Restoring a Photograph from the 1870s

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Aside from taking pictures of dogs, I love restoring old photographs. A couple of weeks ago, a client brought this tintype to my studio and asked if I could restore it.

Upon examining it through a magnifying glass, I concluded that it would restore nicely. She smiled and commented, "I believe this is my great-great-grandmother. The woman's eyes look just like mine." The resemblance is indeed striking.


"Tintype" is a misnomer as tintypes were typically iron sheets that were coated with black paint or baked enamel that were then brushed over with a light-sensitive emulsion. The tintype process came about in the mid 1850s. During the Civil War, itinerant professional photographers visited encampments and took pictures of the troops. The soldiers sent these pictures home to their loved ones. The advantages of tintypes over other photographic processes (daguerreotypes and ambrotypes) of that era are that they were inexpensive to produce and the plates were relatively easy to process. In a sense, tintypes democratized photography. The process remained popular until the advent of celluloid roll film and the Kodak camera.

Because tintypes were once common, they often show up today at curio shops, flea markets, and on occasion, auctions. Here is an item from the Associated Press (AP) announcing an auction for a tintype of Billy the Kid. The picture sold for $2,300,000!


The process of restoring a photograph from the 1870s requires good tools, good Photoshop skills, and the right equipment. The first step involves making a digital copy from the original. Most mom-and-pop shops and amateurs use scanners. For tintypes, I avoid scanners. But for the sake of demonstrating their shortcomings, I made a scan of this tintype with a current mid-priced prosumer model. By adjusting the input and output curves, the scanner produced a satisfactory image. It shows that the photographer embellished the sitter's cheeks with rose pigment. Photographers of that era often embellished photographs with dyes and pigments — color photography did not exist.

However, the scan appears muddy. Although a healthy dose of Photoshop adjustment layer curves will help, there is still a lot of visual information that is lost. The LED in the scanner that illuminates artwork emits diffused ("soft") light.  Upon close examination of the surface on the actual tintype, a myriad of cracks, scratches, and fine detail appear. Diffusion tends to minimize scratches and cracks at the expense of eliminating micro detail. Diffused light also has the tendency to flatten out the overall tonal range of an original that may not be visible to the naked eye.

My standard operating procedure is to use an ultra-high resolution camera combined with a top-of-the-line macro lens to photograph tintypes. I use strobe lights to illuminate the artwork. Strobes produce "hard" light, much like the sun on a clear day.  In addition to the strobes, I place a polarizer over the camera lens and polarizer gels over the strobe lights. This eliminates all reflections and enables the camera to pick up a greater tonal range along with more detail.

The difference between the scanned image and the one above taken with the camera/strobe combination is obvious.

One advantage of using a scanner to digitize a tintype is that it will smooth out surface imperfections and micro details thus reducing the amount of time it takes the retouch artist to produce a clean, albeit low fidelity, image — somewhat analogous to hearing a Beethoven symphony on AM radio.

After photographing the tintype of my client's great-great-grandmother, I removed all of the color data.

From here, I began the laborious process of restoration, which involved a prodigious amount of retouching. The process took about four hours. The client requested that I eliminate the hackneyed rose color from the cheeks and chin that the photographer had applied to the original.

I printed the restored image on 100% cotton paper. The print should last for a couple hundred years if it is stored in an acid-free and climate controlled environment. If it is matted and framed properly behind UV blocking glass and displayed out of direct sunlight, it will last for generations.

The woman is wearing a ring on what appears to be her right-hand ring finger, but the tintype process renders a direct-positive image. This picture is what you would see if you looked at the scene through a mirror. The ring is really on her left hand; it is a wedding band. We had not noticed the ring in the original tintype. The restoration uncovered it — a puzzle piece that helped my client pinpoint the year her ancestor posed in front of the camera.

 If you are interested in reading more about tintypes, please click on these links: and

71 Responses to Restoring a Photograph from the 1870s

  • An excellent narrative, and result. Give that the tintype image is inverted, would you consider inverting it again? Or is that going too far? Also, the coloration added to the cheeks also added some gray density there. Did you remove that?

    • My inclination is to flip the image so that it reads correctly. However, the client requested that I not do that. So, even for the sake of this article, I will honor her request.

      That’s an interesting question about the cheeks — did the camera record shadow detail or not? It would be relatively simple to determine what is below the surface of the rose pigmentation by examining the tintype with instruments that use X-rays, UV, and infra-red light to detect detail hidden from the naked eye. I kept some of the density in her cheeks to maintain an illusion of depth. Whether this decision is faithful to what the camera actually recorded is unknown to me. From time to time, I exercise artistic license with the parts of old pictures where the detail has disintegrated or has been obscured.

