Christmas is coming. My wife and I also just received a call from my son to tell us the date of our granddaughters’ school Christmas concert. And with that festive event, it’s final – Christmas is on the way!

Last year my wife and I joined what seemed to be about five hundred parents, siblings, and, of course, other grandparents in a large hall. We had arrived early because my daughter-in-law said the seating would be limited and as it turned out, it was standing room only for those who arrived late.

There were many people holding their cell phones or little digicams, and I think I saw someone with a DSLR away in the back, but mostly they just sat in their chairs waiting, hopeful their cameras would make wonderful photographs of the childrens’ concert. I heard a parent near us complain she hadn’t charged her batteries.

I had a centre isle seat near the back that was perfect from which to move around. And before everything started I made several exposure tests so I would know my exposure and where to stand to get the best shots.

When the audience lights were lowered and teachers positioned themselves to coach (and coax) the children as they sang I remember looking around watching people holding out their cell phones and digicams at arm length to photograph those on stage.

Flashes on those tiny devices only have a reach of approximately 15 feet, and even if the small figures on the stage were visible in the pictures, everything in the foreground would be extremely over exposed. The person with the DSLR was at the back of the audience with a telephoto lens, but no flash, foolishly relying on her camera’s high ISO. I expect the resulting images were much the same as the digicams with inconsistent exposures.

As the concert began, and before my granddaughter appeared I stepped into the isle and made some shots and as I expected, they were not to my satisfaction. Yes, I could see the whole group with their teacher, back to me, gesturing, but the children were too far away, and although some parents may be interested in their children’s classmates, I selfishly only cared about getting good pictures of my granddaughter, so I moved up close. My technique for being in front of other people is to select my spot, kneel down out of everyone’s view until I am ready, then I stand up, take my picture, and kneel down again.

With my camera and lens pre-set, I only needed to work around several parents sitting on the floor holding their digicams at arms length above their heads, and the one grandparent kneeling and wildly waving.

The concert was fun and my granddaughter was excellent (in my opinion anyway) and I took lots of pictures of her while she was on stage, and downloaded the image files from my camera to my computer when I got home. I edited, re-edited, then edited again for a final selection that I liked, and finally was down to a couple that I really liked. My opinion is that anything but the best is just wasting space and I never want people to see anything but my best photographs.

As I left the concert I could hear people saying they wish they could have got better photographs, and of course they blamed their equipment or other people, but not themselves. Soon the season will be upon us and for photographers the decision should be easy; every photographic opportunity should be thought out and they should always take the time to produce quality images. At last year’s concert most people had inadequate equipment or poor locations, whereas I had a DSLR with a flash attached and had spent some time preparing and selected the best position I good get in that overcrowded hall.

I really enjoy everyones comments. Thanks, John

My website is at