Gentle Digital Restoration
As someone who grew up watching old movies on Sunday afternoons, I remember being absolutely blown away when I saw a digitally-restored movie. I think it was an old Alfred Hitchcock movie. I had been used to a blurry picture, with scratches all over it, and seeing it as if it were brand new was amazing. Of course now it's commonplace for old movies to look great, as the technology for digital restoration has been enhanced, and there are a lot of people willing to put in the time for the restoration. And not only do these old movies look great, but since they're digital, they'll never degrade, never catch fire, never be lost in an old vault.
Since I'm a Graphic Designer, and I use Photoshop, I started doing restoration to some old family photos. I quickly learned that you have to have a gentle touch. It doesn't take much to make an old photo look "Photoshopped" (and I mean that in a bad way). So I kept practicing until I was able to do what I call "Gentle Digital Restoration". I'm inspired by my friends who restore old cars, and make them look as if you were walking into a dealership in the 1950s, and seeing the cars brand new.
The first thing that I do is set the pixels to 2048 maximum (it's plenty big, and it's the current limit for Google photos to be stored for free). Anything beyond that I call HR (High Res) and also SHR (Super High Res) and SDHR (Super Dooper High Res). The HR, SHR, and SDHR is just for reference, they're aren't necessary to display, even on the largest screen (I'm looking at my gigantic Retina Display Screen on my iMac now, and the 2048s are plenty big, and plenty sharp).
Gentle Digital Restoration is an art form. The functions that I use most often in Photoshop are simply Auto Color, Auto Contrast, Auto Tone (although not always - you gotta watch what you're doing). I will also use Shadows/Highlights, and the Dodge and Burn tool. I use the history palette to check back and forth. Many times I want to "tease out" more detail out of a photo, but never at the risk of making it look "Photoshopped"!
Of course, more and more people are looking at images on their phones, so the quality there really doesn't matter. But I like to be able to step into old images, and I like them razor-sharp, and looking as if the photo was taken today, not seventy years ago.
Image at the top of this post: Looking north up 17th Avenue past the King's Rest Hotel Motor Court in the 1940s, Phoenix, Arizona. Click on the image, and you'll be able to step into it.
Posted by Brad Hall