Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Ethics and Historicity of Photo "Restoration"

Let's suppose I found a diary written by my Great-grandfather detailing life on the farm and including many details about his family life and his extended family? Would you consider that document to be a valuable genealogical resource? Let's further suppose that he was poorly educated and used many colloquial terms and some slang. His diary relates some stories about the family that were and still could be embarrassing to the family. Would you feel comfortable with me re-writing the diary and editing out all of the original language and changing the details of any currently unacceptable events? What if I destroyed the original in the process?

If you would find my rewrite unacceptable, then why would you condone doing exactly the same thing to an original photograph? Why is it acceptable to edit and alter an original photograph to remove any details that we, from our present perspective, feel detract from our concept of the "original?" Although, there is not usually an issue with the destruction of the original, some photos continue to degrade and ultimately, the scanned image of a photo taken years ago may be the only record left.

I just sat through two different presentations that discussed photo editing and photo editing software. Both were very, very well done and appropriate to the level of understanding of the audience. But photo editing is essentially destructive. There is only so much information in a photograph. What I mean by this statement is that what is displayed in the photo captures a certain finite amount of information present in the original. One simple way of understanding this concept is the fact that there is always a limit to the detail or resolution of any photographic representation. If I were to scan an original photograph, there is always a certain amount of noise (i.e. extraneous detail) that is added at the time of the scan. Additionally, only scanning at extremely high resolutions with specialized scanners really capture all of the detail of a photograph.

There is a trade-off between scanning even more detail and exceeding the practical limits of photo preservation. But I am not talking about scanning and capturing the information of the original photo, I am talking about post-scanning manipulation of the photo. Once you have a scanned image, any editing of the image will cause a loss of information from the information present in the original. I mean ANY editing. Is that bad? Should we stop all editing? The simple answer is no, but we should always be aware of the trade-off.

So there is no misunderstanding, let me explain in excruciating detail what I am talking about. Here is a scanned image:

The original is a small, probably tin-type photograph. I scanned the original at 400 ppi, in color (obviously) and saved the resultant digitized image as a TIFF file.  To insert the image in my blog post, I had to re-save the image as a JPEG. Aha! you guessed it. I have already lost information from the original scan which likely did not pick up all of the information from the original photograph. As you can tell from this scan, the original is not in the best condition to start with.


I would certainly not criticize those who teach photo editing, but they should at the very least make this the ironclad rule of photo editing.

Stay tuned for part two of this discussion.


  1. I was initially drawn to your article by the title. For restoration of a photo in the true sense of the word, such as repairing tears and damage is not un ethical at all, as long as nothing is changed. So many so called photo restoration artists replace backgrounds even if the slightest bit of damage is evident, as its the easier option. This gung ho approach is definitely wrong. Sensitivity to the original is paramount.

  2. Thank you for the reminder! During my lab classes in Photography, the instructor said, life as we know it is changing right before your eyes. Even in the dark room, before the print is made, the photographer can make choices and alterations to a photograph. Of course we hope it is to make it a better one, but the beauty is in the eye of the MAKER! In the digital world editing has met its "extreme" match. That "crop" button can surely do more damage than we will ever know.

  3. I never cease to be amazed that some people save scanned photographs and documents as gif images. These are even worse than saving as a jpeg image.

  4. Before anything, working with digital scans is hard enough as it is without using a rubbish format. Never use a lossy format, never use a format that stores fewer bpp than you are scanning (what's the point?) and never use a format that can't handle the size of image you are working with. For the images I work with, that limits me to TIFF and FITS, though since nothing uses FITS I'm really limited to TIFF.

    I follow simple regimen with photographs and negatives:

    First, scan the negative as-is at as high a resolution and as great a depth as possible and store in a lossless format (TIFF, usually, as scanner software is a little limited). This is always the digital master. It should never be altered. If you want to work with the image, copy the master and work with the copy. Yes, yes, I know, the files will be large. I'm using a V600 scanner and for me, it takes a couple of gigabytes each for medium format, more for large format. Gives an interesting perspective on digital cameras, doesn't it?

    Note: Yes, I know that will often be past the point where the negative has any clear resolution. Supersampling, however, is how you reduce the errors that will always be added with digital processing. Since the object is to massage the image, there will be errors since the "fix" is not the original content.

    Second, if you are going to use photographic cleaners (don't try and substitute other types of cleaner), do so after you have scanned in the master. Cleaners can cause damage, particularly to older negatives. This is where digital methods come in handy. You only need to save those bits of the image where the cleaning has done some good, you don't need to save the whole thing unless the whole image has been improved. These fragments should again be kept safe, working only on copies.

    Finally, decide what it is you want. My primary objective is historic information, so I mostly don't do anything beyond examine the original and cleaned scans. I am not impressed with any photo editing software I've seen, although I admit I might be being a bit harsh, as the built-in techniques for restoring seem to be more about artistry than mathematical methods for bounding what the missing details could be in order for what is certain to be correct.

    This is why knowing what you want is important. If you're posting on Ancestry, then loss of accuracy is probably less important than the increase in shared knowledge. The artistry is then far more important than the mathematics.

    Because I'm much more concerned with extracting historical information, I need to focus on what information is there in the first place. Adding something that was never there won't help, but mathematics can say quite a bit about what should be there.

  5. So what should scanned photographs and documents be saved as? I believe I understand about losing info from the initial photo, but isn't it better to have a copy or multiple copies of old photos (so many in the family can have a copy of gg grandfather) rather than having only one damaged copy, so that at least all the info isn't lost?

  6. I always scan at 1200DPI, save as bitmap BMP, then preserve that copy....and then make use of that to save to JPG or TIFF or otherwise to do any editing, that way, I always have the digital "original" plus the physical original....I know it takes lots of memory and processing, power, but both are cheap and plentiful nowadays....

  7. Those tiny old photos come to life after I restore them, cropping out the extraneous foreground, sky, and side of the house. I can see the heirloom jewelry, the pet dog and the lapel pin. The faces light up after a century of darkness, cracks, mold and stains. Of course the photo should be restored! (after the original scan has been preserved as a Tiff of course) The jpg goes to my software, my relatives, and online research friends. Two files for every treasured photo saved by my parents and grandparents is certainly not excessive.

  8. I agree with Barb on this. Preservation of the original physical photo/negative is temporary - they'll probably have disintegrated by the time my great grandchildren are born. Preservation of the original scan is also important. But is that really my ancestor? Who said so? Time and other damage make it so that it could be any man in a uniform.

    I want to see their faces and clothing detail. I want to see the detail of their homes and towns and furnishings. And I want future generations to be able to see and enjoy them. So I despeckle and try to eliminate noise, modify tone levels, sharpen and unsharpen, etc. until I get the best image I can manage. The purists can still get to the originals if they like, but most of my family simply want to know what great grandma looked like as a girl and what she wore.

  9. Interesting, old photos can be hundreds of years old dating from 19th century.

  10. And these are very amazing. Over 100 year photos returning back to life.

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