Yuri Akuney: The Art of Photo Restoration
Sometimes, a small faded photo is the only material reminder of people or events long gone but still important to us. Photo restoration, one form of photo retouching, is the art of reviving an image some would consider irreparable. Photos that bear just a pale resemblance of the face can be restored to a decent portrait and a photo torn apart can be put back together through the process.
Though photo retouching has existed as long as photography itself, the introduction of digital image processing has revolutionized photo restoration. The variety of tools and possibilities offered by image editing programs (Adobe Photoshop is the best known one) can be overwhelming. They open a lot of creative possibilities, but the learning curve to master them can be very steep. Pre-computer, traditional photo restoration required not just an artistic eye but also the ability to work with inverse colours as the original photo was photographed on a reasonably large negative and then the emulsion was scratched in the spots that needed to be darker and the spots that needed to be lighter were painted over with non-transparent paint using sharply pointed brushes or an airbrush. Precise adding or removing of objects from the photo required hours of masking and multiple darkroom exposures.
The digital photo restoration process starts with high quality scanning of the original image and improving the general contrast of the photo. Most faded photos still contain the original image in all details but the tonal range is compressed the difference between most dark and most light tones becomes very narrow. Professional scanners register very subtle differences in light tones and that makes it possible to stretch the captured range up to several times in Photoshop, restoring the original contrast of the photograph.
Because of this stretching, all tiny scratches, dust spots and the paper texture become more pronounced. Then comes a stage of time consuming and painstaking cleaning of the image by cloning neighbouring areas to hide the imperfections.
The next step usually involves reconstruction of missing or badly damaged parts of the photo using existing ones that can be cloned and modified. For example, dress buttons, carpet patterns or furniture detail. Photoshop has really flexible tools that help to distort the cloned piece geometrically and tonally to fit perfectly the area surrounding the missing part. In this way it is possible to replace people's eyes, ears, limbs, etc if the part from the other side of the body wasn't damaged as most of us are almost symmetrical.
The final step is to reconstruct damaged pieces that can't be cloned from the original photo. That is where creativity and the imagination of the restorer comes into play. Sometimes you can be lucky and have a different photo of the person or the object to reconstruct and use them to clone and modify. Sometimes you have to come up with something that is similar to the object and use retouching skills to make it look natural in the photo. For example, to reconstruct the missing palm of my distant relative in our old family photo, I had to photograph my own hand from the same angle and then use image aging and thorough blending to match the original photo.
The main challenge of photo restoration is to preserve the look and feeling of an old photo. The art of retouching is in making all the changes and additions look as natural as possible, and indistinguishable from the original. No Photoshop tool can do it automatically, so a near-perfect eye for detail, a feel for image relevancy and a good knowledge of software tools are indispensable for anyone who is going to try photo restoration themselves.
Yuri Akuney was born in Lviv, Ukraine, in 1961, trained as an electronics engineer and worked as a microcomputer devices designer for over 10 years. Always fascinated with the power of digital image processing, he started to explore it in 1999. After immigrating to Canada in 2001, he started a company named Digital Imaging Plus, and worked with museums and galleries on image restoration and preservation projects, and helping artists to photograph and document their artwork. For information about his work, see his website at digitalperfections.ca