Restoring Damaged Photos with Copy Work

Restoring Damaged Photos with Copy Work


Being able to restore an old photo can make you the hero of both the older generation and every future generation.

This is a photograph of a seriously damaged glossy print. I eliminated most of the problems with lighting and two minutes of retouching.

It’s called copy work, but I like to think of it as photographing a photograph. It’s more romantic, isn’t it?

Knowing how to take a straightforward photograph of a picture is an exercise in photographic lighting. More specifically, it’s all about removing reflections. If you’re copying a glossy print— copy work's greatest challenge— ironically, you do need to reflect something in the surface of the picture, and that’s something is blackness.

You need to do three things when you are photographing a photograph.

  1. Bath the print in the softest, most even light you can find. You don’t want harsh shadows anywhere near this print. Harsh light will accentuate any scratches or defects in the surface of the picture. And it’s important that the lighting is even from corner to corner; one edge cannot be brighter than the other.

  2. Make sure that whatever is reflected in the surface of the print is so dark that it becomes invisible. In other words, if you put your print on a table, you wouldn’t want a bright white ceiling above the print creating glare. You would want a dark ceiling—dark ceilings reflect blackness. Blackness, in the case, is the same as nothing.

  3. Get your camera perfectly square with the print. Make sure the lens is pointing directly at the center of the image and the back of your camera is parallel with the surface of the print. If you do that, when you look through the camera all of the edges of the image should be parallel with the edges of your viewfinder.

I use a three-sided cardboard box lined with white paper as my copy station. Any white paper will do. It could be newspaper or dirty napkins. I set it on the floor in my garage so that soft light from outside fills the box and bounces around on the white paper walls of the box eliminating any kind of shadows.

In the video, I experimented with shooting through a hole in a piece of black cardboard. When the black cardboard is facing the print, virtually all reflections vanished from the picture.

Some pictures are easier to copy than others. Any picture that has lots of black areas is going to be more difficult. Black reflects bright highlights; white doesn’t.

These same basic rules for copy work apply to most pieces of flat art. If you wanted to copy an oil painting, for example, the most important consideration would be lighting it properly.

Even if you have no need to copy a photograph, it’s actually an educational exercise that can be applied to all kinds of photography. Photographing silver, for example, is all about reflecting black and white into the surface. You’re actually painting with reflections. Pick up a glossy print and play around with it. Notice what kind of lighting conditions produce appropriate light for getting rid of reflections. Remember, if you want to eliminate reflections in something— and that’s what you want to do in copy work— then you need to reflect black in the surface of your subject.

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