Restoring a slice of aviation history

Posted by Ian Stark on


After decades of being stored in shoeboxes, in dusty attics, under beds or in albums under cellophane, many of the photos I was given while researching for the Black Arrows documentary were in pretty poor condition. They suffered from any combination of:

  • dust and hair speckles
  • scratches
  • fading
  • discolouration
  • tears and sections missing
  • creases
  • focus problems caused by poor scanning

Additionally, many of the photos arrived as digital images and often these were copies of copies of copies of copies ad infinitum! The unsightly artefacts in the worst of these were often too bad to repair and some fantastic content was lost forever.

I used many of the photos in the DVD, which originally was released in widescreen standard definition (720 x 576 pixels) where a lot of the quality issues just couldn't be seen. When it came to printing the images, though, it was a very different matter - especially when enlarging the originals, when every last defect became painfully obvious.

And so I set about seeing what I could do to restore the pictures to something approaching their original quality. In some (many!) cases I failed, but there are about fifty of the original 1,200 in the collection where a decent level of recovery was possible. These are the photographs I am presenting in this gallery.

Setting about such a mammoth task was no cakewalk! Although I have worked with graphics software for about a quarter of a century, and had restored many images over that time, the damage in these precious photographs was among the worst I have ever seen.

I should add that some of the photos were in very good condition and the work needed was limited to removing a bit of dust here and there. Those were the first on my todo list!

So, how do you go about restoring a sixty year old damaged photograph? Here's how I did it, using a scanner, some very clever software and a lot of coffee . . .

1. Scan

I use an Epson Perfection V600 scanner to scan photographs, slides and negatives. I scan most images at the highest resolution in order to give me as much information in the image as possible. Flecks of dust are easier to remove when they are the size of a 1p coin and with the added resolution I can really get into the tiniest details of the picture. Scanning is slow and file sizes are enormous, though, so I can only practically work on a single image in one go. The V600 has a feature called ICE which automatically removes some dust and small scratches. It's a bit hit and miss, though, so I tend to go for a manual approach.

2. Enlarge

Some images are already digital by the time they reach me, and typically they are quite low resolution, sometimes so low that there is very little detail to work with. These pictures are fine for websites, but useless for printing. I use very powerful digital enlarging software which applies artificial intelligence to work out how to add data that isn't there. Again, it's a bit hit and miss with some of the very low resolution images, but it's a starting point. For images that are already at a decent resolution, enlarging them further just gives me more detail to help with the restoration process.

3. Repair major physical damage (tears, missing pieces etc)

Some of the pictures have chunks torn off or large tears. There is no way these can be automatically repaired by software so I have to borrow other parts of the image that look similar to what I imagine the missing piece might be like, then paste it in place. Sometimes I will use bits from other photos. It's a bit like a skin graft and it has to be done in tiny sections at a time. If part of a face is missing then the challenge is somewhat greater, although it's sometimes possible to mirror the other side of the face or to borrow the missing pieces from other photos of the same person. 

4. Repair minor mishandling damage (microscratches, creases)

Creases are relatively simple to repair using a cloning technique found in Photoshop and Lightroom (the software I use for restoration). Microscratches, that may have been caused by a photograph being scraped on a hard surface, are not so easy. Scratches often start and end in areas of the photo with different tones so they have to be addressed a tiny bit at a time. In the case of the iconic photograph of the 22 loop, the scratches covered wide areas of the picture, starting in the sky, going over the aircraft and ending in the ground section. To compound matters, there were also thin streaks that looked like scratches but were in fact faint contrails from the wingtips of some of the aircraft. A combination of light blurring and cloning sorted out the worst of it, at the expense of a loss of detail in the ground. Three final issues with this photo - firstly, it was a photograph of a photograph under cellophane, so there is a lot of shine in the image. Secondly, you can just about make out the reflection of the person who took the photo! Finally, the rightmost aircraft was only half in the shot, so had to be filled out by using part of another aircraft. That meant having to extend the sky and ground along the right edge. Here's a link to the final version.

5. Remove dust particles, hair etc

This can be partly done by the scanner itself, or by using the healing and cloning tools of Photoshop and Lightroom. I use a Wacom Intuous ProTablet and Pen for this process  - much easier than using a mouse. I prefer to do this job manually, just to make sure that I'm actually removing dust, not a legitimate part of the picture. It's a slow process as every square centimetre has to be magnified and inspected, but the results can be quite spectacular.

6. Remove staining and localised discolouring

Sometimes areas of the picture are damaged by water, coffee etc, or because they have been stored in cheap photo albums under sticky cellophane. Trying to remove the discolouration  and match the stained area with the rest of the image is often a case of trial and error. Getting a ballpark match isn't too hard when there's lots of sky in the image, but other pictures make the job a lot harder. 

7. Sharpen as required/possible

When you consider that the cameras of the day had no focus aids, autofocus or stabilisation, it's remarkable how brilliantly the photographers managed to capture sharp images of moving aircraft from another moving aircraft! Not all the pictures stand up to close scrutiny, though. When you enlarge them you often discover there is some 'shake' in the images or that some of the picture is 'soft'. Some of these issues can be mitigated using sharpening techniques but sometimes an image is just too far gone to make full recovery possible. In those cases you just have to decide whether the content is sufficiently interesting to just put up with it. Typically these problems won't be noticed in A5 or even A4 prints, but when you move up to A3 they begin to show themselves.

8. Adjust overall image tonal balance

This is the last step in the process. At this stage I am looking to restore (or improve upon) the original tone of the image by putting back some contrast, deepening shadows, (while still retaining detail), reducing any overexposed areas and adding a touch of vibrance to make the picture 'pop'.

As you can see, restoring an old photograph is not a five minute job! In fact, I tend to come back to each restoration job several times, because you can get too too close to the subject and miss things. Some pictures need only a little retouching and might only take half an hour, while others can take over a day. The twenty two loop photograph took about 18 hours over three or four days - that was mainly down to the troublesome microscratches. The great thing about the software I use is that it is non-destructive. That means I can make a change and if I don't like it I can undo it and start again. 

It's a very rewarding process, though, and I get a lot of satisfaction out of seeing a tatty print from the fifties coming back to life.