New technology can save even the oldest photos

Moldy, creased school pictures pressed in Dad's wallet, images torn in pieces or decorated with a child's colored markers, partly missing photos, and snapshots "baked" in grandma's attic for many years: Don't give up on these precious family memories, suggest photography experts. With today's digital technology, there isn't much that can't be done to restore treasured photos of loved ones or special occasions. All can be remade to look as good as new, if not even better.

About the only thing that isn't possible is to turn an out-of-focus picture into a sharp one.

The price for this photo magic has come down dramatically, too.

"What could have cost $100, $200, $300, or more 20 years or even 10 years ago now can be had for $30, $40, or $50," says Bob Banasik, a photographic consultant and past president of the Digital Imaging Marketing Association. "Our most expensive jobs today run about $150. Some jobs are only $15 or $20, making photo restoration affordable for almost anyone."

Mass merchandisers and even individuals, using computer software programs, are also restoring and doctoring photos.

Walgreens, for instance, recently announced a new photo restoration service. The originals are scanned at store locations, copies made, and the finished products returned within 14 days.

At photo stores, a three- to four-day turnaround is typical, although it will take longer if the photo emulsion is cracked.

Once upon a time, retouch artists did such work slowly and carefully by hand. Now the computer has speeded up the process. Computer restoration software ensures color accuracy, can correct tonal levels, fix scratches, and "remove" dirt, mold, pen marks, and other flaws.

If there's a scratch in the sky, the computer can fill to match. The job becomes more complicated when a scratch runs from a uniform area to a nonuniform one, perhaps cutting across a person's face. Then restoring it is a matter of enlarging the image and replacing damaged or missing pixels.

That's where a technique called cloning comes into play. Cloning involves copying a pixel from an area adjacent to the one where the image is missing or damaged. Once all the pixels have been replaced, the picture is sized and printed.

In some cases, where whole sections of the image are missing, technicians may have to imagine what was there, whether grass, trees, or a fence, and create it mostly from scratch.

If a person's image is partly missing, a corresponding body part on one side of the body can be copied, flipped over, and used to replace eyes, ears, and so forth on the other.

"If one eye is damaged, usually the other one is partially intact," Banasik says. "If that's not the case, we have an ample supply of 'spare parts' in our digital files from which to choose. We can make them conform pretty closely to the structure of the face. And while it may not be Uncle Charlie's eyeball, it will look very similar."

Most people don't mind. Usually, Banasik says, the work of the restoration professionals exceeds customer expectations. "When the customer comes in and opens the envelope [with the restored photo], the reaction we often get is, 'Oh my, that's beautiful.' "

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