Tips & Techniques » Conserving Family Photo Treasures
My wife’s cousin recently discovered a small treasure trove of family photographs, some over 100 years old, stored with his mother’s belongings. Plans have been made for a big family gathering to look through the pictures, try to remember names, places and dates and tell and write down old stories, before it’s too late.
|A variety of equipment and prints - 1900 Kodak box camera to 1950s Brownie.|
It’s easy to scan old prints, film and slides and convert them into file formats, like JPEGs or TIFFs that can be printed, stored on discs, shared over the internet, printed on calendars and more. There are aspects to copying that are simply mechanical and repetitious but some photos have mysterious magical qualities that invite creative interpretation and skillful processing. Occasionally I find myself collaborating with the original photographer - often unknown - on an image so special I feel compelled to 'romance the stone,' searching for ways to optimize its visual qualities and bring it freshly into the present. The value of surviving photos are the subjects, the people and places to whom we have a connection. What’s in those shoeboxes are, in effect, artifacts that chronicle our existence, gifts from past to present. Frankly, a lot of family pictures are technically poor. Multitudes of low-quality cameras and ungifted photographers made wonderful memories, but unsharp, unfocused, poorly-composed and blurry pictures. But there’s also a lot of astonishing art and great beauty in some of the images and it’s exciting to go beyond preservation and give them a new life for the new generations.
Where to Start
The basic tool for digitizing old photographs is the flatbed scanner. The scanner function on your 'all-in-one' probably has sufficient resolution to scan photos for the internet and smaller prints. Software lets you choose settings for copying color or grayscale photos or line art as well as the amount of resolution desired. If you don’t already have a scanner or wish to upgrade take a look at the Canon 9000F or Epson V 600. They’re both under $200 and loaded with high resolution and features that automatically repair dust, scratches and exposure errors. And they each have film adapters for copying slides and negatives.
Original b&w negatives, color film and slides will give you lots more detail than any print. You can make amazing new inkjet enlargements from any good negative but you will need a dedicated film scanner or a flatbed with a film attachment to digitize them. There aren’t so many photo scanners, and fewer film scanners, on the market so shopping around for one isn’t that hard.
If you only have a few old pictures or don’t wish to do the work yourself there are many photo labs offering basic digital scanning services for as little as a dollar per scan. If you do ship your prints or film do it in smaller batches to limit risk of loss or try to find a local shop you can trust and eliminate the shipping. I like having control of the work and the money I save pays for the scanner without risking loss or damage to irreplaceable originals.
|Original from c. 1923. The twins with their mother in front of the family home, stone porch built by grandfather. The photo has been sharpened, lightened and had contrast added. The text was added directly to the jpeg. Setting the scanner for grayscale eliminates yellowing.|
Scanning – How To
Start by gathering up all your old photo treasures but be selective in choosing what to scan. Take time and care with the originals, especially if they are worn and brittle. Do no harm. Paper is fragile and vulnerable, yet sturdy enough to survive generations of ocean crossings, storms, even storm troopers. Scan any writing on the back of your photos as well. Preserve letters and documents, recipes, newspaper clippings and children’s art. It’s better to scan your photos as they are, than risk repairs that may cause even more damage. Let the software do the fix-up work for you. Work in a relatively dust-free space. You can gently wipe prints and film with a microfiber or anti-static cloth. I use a soft, wide anti-static brush, an ancient shaving brush and old silk and lint-free cotton scraps with the occasional puffs of canned air. Take special care to keep the glass plate of the scanner free of dust.
