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

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Think before you edit that old photograph

Photo of Marinus Christensen #1
This old photograph just seems to beg to be edited. With all the tools of Adobe Photoshop available to me today. I could really make this photo look top notch. (By the way, you may need to click on the photo to see what I am talking about). But wait. Do you really want to do that? Is there some historical reason for making "improvements" to the photo or is it merely a fuss-budget response to untidiness?

There are two types of editing: destructive and none at all. Details in the original will undoubtedly be lost to any possible editing notwithstanding the power of Photoshop. I am not talking about the type of editing where someone's head is put on another's body. See Ethics in Photo Editing for some interesting examples. I am talking about taking out the scratches and other signs of use or aging that are the inevitable results of handling an old photo. In fact, if you look closely at this image, you will likely discover that it is not an original photograph #1 at all. It is a photograph of another pre-existing photograph. The original may be the only one of its kind in existence and further may now be lost. Here is another copy of the "original."

Photo of Marinus Christensen #2
You can see that this is also a photograph of another photograph. Now, with this second photograph, would you feel the need to doctor up the first? Of would you merely discard the first as a bad copy of the second photograph? I suggest that ethically you need to do something entirely different. The first photograph is cropped at the feet of the subject, so the writing on the bottom of the original photo and at the bottom of Photo #2. Someone, in the past, has already chosen to alter the "original." In addition, both photographs so evidence that the original was larger and contained more information than the cut-down copies. Close examination, seems to indicate that #1 and #2 are slightly different photographs of the same original. #1 was found in the form of a negative. The negative was scanned and then made into a positive image in Photoshop. It is likely, from examining the negative, that the scratches came from mis-handling of the negative. But it is significant that both #1 and #2 point to some history of the original. Changing either one would, in essence, destroy that history. Is the history of these two photos significant? Who knows? Maybe yes, maybe no. But before you jump in and start making cosmetic changes, think about the history you are destroying. Perhaps if the person who cut up the original had though about this, we would have the complete photo and more historical clues about the subject.

Think and think hard before you edit that old photograph. At the very least, always keep an entirely unedited copy of the original.


  1. If you use Picassa instead of Photoshop, your original is always saved and an alterations are kept in copies.

  2. Wise words, James. I use Picasa for my minor tweaks and as I don't fiddle too much with my photos hardly ever use my (old) copy of Photoshop. Am presently getting my head around Gimp.

  3. Photoshop allows you to keep the original untouched too, it all depends on your workflow. All editing regardless of the photo should be non-destructive. In the example above I would attach images 1 and 2 to the person and also an image 3 my Photoshopped version of #1.

  4. I think by scanning an old photo you have already changed it. As good as a scan might be it will not reproduce everything exactly the same as the original. Of course one should keep the original in a safe place, like in an album, if possible. And one should also keep an unedited version of a scan on file. But trying to enhance the image is useful and desirable. After all, we are trying to see who or what is in the photo to the best of our ability and "cleaning" it up is a great to do that.

  5. The use of the photo drives its formatting. A strict historical record requires the original photo or a high quality unmodified scan.
    A project, display, or book designed to engage or interest marginally interested family members may well benefit from "pretty" photos.

  6. Great article I would think in the long run that any picture would be better than not having a picture at all.

    But I do agree with the premise that it should be about restoration rather than renovation for those beautiful digital pictures of old.

  7. Bottom line: "At the very least, always keep an entirely unedited copy of the original." That's what I do, have always done.