We’ve been restoring photos for years. We’re good at it and take good care of your originals. But sometimes one cannot bring oneself to part with an original even overnight. Here’s your answer: you can scan it yourself. We may be able to produce a slightly better image. But you can come quite close to that quality. And having ANY image scanned is better than never scanning the original at all! Here’s how to scan for restoration.
A scanner is like a digital camera, only instead of a patch of light sensors, it has them all in a line. This ‘line’ of sensors has a tack-sharp lens in front of it. When you scan a photo, the sensor moves across the image. It records the light reflected from the original. The scanner makes one pass to see what is there, and lets you specify how it should handle your image. Then you press the ‘scan’ button and it will scan and save your file. This article discusses how to get the best image file you can, so you can get the best restoration work.
Buy, borrow, or find a neighbor or relative who has a flatbed scanner. If the scanner has a fax machine and printer as part of it, keep looking. These scanners are fine for documents but won’t handle restoration work. If you want to buy a scanner, the expert archivist Sally Jacobs recommends a Canon. I’m partial to Epson. I use the Epson Perfection V500 PHOTO scanner, which cost me roughly $160. It or its successor would be likely to do an excellent job for you. Hewlett-Packard scanners are easy to use. But they can’t do some tricks which might be important. If you’re borrowing a scanner and that’s all you have, work with what you’ve got, of course. But… if you have the choice, try to find a scanner which will allow you to scan at 16-bits-per-channel. More on this later, but it is quite important to squeeze the best out of faded photos. And if you want to scan slides or negatives, you’ll need a scanner which can handle them. Try to find one which has the “Digital ICE” hardware. These scanners do a tricky second scan using infrared light. This way they can get rid of any dust particles on the slide.
You’ll want gloves. The white lintless inspection gloves are nice and we like ‘em because they make you look cool. But the tan latex or blue nitrile gloves work well also. You can often buy a pair of the white gloves at a photo processing shop, but they can be expensive. Five bucks on Ebay will get you several pair. Latex and nitrile gloves are available at drugstores, home improvement centers or hardware stores. Honest: fingerprints eat photos. It may take some time – but your kids will see your fingerprints on Uncle George’s face.
For cleaning the photo, you can use a soft antistatic brushes. These are the ones used by photographers to clean their lenses. A can of compressed air is useful for this as well, and you can buy them at photo centers. But beware: don’t use canned air on a very old or fragile photo – you might damage it. If you expect to do a lot of scanning, you might pick up some ‘PEC’ pads – they are non-abrasive. DO NOT EVEN THINK about using Q-Tips, Kleenex, or paper towels, as they are abrasive and can harm your photo.
Prepare your work area: have enough room and keep your coffee cup and sandwich on the table across the room. No, I don’t have any personal horror stories about this, but I take the risk seriously.
Prepare the scanner: make sure the platen glass is clean. You can use a moistened cleaner cloth used for eyeglasses, or you can use a soft cloth with a shot or two of Windex. Note: use the Windex on the cloth, NOT on the scanner.
Prepare yourself: wear gloves. If you choose not to wear gloves, wash your hands with great care. Use dishwashing liquid, which is quite good against oils. Save the hand lotion until AFTER you do your scanning! Keep your hands away from your face and hair, too. And wash your hands again if you have to answer the phone or take a bite of that sandwich across the room.
Prepare the photo: if your photo is fragile or quite old, don’t touch it! ANY physical contact might damage the image. We can clean up imperfections using computer tools. If your photo is in good shape, dust it with your antistatic brush or PEC pad if you have them. If you have a can of compressed air, DO NOT SHAKE THE CAN! Be sure to hold the can upright – you don’t want to spray propellant on your photo. Dust off the photo with your compressed air, and place it on the scanner’s glass. Try to get it aligned with the sides if you can.
Scanner settings before you scan
When you fire up your scanner, you’ll be able to choose from a variety of settings. If given a choice, pick the ‘professional’ control panel rather than the ‘home’ version.
- Document Type: prints are ‘reflective’ images. If you’re scanning slides or negatives you can choose them by name.
- Image Type: choose 48-bit color (or “16 bits per channel) if at all possible. This allows for much better tones. Do a color scan even if the original is black-and-white. This is because there are tricks we can do with color information in such an original.
- Resolution: you’ll want 300 DPI (dots per inch) at the printed size. So if you’re doing a same-size restoration you can scan at 300 DPI and get a decent print. But if you’re enlarging a 4×5 into an 8×10, you’ll want to scan it at 600 DPI. Note: if you’re scanning a torn or cracked photo, double these numbers. Scan it at twice what your printed size calculations would suggest. If you are scanning slides or negatives, scan at 2400 DPI or the next higher resolution to get an 8×10. You can scan it at half that number if you only want a 4×5.
- Unsharp Mask: do not enable this: it may interfere with the restoration process.
- Descreening: choose this if you’re scanning from a newspaper or magazine photo. If you see tiny dots on your image, it may be a print from an inkjet printer. Choose ‘descreening’ for this type of image, too..
