How to Preserve Old Photos By Photographing Them, Part I

Recently I came across some old photos, one in particular that I absolutely love and want framed on my wall forever. The problem? This is a 80ish year old photo, already yellowed and discolored, and needs to be placed in a dark environment to prevent further fading, not hung on a wall.


I thought that instead of scanning the photo (which I hate doing. Hate. Hate. Hate.) I could just take a picture of it. So this is an exhaustive treatise on how to take pictures of old pictures in order to preserve them. Just about anyone can snap a picture of an old photo and have it turn out fairly well, but this method is more anal-retentive, and will result in a large, high-quality image if done correctly.

Again, scanning is faster. But I hate scanning pictures. They always look funny to me, and you need to be a freaking magician to keep dog hair and dust off the damned flatbed.
A note before we begin – you’re going to need a camera that allows you to control the ISO setting. (That doesn’t necessarily mean a DSLR.) Since I am a Manual shooter, that’s the method I’ll be outlining here. You’ll also need a tripod.
The only two props (for lack of a better word) you’ll need are a white tablecloth or bedsheet, and a piece of white foamboard. A bedsheet can be bought for about $5 at Walmart, and the foamboard is $1 at most dollar stores.
Lastly, this needs to be done on a bright, sunny day. You do NOT want sunlight actually falling on the pictures as you work, but you want the room you’re in to be bright and illuminated. Just good old fashioned sunlight. And for Pete’s sake, if you use a flash, I will hunt you down and do something unpleasant to you.
Ready? Here we go!
This is the old photo. It is an 8×10, and LOOK AT ALL THE GLORIOUS PONIES. It’s very yellowed with age. Not to mention being glued to a tattered mat.
First, place a table near at least one window. Lay the bedsheet on top. Cut the foamboard in half down the center, but don’t cut all the way through – you’re just cutting it enough to fold it. Set up the foamboard on the side of the table with the most light.
See how the board bounces the light toward the photo? That’s all it’s for, to brighten everything up.
Now stand the photo upright, nice and flat. (I had to move the foamboard around a few times to find the best light. The struggle is real.) If you do a Google search about photographing old documents and photos, it will lead you to several different sites detailing all the lights you’ll need (at least 2, as I understand it) a ring flash, this fancy thing, that fancy thing, etc.
You really don’t need all that. Find good, bright light, and make sure there isn’t any sunlight actually hitting the photo and creating weird highlights and reflections.


Place your camera on a tripod and get the old photo centered in the viewfinder.


And now the photography speak. Many apologies.
Here’s why you need to be able to control the ISO on your camera – you need to set the ISO at 100. At ISO 100, you will have little to no grain or “noise” in your photos. The higher the ISO, the more noise/grain. We want no noise. We want this picture to be smoother than a fresh jar of Skippy, okay?
Next, you want a large aperture number (aka F-stop). That way, the entire photo you’re taking a picture of will be nice and sharp. A small aperture number, and parts of the photo will be soft and blurred – the exact opposite of what we want. For this picture, my F-stop was 10. Not huge, but large enough for the entire frame to be in focus and sharp.
To compensate for the low ISO and the large F-stop, you’ll need a slower shutter speed. The slower the shutter speed, the longer the shutter is open, and the more light enters the camera. Adjust accordingly, using the exposure meter, should your camera have one.
These are the settings I ended up using.


1. Shutter speed 1/8 ||  2. (Aperture) F/10  ||  3. Exposure meter – balanced in the center.
This is an extremely slow shutter speed, and if I tried to take this without a tripod, the picture would be blurry, because I am a human being that is breathing and is incapable of being perfectly still. Hence the tripod. If you have one, feel free to use a remote control as well. (I did.) That eliminates the possibility of any blur in your photos from camera shake. (The camera will move when you press the shutter button and can screw up your pictures. Seriously.)
And now…snap away. Take a bunch of pictures, because I said so.Now you might be wondering why in the world anyone would go through this much trouble. The main reason is that most cameras these days take ginormous pictures – mine takes images that are 6016 x 4000 pixels. After editing and cropping, the photo above is a 4600 x 3640, 24 MB image. That’s big! That’s larger than a scanned image would be, scanned at 300 dpi and then cropped. I could print a 13×19 inch photo without any graininess or loss of quality.

When you’re happy with your pictures, stick them onto your computer, DO NOT RESIZE THEM, and come back here on Wednesday and I’ll show you how to edit them!


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