We all have ’em. Old pictures; faded, sometimes folded, maybe ripped, missing a corner, rudely marked with a ball point pen, scratched, poked, stained. Sometimes the only remaining physical image of a loved one long gone, sometimes a favorite snapshot taken on the spur of the moment (and if only that guy in foreground hadn’t been there). Legacy images are hard prints that have no ancestry… no negative, certainly no digital file; wispy figments that give our memories some substance.
And there is the artwork left behind. Watercolors, oils, and pencil drawings of people and places that suddenly take on new meaning when the artist has passed. Images hung for years in forgotten corners, stored in the back of a closet, under a bed, or stacked in the attic. Suddenly, everyone in the family wants it.
Legacy images frequently come with a lot of baggage. Many times, they are part of an inheritance; a singular treasure sought after by those left behind. Sometimes they become the symbol of a sibling rivalry still unresolved. After years of working with these type of images, I think we’ve seen all of the above.
In order to reproduce any image, it needs to be digitized. So, the first consideration for reproduction of legacy prints (images which have no negative or digital file available) is size. Most easily accessible flatbed scanners max out at about 12″x18″. If the original is larger than this size, it will most likely have to be photographed. I’ll talk about that process and its pitfalls in a later post, so for now let’s assume you’ve got a print that fits into the 12″x18″ space.
Next question we’re likely to ask is what the original is printed on? Is it an old photograph that’s loose or a photo that was mounted and hand painted? Is it framed, was it matted, can we take it apart? The best results in flatbed scanning require that the image lays perfectly flat on the glass. Many old images are printed (or mounted) on curved surfaces. These types of curved surfaces are never going to scan perfectly on a flatbed.
Many old photos have simply been placed in a frame under glass with no matte. This is a red flag for scanning. If any moisture has manged to get between the image and the glass, there’s quite possibly mold feasting on the emulsion. If it’s a photo that is pressing up to the glass, even without any moisture, a chemical reaction is possible between the glass and the print. It’s one of the reasons we always recommend using a matte for any print going under glass, to keep the surface of the print from contacting the glass.
We frequently see a photo stuck to the glass. I recently was asked to reproduce an old color photo stuck to the glass in a frame. The proper way to handle this is to add a little liquid detergent (I used Photo-Flo) to some warm water and soak the glass with the print attached in that solution in a flat tray. (Have patience.) In this case, we not only freed the print from the glass, we discovered two other prints stuck to the back of the original print that the customer didn’t realize were there. Seems Mom just kept putting a new print over the old one. All the prints were in amazingly good shape after allowing them to dry on a flat surface.
As long as we can put the image flat on the scanner, we probably can get a decent scan. For images that can’t be taken out of the frame, a camera shot will have to made. It’s possible to flatbed scan through glass but the process is a bit tricky.
The first time you take your prints out of the envelope and look at them, you are probably damaging them. Each time you flip through them, like a deck of cards, you are causing little specks of the emulsion to flake off. Most aren’t readily visible to the naked eye, but they will show up on a scan, especially if you elect to make the image larger. Put it in your wallet and you are asking for trouble later on when you want to make a copy. The combination of heat, abrasion, and pressure can ruin the image. So keeping your old photos in a stack is a sure way to gradually make them worse. And for goodness sake, don’t write on the back of your photos with a ballpoint pen. This writing will invariably show up in a scan as if you wrote on the face of the print, backwards. If you must write on the back of a print, use a felt tip marker or very soft pencil with a light touch.
Polaroid prints pose a special challenge. Many were unevenly “fixed,” some were never “fixed” (that’s the wet swipe you were supposed to make on the print after you separated it from the backing). How well they were handled after that separation will determine how well they will scan.
I’m often approached by someone with a box of prints they want to “put on disc.” Maybe 50 or 100 or more. My advice is always the same: buy a scanner. If you have a lot of prints that are in good shape (not faded or damaged, too dark or too light), any good quality scanner (many of which are available for about $100 or so) will do a reasonable job of digitizing them. Granted, it will take you a while, but it will still be cheaper than paying someone else to do it. If you have some prints that don’t fit into the “good quality” framework; prints that have color that needs to be corrected, are too dark or too light or that you plan to enlarge, those are the ones you might want to have someone like me scan on a more robust scanner.
Scanning on a device like our Scitex Eversmart Pro is a complicated, time-consuming process. While any scanner can scan at a high enough resolution for reproduction, what makes our scanner more effective than what you might purchase at your local Best Buy is it’s ability to discern a greater number of shades of color, and thus detail, in very light or very dark areas. This measurement of a scanner’s ability, often referred to as “D-Max,” is the reason some scanners cost hundreds and others cost in the 5-figure range. The other big advantage of the Scitex is the very robust software interface it uses, allowing a broad range of quality enhancing operations as part of the scanning process.
These days most people have moved to digital platforms. But many of the photos we took decades ago are starting to fade and disappear. As the price of film and processing dropped, the quality and permanence of the prints we got dropped as well. It’s time to take a look at those pictures of mom and dad, grandma and grandpa, and assess how they are faring. Scanning them while they are still in good shape can save the image and money at the same time.