Restoring a badly damaged 1870s tintype

Bob Rosinsky from Top Dog Imaging walks through the extraordinary process of restoring a badly damaged 1870s tintype (such as the Billy the Kid image that was the subject of a recent record-setting auction) using modern, high-tech techniques, such as a polarized strobe and ultra-high-rez camera. He hints at even more advanced techniques employing X-rays, UV and infra-red light.
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...

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.

Restoring a Photograph from the 1870s (via Kottke)


  1. The difference is astonishing! I mean, the restored photograph looks amazing. Not just after the cleanup of the scratches but the detail is… its great. It makes me remember fondly the days my dad let me shoot some of his old large-format box cameras. The negatives were like 4x5s. So just a contact print worked to make a viable picture. Think of how big you could enlarge it without losing quality. Beautiful.

  2. Beautiful, though I marvel at how I miss the abrasions in the surface: the middle stages were most aesthetically pleasing to me, with the luminousness restored but the scratches and other marks of time and handling still present. It’s odd to remember that so much of the grain of the past wasn’t present in the originals: as if they lived and dreamed in sepia!

    Dunno about removing the pink coloring that was added: cliche, as the retoucher notes, but rather essential for understanding the period’s nineteenth-century “Photoshopping.” Still, lovely, haunting images.

    1. That makes me laugh because I know there are apps for the iPhone that are like instant photoshopping to make cellphone pics look like tin types and old style movie camera film, etc. I don’t have one, but I’ve seen them used. You’re right about people sort of longing for the look of something old and worn down from years of passing from generation to generation.

  3. Nice work. But…when I look at that, I see a big (invisible) note pointing to the background that says “GAUSSIAN BLUR!” There’s a bit of a halo effect around the hair, on the right, and some blur-dissolving of the elbow area on the left. And the front of the table has some very obvious cloning there. And the forehead’s too white. Still, a vast improvement over the original. And the fabric looks great! Linen?

    1. If you look carefully at the un-corrected picture, you can see this blurring around the elbows. I think it had to do with the original more than the touch up. Though I can see what you mean about the background around her head. It just seems too flat for just a white drape to be behind her. Although with the right lighting, backgrounds can look this way anyway.

  4. Very nice work and very helpful instructions for people trying to restore their own family photos.

  5. I did photographic restoration for a living just like this for years.
    “using modern, high-tech techniques, such as a polarized strobe and ultra-high-rez camera”…..the only thing “high-tech” about the process is using a digital camera and a computer. Polarized strobes have been on photo replication LONG before digital cameras were even invented. The real difference comes from an individual that is highly skilled at Photoshoppery.
    Working with tintypes is a lot of fun.

  6. As a conservator who works in a museum I cringed a little while reading this. The ethical dilemma posed by restorations vs. conservation is often discussed within the field and rarely noticed beyond it.

    In a nutshell, as a conservator, my goal is to lessen the damage of time on an art object via techniques that are reversible. When I look at past repairs or restorations, they almost always have a distinct quality that places them within a time period. In other words there is a “style” or “fashion” to restorations. I definitely see that in the restored tintype. To put it bluntly it looks photoshopped. It looks too clean, and the removal of the rose color on the cheeks erases a true aesthetic from the period in which the picture was taken. The attempt to lessen the effects of time does not mean you have to remove it all together.

    Fortunately, the restoration was done on a computer to a duplicate image, and the original was left mostly unscathed. I know this must all sound like snotty museum-speak, but I truly love saving history, and I feel like the wear and tear of time is part of an object’s story, and should be preserved.

    1. It doesn’t sound snotty at all. I totally agree with you. Whoever did this work obviously couldn’t resist “improving” the original picture. Making the subject more aesthetically pleasing, more beautiful if you will, is historical revisionism – not restoration.

      I spent about 3 minutes with the image post above in photoshop. You can see he has altered her hair for one thing. Ghastly work from somebody that has a slightly warped sense of the word “restore”.

  7. I like the original much more than the “fixed” version. I know the technology is there and I know most people appreciate “restored” and “enhanced” and “fixed” photos. But I think there’s a fetish that some people have that somehow they can control (and perhaps dominate) the past by controlling gritty elements of the past’s media. This is why many prefer scratchy vinyl and old kinescopes over FLAC audio and Blue-Ray. What matters is the power of the actual un-touched image. I like the old, scratchy version better. The retouched version looks like a costume test for a Nicole Kidman movie.

  8. This reminds me of the Chinese photo restorer, only he’ll take a b&w/sepia image and colour it in :)

  9. I restore old photographs and tintypes.

    My first rule is: Never desaturate photographs.

    The colors in these “black and whites” are an important element of the photograph. If you look carefully at the unrestored tintype you’ll notice the cheeks have been blushed with red. In the restored tintype they are now gray.

    I will remove the mars from a figure when I can do so without making to big of an assumption, but beyond that I let the artifacts of the photograph continue to speak.

    Photography can steal your soul.

  10. Or you could simply use the color-restore on your scanner and some Photoshop filters. I have scanned my fair share of tintypes, and they come out looking similar.

  11. Re: the coloring:

    “The client requested that I eliminate the hackneyed rose color from the cheeks and chin that the photographer had applied to the original.”

    So, it was the client’s preference.

  12. Let’s hope everyone gets some hard copies of their family’s digital photographs printed so that in a hundred years from now your descendants will have something left to be restored.

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