the grumpy genealogist


This is Sophie (1824-1921), my wife's great-great grandmother. Many photos exist from her golden years, aged 90 to 97, but none are very flattering. Only two photos have survived from her "younger" days: one from her 50th wedding anniversary as a sweet old grandma aged 76 (left), and another taken in her 40's (right), which was her personal favorite. The problem is that Sophie's favorite picture was terribly over-exposed on one side, and looks a bit freakish to her descendants. So they all choose to display the 76-year-old grandma photo, and tuck the 40-year-old mother photo away in a drawer.

Personally, I prefer the earlier photo. When we're fortunate enough to have photos of ancestors in various stages of life, it's always fun to compare them with living relatives of similar age. But before some cousin takes offense at being likened to Sophie's picture, I wanted to try and restore it as best I could.

Although this is not a quick or easy fix, the composition of the photograph makes it a prime candidate for retouching. Three things specifically - a light background, a facial close-up, and the subject is looking straight at the camera.

The first time I encountered this picture (some 20 years ago), I saw an unattractive woman with unsymmetrical facial features. She seemed a bit masculine, and was giving me the evil eye. But later photos proved she had no deformities, and actually had a very sweet, symmetrical face. So what were the issues with this pic?

Well, one side of her face appeared quite feminine with full lips and nice details around the eye, but the opposite side was washed-out. It had thin lips, thin eyebrow, and little more than a dot for an eye. Since my print was a copy of a copy at best, I wasn't going to find much hidden detail. So I played around with mirrored sections in PaintShopPro to discover what she truly looked like on that day, though not necessarily what the camera captured..

Wanting to leave as much of Sophie in tact as possible, I concentrated on four small specific items: (1) uneven hair, (2) faded eye, (3) faded lip, and (4) tilted shoulders. Again, her head-on pose simplified this step.

The hair was the easy part. Just mirrored the tip of her head from one side to the other and blended it in. The eye was more difficult to blend. And afterward, the eyes are looking in slightly opposite directions, so I needed to clone the original iris and pupil over the mirror image. That way they are focused in one direction, and the "sparkle" of her eyes match the same reflected light source.

The lips were really hard to do. I erased the tiny frowny bit on the side of her mouth, and again mirrored and blended the lips. This worked for the upper lip, but the lower lip was nearly invisible against her flushed skin. I darkened the lower lip by hand, and used blur so it wouldn't look too harsh. Still not perfect, I may need to revisit her lips. Okay, that sounded weird.

Next were the shoulders. Normally I would leave them be, but my copy was off-center. In order to center it, I wanted to add more to one side, rather than crop away from the other. The way her shoulders were positioned, I'd either have to draw in an arm, or follow the given slope, making her look like a hunchback. Instead, I chose to correct her posture with level shoulders. I mirrored the outline of her shoulder, and filled in the area using a clone brush, to match the wool material.

So in the end, is this a restoration or an enhancement? I don't know. I did comb her hair, but her lips are probably not as full as they should be. I'm not a professional photo restorer. Just a guy with lots of photos that need help. If you're looking for photo restoration tips, I suggest you do what I do. Watch lots of Eric Basir on YouTube and practice, practice, practice.


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"If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance." - George Bernard Shaw