Restoring and Digitizing Old Photos Using a Smartphone

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I was going through some old photos of my family overseas. My dad’s kept them in a hard brown briefcase since before I was born, and we decided to find a way for them to be able to be cherished more freely. I wanted to share a few tips I noted down along the way as I was restoring those photos. And you don’t need an elaborate setup. Grab your phones, guys.

1. Lighting and placement

The most important step you’re going to take sure you’re in a room that’ll provide even lighting. When you’re digitizing an old photo, that light source is going to determine the quality of the digitized photo for good. It can’t be light in one area and darkly shaded in the other.

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If your photo’s been bent up or rolled in any way, make sure it’s as flatly placed on its surface as it can be. Try taking a book or coaster to keep the edges down if you have to.

2. The shot itself

When you use a smartphone, it makes all the difference in the world to remember to keep your camera as zoomed out as possible. If you zoom in for some reason, the amount of pixels that capture the photo decrease; you’ll be losing detail that can hurt how well the digitization turns out.

Keep the camera at as widened of a shot as possible, and get it as close to your photo as you possibly can, without losing the focus of the picture and without the photo leaving your frame.

Try making sure you have the exposure of the camera set to a suitable number as well; the goal is to make the photo of your picture resemble the picture itself as closely as possible. This was my trial-and-error process at it:

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Make sure you focus as closely as possible. This part is a bit tricky, because you’ll end up confusing yourself over how focused it can get. Getting that close to the picture with the camera is going to make you notice it’s graininess, lack of focus, or any other small imperfections that it might have from when it was originally taken. You have to remember that you’re not trying to take a better picture; you’re trying to capture exactly what the original shows. When you’re done, look closely and pick the shot that looks best to you (and I’d advise not to take too many shots. You’ll end up having a harder time picking and spend more time going over minor details).

3. Post-processing and printing

After the shot, you’ll want to do some editing. This is where you can take the wonders of technology that we now hold today and utilize them to help improve the picture. This is where you’ll have some fun, but remember not to get too carried away; your goal in the end is for the photo to be as natural as it’s been on paper its entire life.

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First step is to make sure you rotate the photo to where it’s aligned perfectly in a straightforward frame. Next, crop out any area where the edge of the photo can visibly be seen. People shouldn’t be able to tell that you were taking a photo of a photo.

Make sure to mess with the exposure levels. If you didn’t feel like you captured it right, the exposure levels will help bring out the detail that might have gone in hiding in the darks and the noise. Work with the sharpness as well, and see whether it helps bring out more detail old photos that may have been a bit out of focus, or just lacked some detail.

I’m going to make a shameless plug here: if you have an Android phone or an iOS device, I highly recommend using VSCO Cam. The app really comes in handy when you want to convert the images to a monochromatic scale, or give it some highlights and tint. And if you do think that a filter is something your photo’s restoration would benefit from, then the ones on VSCO will give you the best options.

When you’ve got your finished product, make sure you don’t just save it on your drive and move on to the next project. Show it to someone that photo means something to. Buy them a print and surprise them! And when you do, remember to give the photo a good image resolution. Typically, for poster prints, I use 300 pixels per inch. It shouldn’t be lower than that. And remember that your photo’s original size also determines the size you choose for the poster. It shouldn’t come out looking like a blown up JPEG.

By the way, if you happen to have any negatives, then repeat the exact same steps I provided above, except with a solid light source behind that negative. The results come out even better.

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Many of us are the first ones out of our families to grow up in the age of information. Before that time, photos used to be taken on film, and they had to be processed, washed by hand, and carefully worked on in the darkroom to come out as perfectly as possible.

Back then, we also kept photos in envelopes. We kept our family albums in hardcovers, and not in hard drives. Our parents and grandparents hold on to photographs from their past that they couldn’t copy and paste to another source for safekeeping. They couldn’t save their pictures from getting stained, burned, or decolorized. They’ve had to keep every image precious to them in safe condition. And now, because of how far we’ve come, we’re able to make those photos last for generations to come through the clicks of a mouse.

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These pictures are of my grandfather. He was one of the greatest men I’ve ever known.

P.S. If you want to try something a bit differnt, you can always make a huge black and white print.

  • http://twitter.com/rwboyer rwboyer

    that sounds LIKE A GREAT IDEA… ummm NOT…

  • Jon

    And here I’ve just been using my scanner.

  • Ibo

    yeah if you invest the time (because that is the most resource you need) to go through old photos, do it correctly the first time.

    With this setup the picture isn’t even flatten out, as most old photos tend to curve, wrap themselves up.