Now that digital photography is set to make film photography obsolete, we sometimes forget how lucky we are to be able to produce high-quality images that can be copied without limit. With the technology we have today, we can easily capture important memories, preserve them indefinitely, and share them instantly over email and social networks like Facebook. If you have faded photos of your great-grandparents, or of early American settlements and landscapes, you might have felt a nostalgic longing to see these images with their original luster. After all, they are sometimes our only tangible windows into history.
Thankfully, modern technology has not overlooked past memories in favor of current ones. Today, there are various methods to both preserve and restore our treasured photos. Before you ship your photos off to the lab, however, it is important to understand the difference between digital restoration and other forms of non-digital photo conservation.
What does digital restoration and non-digital photo conservation do?
First of all, there are two things we can do with old photos (besides enjoy them): Halt and minimize further deterioration of the photo, or restore the image to a more attractive state. Digital photo restorers deal only with restoring the image. Non-digital photo conservationists deal with restoration, preservation, or both. However, digital photo restoration is the only option that leaves the original photograph unchanged.
Digital photo restoration: Creating an attractive digital copy of your photo
Digital photo restoration is an aesthetic process. The goal is to make an image that is an improved version of the original. The original photograph is not changed in any way, so there is always an option in the future to use the photo for another project. After you send your photo in, it is scanned and set aside in a protective bag. The scanned copy of the photo becomes the raw material for the digital photo restorer to work on. The digital photo restorer has a variety of techniques to improve the scanned image’s contrast, color, sharpness, and brightness. The restorer wants to produce an attractive, quality image that is true to the original photo. Fortunately, there is plenty of room to get things just right, since none of the adjustments made are permanent. Everything happens to the scanned copy.
Non-digital photo conservation: Applying changes directly to the photo
Non-digital photo conservation is divided into two camps: preservation and restoration. With non-digital photo conservation, all changes are made directly to the original photo. These changes are permanent. With preservation, such changes can be beneficial, since they in effect freeze the photo in its current state. The photo’s deterioration is slowed as much as possible, ensuring that it can be enjoyed for many more years. With non-digital photo restoration, on the other hand, changes are applied directly to the original photo to improve the way it looks. Non-digital photo restoration is sometimes considered destructive since the “original” image is being replaced or permanently altered.
There are a variety of non-digital conservation techniques. A competent artist can use an airbrush to paint over the photo (this technique can be replicated on the computer, and less destructively). Chemicals can be used to bleach or redevelop the photograph; however, these chemicals can be very destructive and may further deteriorate the photo. Neutron Activation and x-ray fluorescence can help with fading, but both techniques are rather expensive and impractical for personal photos.
Summary: Deciding what to do with your old photos
Non-digital photo preservation saves what is already there. Non-digital photo restoration adds to the original photo. Digital photo restoration makes a copy of the original photo, and the copy is then improved to create an image that is ready for display. Digital photo restoration does not alter the original photo in any way, so it is often the best option if you are wary of harming your irreplaceable photos. You may want to consider physical photo preservation if your photos are fragile and already fading. Beforehand, get high-quality scans of the photos. That way, if anything happens, you will be able to make restored copies.
For an interesting read on how curators from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, received lessons in photo conservation during a visit to Harvard read http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2011/02/saving-snapshots-of-history/