About Me

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Spofford, New Hampshire, United States
Jeff Newcomer has been a physician practicing in New Hampshire and Vermont for over 30 years. Over that time, as a member of the Conservation Commission in his home of Chesterfield New Hampshire, he has used his photography to promote the protection and appreciation of the town's wild lands. In recent years he has been transitioning his focus from medicine to photography, writing and teaching. Jeff enjoys photographing throughout New England, but has concentrated on the Monadnock Region and southern Vermont and has had a long term artistic relationship with Mount Monadnock. He is a featured artist in a number of local galleries and his work is often seen in regional print, web publications and in business installations throughout the country. For years Jeff has published a calendar celebrating the beauty of The New England country-side in all seasons. All of the proceeds from his New England Reflections Calendar have gone to support the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program at the Cheshire Medical Center. Jeff has a strong commitment to sharing his excitement about the special beauty of our region and publishes a weekly blog about photography in New England.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Antique Photo Restoration

1926, Mom at 6

Since its invention photographs have opened a fascinating window on the past.  Antique images allow us to get a first hand view of the habits and life styles of previous generations, and to capture the life in eyes that are long departed.  Almost fifteen years ago I spent weeks restoring over 700 images for a video celebrating my mother's 80th birthday.  I was using simple editing software to effect basic repairs on images dating back to the late 19th century.  It was a remarkable experience, but I was often frustrated by the struggle, given the tools at hand, to adequately correct years of damage and deterioration.  Happily things have changed a lot since then. 


Recently I have been working on a treasure chest of images from the life of Madame Sherri, the queen of Madame Sherri's fabled castle in the woods of Chesterfield, New Hampshire.  The story of
Madame Antoinette Sherri
the Madame's rise from the a Paris dance hall singer to a costumer for the Ziegfeld Folies  and her notorious summer retreat in the New Hampshire woods is full of mystery.  I will touch on the history in a New England Photography Guild blog next week, but today I want to review my approach to the restoration of these antique photographs and how advances in Photoshop have made the restoration process much easier and more effective than it was fifteen years ago.  Fellow Chesterfield Conservation Commission member Lynn Borofsky has been exhaustively studying the documentary evidence around Madame Sherri's life, but for me it is the photographs that provide a personal sense of the woman and her remarkable time.


The Process
Madame & the Pigeons

There about as many ways to achieve a result in Photoshop as there are people doing the editing.  What follows is an overview   of my general approach and not a detailed discussion of the techniques for the use of the specific tools. I hope to come back to the details in future articles.


Madame at the Ball 1920's

The first step in digital restoration is generally to obtain a high quality scan of the original image.  Care has to be taken to avoid damage to the originals.  Some of our images were glued into a decaying photo album making it difficult to arrange pictures on the scanner deck, and occasionally, an original may only be safely
captured with a high resolution photograph.  Scanned images should
be recorded at high resolution.  Care should be taken to thoroughly clean the scanner bed and gently remove free dust from the image.

Initial Global Adjustments
After bringing the full resolution scan of an image into Photoshop, I first like to do some simple global adjustments.  Many of these

Lightroom Develop Module
adjustment can now be done in Camera Raw before the image reaches Photoshop, but I find that I am now using the sophisticated development tools in Lightroom 5 to manage most of my global adjustments.   Fine tuning and local adjustments come later in Photoshop, but these adjustments can be much better evaluated once the overall image has been brought closer to its final appearance.  Depending on the challenge, I can use Color Balance, Photo Filters or Hue Saturation to remove any color cast,  but adjustment of Temperature and Tint in Lightroom can often manage most of the necessary changes.  Antique photos often suffer from excessive contrast or are dull and flat.  I like the Exposure, Highlight and Shadow sliders in Lightroom to tame excessively bright highlights and to unblock areas of overly dark shadow.  In the picture of Madame Sherri outrageously dressed for a 1920's ball, I used Lightroom to add pop to the image while avoiding blowing out the bright detail in her amazing headdress.

Correcting the Flaws
This is the real work of photo restoration.  Images almost always have scratches, specks, stains, folds, and clipped edges .  This is

Scratches and Spots
where Photoshop shines.  I typically start with the easy stuff such as scratches and folds on non-critical portions of the image.  The goal is to meld the repair with the background. To be safe I always  do the repairs on a copy of the base layer.  The Healing Brush or Content Aware Fill can work well when the background is simple and without important detail, but when defects must be filled with matching detail, the cloning tool works best.  These tools require
meticulous care and patience and also a finger on the "Step Backwards" button to reverse the inevitable mistakes.  It takes practice, but the good news is that, if you are working on a copy layer, you can always start over.  The Healing Brush has been a wonderful time saver when removing the tiny specks that are routinely scattered about the image. This brush creates a repair that melds the surrounding pixels and is often magical, but when spots are near critical or highly contrasting areas the repair can break down.  The specks under the Madame's nose required the careful use of the cloning tool to sample in matching areas of skin texture.  In this situation I also had to avoid "healing" her carefully positioned beauty mark.

Face Work

In this image I also had to deal with the clipped corners on the top.  The right side was not an issue, since I planned to crop the top of the  image close to the peak of the mountainous headdress.  On the left some major filing was required.  I
Content Aware Fill Result
first tried Content Aware Fill, but the result couldn't match the detail in the folds of the curtain.  Using the cloning brush, I was able to capture detail from other portions of curtain.  The key is to clone from different areas, mixing the locations to avoid ending with a patch that is an obvious copy from another location.  

Cloning Curtain

Final Adjustments
It seems that there are always more flaws to correct, especially when it comes to the tiny specks, but after the close-up work it is time to pull back and take one more look at the whole image.  It is at this time that I look for areas needing local adjustments.  In this image I felt that the wonderful detail in Madame's headdress appeared a bit washed out.  I made a curves adjustment to lower the brightness and add contrast and then used a mask to apply this change only to the headdress. 

The final steps are cropping and sharpening for the desired purpose.  I tend to apply sharpening sparingly on antique images since excessive sharpening can exaggerate the impact of defects and in some areas selective noise reduction and blurring may be more appropriate. 

The restoration of antique photographs can be time consuming, but it is wonderfully rewarding.  It is especially exciting to bring people from the faded past to vibrant life, and the new tools in Photoshop make the process much easier than even a few years ago.

Come back next week for many more images, and history illustrating the remarkable life of Madame Antoinette Sherri.

Jeffrey Newcomer


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