    • Although I do not speak German, I have decided to publish this comment. If anyone out there is able to translate it, please tell me what it means. If it turns out to be embarrassing, I’ll delete it.

  • Why didn’t you completely remove the deep scratch over her nose coming down to the left corner of her mouth?

    • I thought it added some depth to the image. I agree that I probably should have softened it up more. It’s funny how easy it is to overlook something even though you spend hours staring at it. Human perception is fallable.

  • I’m not German, so I may be a little off, but I think it says “How one restores an old photo — and by old I mean really old — one learns by clicking here.”

  • Truly amazing.
    More the relationship between photograph from days of yore and modern software than the actual restoration capabilities performed here.
    Excellent work, nonetheless.


  • There is no embarrasing in my post. I only want my readers to visit your page and read the article 😉

    • Thanks Marco! Pleas forgive my ignorance in not undersanding your comment earlier. I’ve had several people that are fluent in German guide me through the translation. I appreciate you wanting to share the blog post by posting a link.

  • Very rusty Schoolboy German and a sanity check from Google translate give me: “old photos – and I mean old old shit – restored, we learn how here”

  • A well-done job, but the background turned out a bit too “photoshop make-up smooth” for my tastes – the background, rather than the subject, stands out of the image, because of its plastic appearance.

  • it’s actually a link trackback from another site, it basically says “[…]how to restore old photos -and with old I mean shit old- is shown here[…]” the german doesn’t translate one to one into english which explains the bad sentence!

  • The german comment is basically a plug for another web site on how to restore old photos. is pretty powerful there days!

    Also, great article. The polarizers and strobes is genius.

  • “alte Fotos – und mit alt meine ich scheiße alt – restauriert erfährt man, wenn man hier”

    roughly translates to something like:

    “as you can see, when restoring old photos – and by old I mean incredibly old – you will experience”

    (although they used a colloquial expletive in place of the word “incredibly” 😉 )

  • I am German, the post in question says: “You will learn how to restore old photos – and with old I mean shit old – by clicking here.” The link is to this site.

  • Brilliant work! I love the concept of restoring old photos and have done some for my family (just minor stuff, nothing on this scale). It must be so fulfilling to see the look in a client’s eyes when they see the finished product.

  • Nice job. Tintypes are so fragile; I’ve relied on my scanner, but think using the strobes is a good idea. You’ve done an exceptionally good job with skin texture; typically when one adjusts the levels skin texture suffers and has to be dealt with separately.

  • “… and by old I mean really old..” Tastefully translated Torbjorn 🙂

  • What is your procedure if the image is curled. Do you use some type of glass over the image to flatten it? Even with polarizing gels over the lights and a polarizing filter on the lens, there must be some reflection in these cases. Please advise.

    • When I get a curled picture that is glossy or has a pronounced texture, I use polarizers and surround the shooting area with black velvet so as not to have ambient light stray back onto the artwork. I try my best to avoid using glass. If the curl makes the picture look “warped” I correct the distortion in Photoshop using a combination of transformation tools along with the lens correction filter.

  • (I’m a native German speaker btw. Greetings from Dresden!)

  • This man knows his job really well, a real pro!!! Astonishing result! And I’ve learned something new about the old photos and history. Bookmarked.

  • I think it’s a great retouching job, and if the client wanted a solid bkgd. then well executed. Personally,
    I would have left the bordering and background texture while taking out the black and scratches. In the end,
    I think it’s lost its fundamental character.

  • Torbjørn, I’m German and your translation is perfect.

    Bob, it appears in the last picture that some of the wild hair went lost, compared to the picture right before.

  • I’m German,
    Torbjørn’s interpretation is absolutely correct in meaning if not in translation. The “scheisse” means “shit” which is simply used to emphesize the “really” old. It is maybe slightly vulgar but by no means offending.

    And congratulations for the interesting artical.
    Just out of curiosity; Are the tintypes to be stored any different to the cotton rag

    • My client has safely tucked the tintype away in an archival box. She mentioned that she had left it out for years and noticed it began to fade rapidly. That is what initially brought her to my studio.

  • That is awesome!

  • Many years ago I used to do photo restoration for a photo lab on an Amiga with Deluxe Paint. I can certainly appreciate the time that goes into this. Even though there’s a lot of automation that can make the process easier, you’re able to play with the image in a much higher resolution so you have to be more careful. I can imagine the customer’s joy at seeing the retouched photo; we had one repeat customer who must have brought dozens of old photos to be restored and every time he saw the result it was like Christmas.

