Tips for photographing old photos for restoration

The following post is by my beautiful wife, Lara.

Every now and again, Damien is given old, fragile photographs to be painstakingly restored.

Generally he scans them (sometimes in a few different pieces) but sometimes they’re too big for the scanner, or are too fragile to be scanned. In those instances he needs me to photograph them for him instead, and he asked me to share some tips on how to do this.

My equipment setup comprises of:

  • Camera on a tripod (essential for this type of work)
  • Use of a camera release cable if you have one (if not, try hard to trip the shutter gently to avoid camera shake)
  • 50mm prime lens (to avoid any distortion, see below for more info)
  • Get the shot in focus using the middle autofocus point, and once you’ve done that set your lens to manual focus

In terms of lens choice, you’ll need to choose a focal length that will let you physically capture the entire historic photo (unless you plan to photograph it in sections and piece them together in Photoshop). Barrel distortion from using too wide a lens should be avoided as it’s very hard to correct later. Wherever possible, I use a 50mm prime lens, as when I combine it with my full frame sensor camera, it gives me the standard view of the human eye, with no perspective distortion at all.

Make sure your set up is in an area with no strong directional lighting that will cause a hotspot to appear on your image. This is particularly important if the photo is under glass, or has a reflective/glossy surface. Don’t be afraid to set up indoors; just make sure you choose a shutter speed that gives you correct exposure, which will be a fairly long one if the light level is low. I never worry about colour drift from a long exposure time. Most of the time the photograph is completely discoloured from age anyway! I let Damien handle colour correction later in Photoshop.

I place the image flat, usually on the ground, with the tripod over the top of it. This is the best option for a really fragile photo. Alternatively you can lean it as vertically as possible against a wall, which I generally do for really large photos. Occasionally I’ve used a blackboard easel as well. Make sure your camera lens is not tilted on an angle compared with the plane of the photograph. These are the camera settings I use:

  • ISO: lowest possible (usually 100)
  • Image mode: Raw
  • Camera Mode: Av and choose a small aperture – no larger than f/11
  • Avoid using any on-camera sharpening settings

If it’s a really long exposure, I either use a viewfinder cover, or hover my hand over the viewfinder (without touching the camera) to make sure I don’t get any light leak. Take a shot and check your histogram and make sure you haven’t got clipping at either end. If you do, consider bracketing a stop either side and check again.

Fill the frame as best you can. On the other hand, your viewfinder may not be 100% accurate to don’t cut it too fine, unless you don’t really need to capture the edges. Take a shot, check your results.

If you follow these guidelines, you can photograph your treasured old photos wherever you are in the world, keep the original in your possession and send the digital image file to be restored. The finished result can be sent back to you to be printed at your favourite lab.


If you have a question about this article, please feel free to post it in Ask Damien.