Like me, I am sure that many of you have been around photography for a quite a while. Maybe you go back to the early days of digital; perhaps back into the days of film. It’s entirely possible that some of you may even predate the popular use of color film. One thing that will resonate with all of us is just how good digital photography is at the moment; the quality and clarity of images is astounding when compared to just a few short years ago.
Also like me, I am sure that many of you have amassed a large collection of older photographs that may be gathering virtual dust on an old hard drive or real dust in a slide box or binder. Despite the fact that many of these images may have been taken using older technology, compositionally there will undoubtedly be many great shots amongst them – shots that just need the potential in them unlocked. So what can we do, to bring our older shots up to date?
Let’s start with prints. Some of you, if you are like me, will have boxes full of old prints from your film days. Some of these images will be crying out to be digitized; preserved in binary for the future [click the link to see another method]. All you need in order to do this is a flatbed scanner and some dedication. Scanners these days are pretty cheap, but the scanning itself can be laborious.
Select only your very best images, wipe them down with a soft, lint-free cloth to remove any dust and finger prints, and then place carefully on the scanner bed. Now, you need to decide which format to scan. If you wish to reprint at a later date, scan at the best resolution and save the files to 16 bit TIFF. This will be produce big file sizes, but at the very best quality. If you are looking to scan only as a digital reference, then a lower resolution jpg will work just fine.
Image by Martin Garcia via Flickr
Scanning your old prints is a good place to start
Some of you may still have vast collections of transparencies or negatives, and again you can release the digital value of these with a scanner. At the most basic level, some flatbed scanners include film adapters for 35mm film. Some can even scan medium format. However, you will not get the very best quality from a flatbed. It will be fine for reference files, but for larger format printing a flatbed will not cut it.
For this, you will need to move up to a dedicated scanner. Once the preserve of photo labs, basic film scanners are well within the reach of the dedicated enthusiast photographer. The majority of consumer level film scanners will only scan 35mm, but can do it at pretty high resolutions of up to 4000 ppi. There are more expensive models that can also work with medium format. To extract the utmost quality from medium format, you could use a drum scanner; however, even secondhand these can be very expensive. Although you can still buy film scanners new, there is plenty of choice in the second hand market as a trawl through eBay would reveal.
When scanning transparencies or negatives, you need to take the utmost care in the preparation. Carefully blow any dust or hairs from the surface using compressed air. Make sure you give a burst of air away from the film first, to remove any propellant, as this can mark the film surface. Again as with scanning prints, be selective. Film scanning is a laborious and boring process.
Image by Contri via Flickr
Film scanners are slow but capable of very high quality
Lastly, many of us will have large collections of older digital images, taken when the technology was in its infancy and quality was nowhere near as good as it is today. These images can be resized with a little careful work to a more respectable resolution using editing software such as Photoshop or a dedicated enlargement app. The best way to enlarge is to do it in several small steps of 10-15% and not to go too far. A 50-100% increase in the image dimensions is probably the limit.
So, having created a new digital collection of older images, what can we do to them to improve the quality and aesthetics of them? As camera technology has moved on, so has the processing software. We can do many more things to our images with relative simplicity compared to a few years ago. At the most simple level, we can boost the contrast and saturation of our images – lifting shadows a touch, pulling back skies a little – however, because of the source material we will not be able to go too far without clipping the image. Beyond that, we can clean up older images, removing dust and blemishes. For images that are bit grainy, we can turn them into gritty black and white.
Image by Pedro Szekely via Flickr
Use modern processing techniques to bring life to older photos
Beyond the basic photoshop adjustments, these days there are a whole range of processing plugins such as Nik and Topaz. With these, you can add warmth or contrast, create movie-style looks, or even add graduated filters to enhance the skies. You can also improve the look of images by adding attractive borders and even some text titles to the bottom.
There is so much that we can do to our older images to bring them up to date. The only constraint is time. For this reason, pick your very best older images only, and work on them first. Once you are happy with what you can achieve, move onto to your other images.