    It’s a uniquely rewarding experience to slowly and cautiously move from the original to a fully restored version. Now I’m missing it a little bit. 🙂

  • Thanks for sharing this and congratulations on a masterful restoration.

  • Thanks for sharing your process, Bob. A really well done restoration. Your client must be quite happy. I like that you used cross-polarized light to avoid reflections.

    I recently got to learn how tintypes are created by some photographers who practice wet plate photography. I just wanted to let you know that that the chemicals that form the emulsion are typically poured, not brushed, onto the plate–a minor detail.

  • me, not missing it so much: in the past I’ve done a bit of restoring, and going blind now I’m inclined to see those hours as part of the reason why. (I hope she paid you enough to make the four hours of digital spotting worthwhile! 🙂

  • I agree that the retouching work is very good, but as someone who photographs via tintype and ambrotype now, I don’t really understand the inclination to do away with the fundamental character of what makes tintypes or ambrotypes what they are. The diagonal/horizontal, discolored stripe across the original image was caused by the collodion and the way it was distributed onto the plate, and it’s what makes a tintype what it is. This applies equally to the way that the plate is in fact the negative, as well as the way in which the collodion makes blue eyes and fair skin look the way they do.

    The final image as retouched is excellent, but it has completely lost the characteristic toning and feel as a tintype.

    • I appreciate and respect your comments. … I once read that human eyesight gradually diminishes by one f/stop every ten years. The world appears six f/stops brighter and shinier to a five year old child than it does to a sixty-five year old. My client is in her mid-sixties. She simply wanted a bright, clear, accurate rendering of her great-great-grandmother. She also mentioned that she did not want to leave the tintype out on display anymore because it is fading rather rapidly.

      I do agree that the retouched image lacks the characteristic tone and feel of an actual tintype. On the other hand, the retouched version is brighter and displays a wider range of tonality to the unaided and untrained eye. I am a retouch artist, not a conservationist.

  • What size was the original tintype? What size print did you make for her?
    And how many MPIX was your camera? I’ve done a bit of crude restoring of tintypes and old prints, but nothing as nice as yours. I’d never thought of using my camera and macro lens.

  • Several questions. What camera resolution is needed for this? Is 12MP enough? is 21MP required or do you use something even higher? What level of magnification do you use in Photoshop?
    Also, I often take pictures of mechanical objects that have failed when I do a failure analysis. These things often have shiny spots on metal surfaces. Do you think your technique with polarized light would help with this?
    Great work, by the way, I’m very impressed.

    • I am scheduled to give a webinar about restoring the tintype. It is sponsored by RetouchPRO. You can find out about registering by going to Polarization is often used for stress analysis, especially with plastics. Polarizing the light and lens will definately darken the shiny spots on the metal surfaces. However, this technique may darken all of the metal surfaces, not just the “shiny” spots.

      A wonderful book: Light Science & Magic by Fil Hunter, Steven Biver, and Paul Fuqua is a terrific guide that explains a lot about lighting difficult situations — metalic surfaces, glass, etc. I’ve got the third edition, published by Focal Press.

  • You mention that you used “an ultra-high resolution camera combined with a top-of-the-line macro lens”. Can you elaborate? I’m interested in doing a similar kind of restoration on an old photograph where the emulsion is stuck to the glass.

    • I use a Hasselblad CF39-MS (39 megapixel multi-shot) back and a Hasselblad HC 120 macro lens for restoration and fine art reproduction assignments. Aside from its high pixel count, this digital back is capable of capturing a wide dynamic range — about 12 f/stops in an unprocessed RAW file. To learn more about mult-shot photography, go to Hasselblad has just introduced a 200 megapixel version.

      It’s possible to get good results using a dSLR such as a full-frame Sony (a850 or a900). I like the digital sensor employed by Sony because it captures a wider dynamic range than other 35mm full-frame cameras (with the possible exception of the Nikon D3x, which costs about three times as much as the Sony a850). The Nikon D3x uses the same sensor that is in both the a850 and a900. I am not current on what the latest and greatest macro lens options are for these cameras.

      Still, a cheaper option might be the APS-C camera that Sony is about to release — the A77. The A77 will most likely feature excellent dynamic range capabilities. It will have a 24 megapixel sensor.

  • Hi Bob,

    Thanks for posting this. I would be interested in hearing a bit about the process you went through cleaning up the image once you got a good capture of it.

    I am eager to try the re-photographing method on some of my worst prints now that I have a copy stand again. Just need to get some polarizing gels for my strobes. I first read about that technique in Ctein’s book and wanted to try it after I saw the results that the scanner gave on these photos but without a stand I didn’t think I would be able to get a decent result.

    The worst of the prints I have are covered with thousands of hairline scuff marks from rubbing against the photos on the facing page in their album for 90+ years as well as having many stains of various shades and colors underneath the scuffs, overall fading, very pronounced grain and poor original development (I think my grandfather’s home hobbyist development from the 1920’s).

  • I have a real nasty

    wish I could do …something oh well

    • I do take on jobs like this on occasion. However, this image poses many challenges. First, I’d scrutinize the original very carefully to see if there is any hint of detail lurking in the glare. This type of project requires a lot of artistic finesse — connecting the dots and filling in the blanks.

  • Based on the tintype of Billy the Kid he was always believed to be a lefty

  • Great work! I have a couple of questions. Any chance we can get a photo of your “copy” setup – I.e the camera and strobe setup? can you tell more about the polarizing film for the strobes? And finally, how do you determine the angle for the film over the strobes and the polarizer over the lens?


    • At some point I’ll be posting a blog about how to set up a camera, strobes, and polarizers for copy work. Keep an eye out.

  • The work done for the client is of very high quality and well done.To what degree the corrections were made is, I think, a decision decided upon by the artist. However, I don’t feel this should have been termed a restoration since the original tintype is as it originally was and a replacement tintype wasn’t made. Tintypes, for all practical purposes, were one-off. Original copies in that time period were made, however they would have been tintypes made of tintypes and been reversed images. It’s actually somewhat unusual to find one without emulsion marks from pouring; a good tintype is quite beautiful. I think it might have been interesting to make a negative of the correction image and made an albumen or salt print to be closer in period. These are nitpicks though, I’m sure the client is very happy to have a clear print of his/her relative. For those interested in exploration in history, it’s still possible to make tintypes today, as well as other historic techniques.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful and articulate comments. I agree that the work I did is not technically a “restoration.”

  • Bob –
    Nicely done!
    I thought that I should share this piece of information with you: In Europe the wedding band is worn on the right hand – it’s possible that the subject is an immigrant who married over there before moving to US, and not that the image is mirrored as you have assumed.

  • Hi Bob, A masterful job, both in restoring the tintype and in conducting your website. I’m truly impressed with both your readers questions and comments and with your responses and explanations.

    Im also have some old family tintypes from the later part of the 19th century and that have been badly treated during their lifetimes. I think they must have been kept in the traditional shoebox along with other loose photographs and negatives and not properly mounted and cared for or appreciated. I now have hopes that they, too, can be salvaged.

    I also have a small collection of large format photographic prints by commercial field and studio photographers in Argentina during that 1870s. These were collected by a distant family relative when she was a school teacher in several remote parts of the country and may have some historical and artistic value. These photographs were mounted in an album but the paper surface is crinkled. One very large photo (12 in by 15 in) was too large for the album so it was torn in half to fit the album!

    I do not have high quality photo restorers where I Live and wonder, in general terms, what the cost would be to have proper work done. Any information you can give will be greatly appreciated.

    You’ve demonstrated technically how it is possible to bring them back to life with the aid of specialized equipment and expert knowledge and skills. One bit of information I’d be interested in knowing is the general price range for such expert work.

  • ooh yes.. I do realize

    re july 3rd 7.47pm

  • Bob, very well done! As a restorer (since 2001) I understand the amount of work involved. I can also appreciate your comment regarding sometimes not seeing an obvious fault after having stared at the image for hours on end, a second set of eyes often helps. Although not quite restored to it’s original format you have provided your client with what she desired, and that’s what counts.

    Your technique of shooting the original over scanning it is one that I have considered but not yet tried, you’ve got me thinking about that again as I have strobes and a studio.

    I have successfully restored photos from the early 1900’s that exhibited “bronzing”, not an easy feat but made possible by remembering that all files contain 10 channels.

    Best Regards

  • Your “bronzing” technique is new to me. 10 channels is a neat way to think about it. Are you using a RIP or going through the printer driver?

  • So, if I may ask, about how much to you charge for this type of service on a single image like this?

    Kind Regards,

  • I can imagine that the client was thrilled with these results.

    We as photographers will nit pick the hell out of renditions, so don’t let them bother you.. NICE WORK

  • I just wanted to applaud you on your work. While it was mentioned before it was technically not a restoration, part of the experience is that first glimpse when one gets to, for a moment, step back in time. You see and experience the textures, the seams, the details (like the wedding ring) that had been lost to time. I think your artistic-license taken on this photo was beyond appropriate.

  • In your experience with tintypes do you find they show details such as hair color accurately? I have seen old tintype photos of a person who looks to have very dark hair when by all accounts that person had sandy blonde hair – which makes me question the authenticity of the photo.

    • The photo-sensitive emulsion on tintypes was not as sensitive to reds. That explains why sandy blonde hair often looks darker. On the other hand, blue eyes often look radiant on tintypes. The emulsion was more sensitive to blues.

  • My Tintype Scanning Method.

    I realize that this discussion is probably dead, but I just wanted to let people know about a method I have for scanning tintypes. It’s pretty much a mechanical workflow, except for step 8. It’s built on the back of Ctein’s (Digital Restoration from Start to Finish) usual methods of scanning. The difference is that he leaves the scanner histogram snuggly bracketed. I find that that creates too much contrast and is hard to fix in Photoshop (at least I find it so). I’ve found my method produces images that are virtually “finished” except for scratch and damage touchup. The method is as follows:

    1. Use 16 bit colour, and 1200 dpi. The extra resolution might be useful in isolating scratches.

    2. Use the scanner’s preview to isolate an area of the image that is the most important, such as the face, hair, and the clothing of the subject. Such areas should contain everything from the whites of collars and eyes, to the black of hair or shadows under the folds in the clothes. Avoid the paper surrounds, the frame of the photograph, or areas of light-coloured damage.

    3. On the scanner histogram, using the “master” channel, pull the whitepoint slider in until it’s maybe 5 points or so above where the curve hits the ground (just so you’re not accidentally clipping the white).

    4. Leave the blackpoint slider where it is. It should be just above absolute black anyway.

    5. Do the same in each of the three colour channels in turn.

    6. The grey point slider should be around the middle on each colour channel, and on the master channel.

    7. Now, the important bit — make sure you are back on the master channel, and pull the whitepoint slider out. The greypoint slider will also move as it will try to stay half-way between the black and whitepoint sliders. The greypoint slider will eventually hit a point where the whitepoint previously was, underneath where the histogram curve hits the ground. (You may need to manually place it about halfway though). It is at this point that you should have a well exposed, and nicely tonally graduated, image.

    8. Fiddle about with greyscale slider, or anything else if need be, to alter the photo to your liking.

    9. Pull out the marching ants on the preview area until the full image is selected or “previewed”.

    10. Scan.

    My scanner is CanoScan 9000F using ScanGear software. I’m assuming this method will work on anything.

  • Hi Bob, great job on repairing the image! I disagree with Robin’s comment on the background – I think you’ve done a good job with the gradient to give an illusion of depth. It always comes down to personal taste but it’s all about the customer. If you make them happy then you’ve done a good job.

    Great to find someone with a real passion for what they do, and it really comes out in your posts. I’m a blog newbie but I’ll be back to catch up on more of your posts.

  • Wonderful article and discussion here! Many thanks to all of you who know so much more than I do.

    For novices like myself: I have an HP 309G printer/scanner/copier. I used it to scan a tintype that is very bad – so dark that I could not even see much of one of the two persons in the photo. This tintype was kept inside an envelope marked “Only picture of my mother, on left”. The envelope was inside a box, inside another box of many old, unidentified family photos. I determined that the notation had been made by a grandmother who was born in 1892 and the mother had died in childbirth.

    I set the scanning parameters to 1200 dpi, grayscale. That’s all I did. The resulting scan, which took longer than ususal to scan, of course, actually brought out a fairly decent image. I was able to clearly see the person on the left, which is a man, not a woman.

    So while I was disappointed not to find a picture of a great-grandmother, using a simple technique learned by reading the replies here, was very helpful.

    Thanks a lot!

  • I have inherited my Mother’s collection of photo prints contained in a photo album with black pages.

    The photos are attached to the pages using an adhesive available in the 1930’s.

    The varying sizes of the prints necessitates their removal from the album in order to properly scan them on my Epson Perfection 2400 Scanner.

    I would appreciate any advice regarding how this should be safely done.

  • A very interesting article on a restoration type we’ve not come across as of yet. The Billy the Kid image looks challenging, have you not considered having a go at restoring that?

    Kind regards


  • We have about a half dozen tin types in various condition. Some I am sort of afraid to remove from the framing. Can you restore images through the glass? I'll try to scan the ones to you that I can.

  • Hello, I recently found a tintype of my great grand parents in Norway. It is a small 2×3 oval with a soft green background and brown print. It is in excellent condition – no scratches. Unfortunately, it is so small and dark that it is difficult to see their faces. My goal is to make 5×7 prints on paper to share with my brothers. I have very little experience in this area. I tried to scan it on my HP Photosmart, but couldn't figure out how to enlarge the image and brighten it up. It enlarges the blank space around the image and not the image. May I discuss options with you? Thanks.

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