This is Mike DeWalt … and over the past few years I’ve received a number of questions about the photo retouching process … and the hardware and software used. This page covers an overview of that. While I do the processing and retouching, a big thank you goes to Marianne Culver who has been a big help in scanning photos and documents … she’s done a bunch of it and does a great job. Larry Lock as well … Larry has scanned hundreds of photos and documents for the museum over the past 20 years, many of which are in the photo section of the website.
What follows is a summary of most of the hardware & software tools and the processes used to digitize photos, documents, sound and video. This page probably isn’t of interest to everyone, but if you’re interested in the process please read on. FYI … I’m a big technology and computer nerd and I’m sure you’ll agree with that by the time you finish reading this page.
- Scanning and processing documents that become searchable PDF files
- Scanning, repairing, and retouching photos
- Digitizing sound and video
Digitizing the Documents
The museum has hundreds of documents that have been digitized and turned into searchable PDF’s. Some can be found in the “Documents” tab of this website. To create PDF’s we start by scanning or photographing individual documents, brochures, and books. The scans start as JPG image files and we capture the images with either a flatbed scanner, a book scanner or a large copy stand.
- The flatbed scanner is used for most documents
- The Book Scanner is mostly used for scanning City Directories … they are usually 300 to 500 pages each. We have about 60 City Directories scanned … about 20,000 pages in total. With the Book Scanner we can capture one 500 page book in about 2 hours. The quality isn’t as good as the flatbed scanner, but it’s much faster.
- The copy stand is for oversize documents. A camera is mounted to the head of the stand to take a photo of the document below. It’s used for things like large pictures, documents and newspapers. It can photograph a full page of a newspaper
Editing Documents and Making them Searchable
After the documents have been digitized they usually need to be edited. Since the scans are made as JPG’s (pictures) the best way to edit them is in Adobe Photoshop. There are many applications that could be used, but I use Photoshop because it’s arguably the most comprehensive photo editing app available … and I’m a reasonably experienced user.
In photoshop each page of a document is processed individually. Almost all documents need to be straightened, cropped and resized. In addition, depending on what the document needs, it may be retouched and have captions or comments added. Unless the page needs more significant retouching this part of the process only takes a few minutes per page.
Once all the pages of a document, such as a brochure, are processed they are all added to an empty folder in MacOS (a “directory” in Windows terminology). Each page is named to be able to arrange them in the correct order in the folder. Then they are converted to a multipage PDF in MacOS using a quick macro automation I created using the MacOS “automator” app.
Then the PDF that’s been created is opened in the Mac app “Preview”. It’s then “Printed” to a new PDF document. This is important because it makes all the resulting a pages in the new PDF a uniform 8.5 by 11 inches. This step was added to the process a few years ago. You may find some PDF documents on the website with pages are of varying sizes. If so, they were done before I started doing this step. At some point I hope to have the time to go back and correct them.
The next step is to give the new PDF a meaningful name and open it in an app called “PDF Expert”. PDF Expert has an OCR (optical character recognition) feature. This step makes the document searchable. This is one of the steps where a fast computer comes in handy to speed things up, particularly with books with several hundred pages.
Finally, if the document size is too large — city directories with hundreds of pages are a good example — PDF Expert can adjust the quality to reduce the file size. This is particularly helpful for documents added to the website so that download times are more usable. Care and some experimentation needs to be taken with this step so that the quality of the document added to the website is good.
Scanning and Retouching Photographs
Photos that are less than 9 inches by 11 inches are scanned with the flatbed scanner. Large photos are “scanned” using the large copy stand (photo above). The vast majority of photos are done with the flatbed scanner. My scanner at home can also scan negatives. It has a reasonably large scan head in the lid for negatives and can easily scan medium format and smaller negatives. Occasionally I need to scan larger glass plates … that’s done by scanning the plate, then moving the plate to capture the portion not scanned on the first pass. The two scans are then stitched together in Photoshop to get a single image. This works surprisingly well.
To make things easier I designed my desk to have a pullout drawer for the scanner … so it can be pulled out when needed and slid back into the desk and the door closed when not in use (photo above).
Most photos are scanned at 600 dpi (dots per inch). Some very small photos are scanned at 1200 dpi. Scanning at a higher dpi doesn’t improve the photo, but it improves my ability to retouch and repair it. Medium format negatives are scanned at 1200 dpi, and 35mm negatives are usually scanned at 2400 dpi because of their small size. Because a 35 mm negative is less than 1.5 inches wide, scanning at 2400 dpi yields an image only around 3000 pixels wide.
Repairing and retouching images is the most time consuming process. I do all editing of PDF’s and photos in my home office. Below is the main hardware.