Scan settings depend on what you want to do with your copies and which file formats will work best for various jobs. Saving files as JPEGs is pretty much the standard. Photo labs and online publishers are set up for working with jpegs and because they are compressed they upload quickly on the internet. For optimum file size and print quality save your scan as a TIFF at 300 dpi or larger. For web viewing the standard resolution is 72 ppi for Macs and 96 ppi for PCs. Most printers maximize at 300 dpi (dot per inch.) For general use scan your old photos at 150 to 300 dpi. That will serve print needs up to 8” x 12” enlargements and, once resized to 75 to 100 ppi, will be fine for web viewing.
|To scan this page from album remove the scanner cover and lay the page flat. Make archival print of this 'found art' triptych.|
You can scan your photos individually or in small batches. The typical scanner surface is approximately 8 ½” x 12”. Scan similar-looking exposures – like laundry – lights with lights, darks with darks. That way you can make some general corrections on multiple images before fine-tuning each one. Most photo album pages will fit whole on the scanner. This is especially useful where the prints are stuck to the pages and hard to remove safely. Lay the pages down flat, in contact with the glass and press down until the scanning is complete. The cover is removable if it gets in your way. Never scan through plastic coverings. The print must be in contact with the scanner glass. You can take the curl out of prints by stacking them between acid-free boards under some weight for a few days. They’ll stay flat long enough to copy.
|Copy made with copy stand set up. Camera set for B&W monochrome and cropping in tighter around the three subjects.|
Organize your files into folders and label everything carefully. Protect your work by making backup copies of the original scans and only work from these digital copies. You can lighten and darken, adjust color, density and contrast, crop, repair scratches and dust, add text, etc. and then save those files as new corrected originals. I back up to a portable hard drive and make archival DVDs for storage in a small fireproof safe or safe deposit box. If you don’t already have protected storage for your precious pictures and documents, please go out and get some. Technologies will keep changing so make archival prints and save them with the old photos. Get the originals into proper, archival protective sleeves and stored in a fire- and water-proof safe. Peace of mind for under $100.
Old photos are artifacts of their time. I actually like to include the physical signs of age and wear. I love the scalloped edges of the old drugstore prints of my parents’ era and the comments written on the prints. Cropping within an image can emphasize a subject and add drama. I rarely feel a need to digitally restore a print but, with practice, the available software makes it relatively easy. Basic editing software invites playing with an image and exploring its possibilities. As long as you work with copies you can’t do much harm. Editing tools can improve things like sharpness, contrast and color but a copy is still a copy. Be aware that enlarging an original 2 ½” x 4 ¼” or 2” x 3” print won’t necessarily make it better - it might just emphasize the defects.
No scanner? No problem. Before the availability of digital scanners photographs were simply rephotographed on film to make a copy negative. New prints could then be made from these negatives. Most of today’s DSLRs and point-and-shoot cameras have lenses with a macro setting that will allow you to fill the frame of the smallest old photos. Back the camera up and make digital copies of larger works too big for the scanner.
|Copy stand setup using a table, wall and two 13 watt fluorescent bulbs. The camera is a Canon with 18-55 mm lens at close focus.|
All you need for a tabletop copy stand is a table, a wall, a tripod, a few clamp-on floodlights and a digital camera with a close focusing lens. Pin a black matte board to the wall for a background and tape the corners of the pictures you want to copy in the center. (Cover the sticky part of the tape with a bit of paper where it touches the picture corner. You just want to hold the photo down in place and not tear the corners when you lift the tape.) Set the lights a few feet to the sides of the photo, at about a 45-degree angle so the illumination is even. If you hold a pencil in the center, perpendicular to the wall, you’ll see the two shadows cast by the lights. Adjust the lights till the shadows are equal. You can get floodlights at a hardware store for less than $10. Daylight (5500 Kelvin) and tungsten (3200 Kelvin) photo bulbs are available from photo stores for $5 to $20. Daylight balanced florescent bulbs are the best deal. They burn cool and are energy efficient. You don’t need big wattage to light a small area. You can also just use a camera-mounted flash bounced off a white ceiling. Remember to adjust the camera’s white balance setting to whatever light you use. And watch out for reflections.
Be precise with your tripod. The lens must be in the same plane as the photo with all sides parallel to the camera viewer. Camera lenses are generally at their best in the mid aperture settings (f5.6 to f11.) I generally work with large files at 200 ISO. Use a remote shutter release or the 2 second self-timer to eliminate any camera shake when pressing the release button. With continuous light I prefer to use manual settings and auto bracketing. As always, check the playback screen for proper, reflection-free exposure.
Now that your pictures are free from their shoeboxes you can use the scanned files for a number of creative projects: