Old photo restoration by using lighting, photoshop, and retouching abilities.


Many years ago, I had a company, Fiber Based Photo, that offered custom black and white photographic printing and photo restoration. The film was processed by hand in the darkroom and, prints were printed archivally on fiber base paper. Since the photographic process isn’t stable, many photos from the past have started to fade. The least I could do was to preserve the images so the stories behind them can live.

I loved learning about the people in the images or why the event was so important. Being in the darkroom and watching the image appear was like meeting the person in the photo and spending time with them. I copied photographs of the 49’ers, the building the transcontinental railroad, and countless families photographed throughout the decades.

Back then, a customer brought me a deteriorated tintype photo of her mother.

Tintype photograph that had deteriorated so much that the image is not visible to the naked eye.
Tintypes, originally known as or ferrotypes or melainotypes, were invented in the 1850s and continued to be produced into the 20th century. The photographic emulsion was applied directly to a thin sheet of iron coated with a dark lacquer or enamel, which produced a unique positive image.

It was the only photo she had of her mother so, I was determined to try my best. Although you couldn’t see an image with your naked eye, with the use of proper lighting techniques, Tech-Pan film (a black and white film with no grain), and a lot of patience, I was able to bring out the image. Once the photo was dry, the task of retouching started. In the day of film, that meant that removing dust and blemishes was done by hand. My tools of the trade were a 00 brush and a bottle of spot tone.

spot tone and brush used to retouch black and white photographs
Before digital retouching if there was a flaw or dust spot in a picture the way to fix it was with a brush and spot tone dye.

By the time I finished, I could at least see a face. I wish I could have done more, but at least my client was ecstatic.

Times have changed, and technology has taken over the photography process. I can now do more than what was possible in the past.

Last week I received a call from an older woman. She didn’t think I would remember her since it has been so long but I did. It was the same woman with the tintype photograph. She wanted more copies for her siblings. Well, I’m no longer printing in the darkroom so, I would have to use the digital technology at hand. This is where the tools in Photoshop help. I was able to remove a lot more of the artifacts and fill in where the image was missing.

The first image is the image I created in the darkroom. The second image is the image I created digitally and retouched using tools in Photoshop. Use the slider to see the before and after.

I’m so happy that Mrs. B will be able to see her mother’s face. This is the only photo in existence. Her mother died when she was 5 years old giving birth to her 7th child. After the death of her mother, she and her siblings were placed in an orphanage.

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