Photos and History

Photos are the way we time-travel. And more and more people, fortunately, are discovering it. I do a lot of restoration and the subsequent printing and cropping.

Here I am doing the latter, cropping a just-printed photo, just now in the store:

Restoring old photos may involve a lot more than you perhaps imagine.

There’s the obvious (but not always easy) improving of contrast, colour, white balance, saturation, sharpness, shadow areas, and so on. And the time-consuming but very effective removal of specks, scratches, tears, fingerprints, and so on. It can easily take an hour per photo and involve literally hundreds of imperfections that one by one get removed.

But there’s also local adjustments. For example, often a photo is much better if the sky is slightly less white and more blue. And if we think the sky was actually blue at the time, we will bring some of that back.

Faces have often shifted colour, or lost colour, too – they need to be brought back to real skin tones, which is a tricky but essential local adjustment.

Then there’s removal of items. I remember a bride whose favourite picture was one of her and her new husband – but the photographer had taken it with the couple standing very close to a giant “STOP – NO ENTRY” sign. That was not what she wanted, for obvious reasons, so I removed it. And there was the Muslim bride photographed close to a prominent “Jesus Saves” sign – also removed!

Perspective fixes are also very important. Often, when a picture was taken the camera was pointed upward or downward. When this is distracting or when it leads to unacceptable distortion, I fix that too.

But there’s also artistic insight. What shadow would look best in this area of the image? What colour would work best here? And when we replace an area that is missing from a print, we often need to interpret what the person would have had in that part of the picture. Especially when it involved a photo made in, say, 1844, this means research.

And research comes in in other areas, too. For example, in this picture I spent a lot of time researching the exact colour of the copper roof in 1961. Copper changes colour constantly over the years, so it was important to get it right.

Uniforms too—which I see quite a lot of in the photos that people bring to me in Ottawa—need to be right, and it can be a challenge to find out exactly what this regiment’s daily uniform or or that police outfit’s mess dress uniform looked like in a given year in the past.

We use a variety of tools, from software like Photoshop and Lightroom, and specialized software that carries out math operations, to physically retouching with carefully chosen inks. For most restorations a combination fo at least a few of these is required for best results.

But in spite of all the work required, bringing a worn photo back to good quality is one of the most satisfying things I do. Because it really is a form of time travel: as I work, I imagine myself taking the picture, however many years ago it was. And the owner’s reaction, when they see the restored photo, is a reward in itself.


In a portrait, if you have eyes you probably should look – but it does not necessarily have to be at the camera, in every picture.

Like in this self portrait I made this morning:

Bonus question for my Flash students: what lights am I using here? There’s three.

More restore in the store

Since the store re-opened, I have been doing a lot of photo restoration. Like these two, today:

And these examples illustrate two things. One, I do it all in Adobe Lightroom. With a bit of inventiveness and experience, it can handle this. And that brings me to the second point: there is a big difference between “good” and “good enough”.

Of course in the ideal world, you only do “good”. But that can easily mean several hours on one image. Which means a couple of hundred dollars – which puts the restoration beyond most people. So instead, you do what is warranted. It does have to be good enough, as these are, but it doesn’t have to be perfect.

Whatever you do – do restore your old pictures. Or have an expert do it for you. When I fix old photos, I also print them as giclée prints, using pigments on permanent media. So that they will last an awful lot longer than the orginals.

COVID Self-Portrait, Day 82: It’s Over. Now, The New Normal.

It has been an interesting journey. In many way, of course, it is not over, but the main disaster, the physical distancing and social isolation, and the closure of the shop, is now over. I am back in operation, ready to serve the citizens of Orléans and Ottawa as before. With, of course, some changes to ensure everyone’s safety. It certainly was a long 82 days.