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

Thursday, November 21, 2019

How to take better photos for genealogy: Part Four: Quality

Historically, the only way you could obtain a copy of a photograph was to take another photograph of the original. My Great-grandmother, Margaret Godfrey Jarvis Overson, was a professional photographer and I have several examples of her attempts to make a photographic copy. Unfortunately, we do not seem to have the original photo so we cannot determine the quality of the original, but it looks like the original was likely overexposed. If you look at the face and hands you can see that they are almost white with no detail. When the copy was made, Grandmother Overson tried to compensate for the overexposure by underexposing the copy.

When a film photo (or any photo for that matter) is overexposed the overexposed area lacks detail and is often referred to as "blown out." This commonly occurs when the light illuminating the subject is uneven with areas of both bright light and dark shaded. When a photograph is underexposed, the parts in the shade or even the entire photo appear dark. The example above has both problems. The original was overexposed and the copy of the original was underexposed.

Here is a photo I took in Segovia, Spain. There was a high contrast between the dark area in the shade and the bright area in the sunlight.

Segovia, Spain
Grandmother Overson's efforts to make a copy of the photo could not compensate for the overexposure of the original. The detail in the hands and face are permanently lost unless it was possible to take another photo of the same person. I can assume that the reason the photo was being copied was that the original person was no longer available to photograph. The photo above from Segovia, Spain is a digital image and although it would be both expensive and time-consuming to return to Segovia, I could possibly do so but it would be very unlikely because of the cost and the fact that I have hundreds of other photos.

Fortunately, with digital photos, I have some latitude for correcting the problems using programs such as Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop. Here is a first pass at correcting some of the issues with the photo.

Segovia, Spain
This particular photo was taken with a camera that only supported the JPEG format so there are some limitations to the amount of manipulation available. If the camera had supported the RAW format, the ability to edit the photo would have increased. More about that later in this series. However, even with Camera RAW digital photos, there is a limit to what can be done with extreme overexposure or underexposure. The easiest solution is to make sure that the exposure is as accurate as possible when the photograph is taken.

Even cameras in the newest smartphones are now allowing the user to adjust the exposure level. Even when you are using a camera with automatic settings, if you are not aware of the light and dark in your potential image, you will not get acceptable photos all the time.

The photo of the lady, however, is probably unique. It may be the only image of that person in existence. Is there any way to enhance a photo of a photo? Here is what the photo at the beginning of this post looks like with a little bit of work with Adobe Lightroom.

If you carefully compare the two photos, you will see from this version that she is wearing gloves and that her hair is split braided. You can also see details in her face and dress. Just because we can make such dramatic edits to photos, this is still no excuse for not taking the time to make a good photograph at the time the image is recorded in the camera.

Stay tuned for more insights into taking better photos for genealogy.

See the previous posts here:

Part One:
Part Two:
Part Three:

To see some of my images go to Walking Arizona or

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