- Backlight Correction: this is best left as part of the restoration process.
- Color Correction: do not enable this. You’ll be doing the first part after the preview and we will do the rest will in the restoration process.
- Dust Removal: choose the “Digital ICE” option if you’re scanning slides or negatives. Well, unless you have a Kodachrome slide or black and white negatives. Exception: you can use this for Ilford brand black and white negatives.
- Save File As: specify TIF as the format in which to save your file, as it will yield the best quality image. If JPEG is all the scanner will let you choose, specify the highest quality of JPEG. This will preserve the best image quality possible with that format.
Scanner settings after you do the preview
Once you choose your settings, do a ‘preview’ scan. You’ll see a low-resolution image, and will be able to choose the area you’ll be scanning. Select the photo itself, with as little blank area or white paper edges as possible. You may need to reposition the original and preview-scan it again, but try to do this as few times as possible. LED scanners are safe. But some of the other scanners produce significant ultraviolet light. UV light can fade your original.
Once you have chosen the area to be scanned, find the ‘histogram’ button. This button will be on your scanner’s control panel (well, on the computer screen). It will look something like this:
A histogram is nothing more than the familiar ‘bell curve’ you remember from school. You remember – the number of students with each test score. In this case, you don’t see the number of students with their test scores. Instead, you see the number of dots at each level of grey. (These dots are ‘pixels’, from the phrase ‘picture elements’.) When you look at this bell curve, it may have a funny shape. A faded photo will have its shape pushed to the right, towards white end. A dark photo will have its shape pushed to the left, towards the black end.
The histogram button will take you to a window that looks a bit like this:
This histogram is currently set to display all colors (RGB=Red, Green, and Blue). The height of the graph indicates the number of pixels with a certain darkness. The scale across the bottom runs from 100% black to the left to 100% white to the right. Thus the graph showing above is of a photo which has a slight weighting to the dark side (it has a lot of shadows in it).
The sliders (most scanners show them as triangles) are set to the far outside of the graph. Some scanners will move the sliders in to the edges of the data. We’ll be doing it by hand in a moment. What the sliders do is tell the scanner how to view the original. Everything outside of the slider will be 100% black on the left or 100% white on the right.
Choose the Red channel. (most scanners will let you choose the channel; if you can’t, you may want to borrow the use of a better scanner). You should see something like this:
Using your mouse, position your cursor over the black slider triangle. Left-click-and-hold, and slide the triangle until it is at the base of the red data ‘bell graph’. Yours might show as black, but it is displaying the same thing. Now release the mouse button. Do the same thing with the white slider triangle, and bring it just up to the edge of the data. Your screen should now look something like this:
If you have a white border around your photo, you may see a bump and a valley at the far right. You will see the data from the photo itself begin a bit to the left of that. In this case, move the white cursor where the data would fall to the baseline if it weren’t for the bump at the far right.
Repeat this process for the Green and Blue channels.
Finally, choose the RGB channel. Adjust the center slider to get the tones you want in your photo. The changes you make should be visible in the preview panel; skip this step if you can’t see the effects).
OR… skip all this and cheat. Using the RGB channel, choose the white eyedropper. Use it to sample what should be a true white. Then repeat for black and a medium grey in your image.
Saving the file
With most scanners you will tell it how to save the file before you do your scanning. Save the file as a TIFF file if you can. This type of file is “lossless” and will preserve as much as possible in the image. It will not add noise or artifacts. (“Artifacts” is a fancy word for “junk”.) If you must save it as a JPG file, choose as high a quality and as large a file size as you can.
Make sure the name of the file is something useful. “Image001.tiff” won’t help you find it later. Set the file to Read-Only if you can. The rule is to have one copy which you never, ever manipulate: do your work on a copy! And send a copy to your cousin two states away, too, so a local disaster won’t take out your scan.
Transferring the file to us
Once you have the file saved, upload it here
…or email it to us:
email@example.com my main email address. If the size of the file is too large, consider using DropBox. (Send me the link and I can retrieve it.) Or burn the file to a CD and mail it to us at:
Dapplecreek Photo Retouching and Restoration
179 Bannock Burn Lane NW
Willis, VA 24380
If your photo is stuck to album page, leave it in place and put the whole page on scanner window. If the you can’t scan the whole photo, make two scans: we can stitch ‘em back together.
Is your photo is stuck to the page of a one of those ‘Magic Magnetic Adhesive” photo albums? Peel the clear plastic back and expose the photo to scan it. Use a camera if you must… but scanners provide better images to work with.
Is your photo is stuck to the glass of its frame? Take a photo of it using a 12MP digital camera (or one with higher resolution). Stand with the camera dead in front of the frame, and use lights at an angle to the photo. (See sketch if that wasn’t clear.) Use a tripod if you can. Also try to take the photo in open shade or on a cloudy day. Take several photos from slightly different angles. That way, we can remove any reflections of you and the camera can using the good parts of other shots.
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