My main computer (right photo) is a laptop, a 16″ M1 MacBook Pro with the M1 Max chip. It has 64 GB of memory and is a very fast and capable machine. When retouching I use a large high definition monitor (left photo). It’s the 32 inch Pro Display XDR. It has a high resolution 6k screen that really helps when retouching the small details. The computer and monitor are absolutely overkill for the workflow, but I’m a computer nerd and I like them.
The photos above are good examples of before and after retouching. Like many old photos they have scratches, folds, and spots. The bar scene also has several captions taped to it that couldn’t be safely removed from the original.
I primarily use Adobe Photoshop to retouch and repair … below is a screenshot of Photoshop.
Photoshop has numerous tools useful for retouching. Although I use most of the tools, I use the spot healing brush, and the clone stamp most often. The app also has several tools to adjust brightness, contrast, and shading of the overall image … or parts of it. After retouching I also use Photoshop to create borders and to add text captions to the bottom of photos. The retouching process can be very time consuming … or not. It depends on the quality of the original image and how bad it’s damaged. The photo of the bar scene above took a few hours because it was in rough shape … the lady bowlers in the directly photo above took just 20 minutes because it was in good shape to start with.
Adding what “should be” there
Sometimes a photo needs small details added or clarified. A good example are these power lines.
In this retouched version of the photo most of the power lines were drawn in with Photoshop. Most were barely visible or completely washed out in the original picture. “Drawing in” something that’s missing from the original is done very sparingly. I try not to make the finished product something that it’s not. But sometimes, like in this example, I consider it a repair that’s necessary to show the original scene as it really was. FYI … drawing power lines like this is a fairly time consuming process.
Sharpening and Photo “Noise”
I use Photoshop and several apps from Topaz Labs to sharpen images and remove “fuzzy noise” from the photos. The Topaz apps are Denoise AI, Sharpen AI, Gigapixel AI, and Photo AI. While they are powerful and can do a great job, they do need quite a bit of care and adjustment when using them. If the settings are too extreme they can leave odd artifacts and can “smooth” photos too much. It usually requires some trial and error. The Topaz Labs apps are used on about half of the photos I retouch.
PhotoScape X – Combining Photos
I use PhotoScape to combine photos. It automatically resizes photos used in a grouping. Below is a screenshot of 3 photos of South Main Street combined. It could also be done in Photoshop, but PhotoScape is faster and easier.
My Thoughts on Colorizing Photos
I find colorizing photos a fun and interesting thing to do. However, I do it to relatively few images. For some it works surprisingly well … for many, if not most, it can look fake. I’ve tried a couple of stand alone applications to do it and two different web based apps. The apps I’ve tried don’t seem to work very well and the web based tools return low resolution images. It might be that the paid versions of the web tools can do higher resolutions but I haven’t tried them because the free versions don’t provide what I consider acceptable results. They seem to me to be over saturated and “muddy.”
Another issue with colorized photos is that we really don’t know what the “real” colors were. With the sky and vegetation we can get close … but the color of other objects and clothing are just a guess.
The best option for me when colorizing is to use Photoshop. Photoshop has a built in “neural filter” that automatically colorizes a B&W image. The result of the process is never usable as is, but it saves a “color layer” that can be adjusted / corrected. I “paint in” additional or different colors on the color layer that can yield good results that don’t look as “fake” as the auto generated color image. Below is a good example of a colorized photo that I’m happy enough with. It’s certainly not perfect but I think it’s an acceptable colorized B&W image.
Sound and Video
The museum has many cassette tapes, VHS tapes, 16 mm films, and a few 8 mm films. Most of the cassette tapes are narrations by Bob Richards. The VHS tapes are mostly events that were held at the museum during the later 1980’s and 1990’s. The 16 mm films are of Hog Days parades and high school sporting events.
I connect a cassette deck to my computer to digitize audio tapes. They are cleaned up a little with Audacity, a free audio processing app. They’re saved as MP3’s.
For VHS tapes are played on a VHS player connected to an Elgato capture device that converts the analog signal to digital. It connects to my computer via USB and saves video as “movie files” on my computer.
I convert the 8 mm reels to digital with a small scanner. While it can take a while for each reel because it scans each frame of the film individually, the results are reasonably good. However, the resolution isn’t very high because 8 mm frames are so small. Below is a photo of my 8 mm film scanner.
16 mm films are sent to a service to digitize because I couldn’t find a reasonably priced scanner and it didn’t make sense to purchase a multi-thousand dollar machine for the 40 or so reels we have.
Editing / Processing
All the films that I produced for our website and that have been posted to Kewanee Nostalgia were edited using Final Cut Pro, Apple’s video editing software. For some, I’ve added narration. That’s also done in Final Cut Pro using a Blue Yeti microphone for voice capture.
For videos that’s been posted in the last 9 months I’ve used a new piece of software to sharpen, reduce grain and increase resolution … it’s Topaz Labs Video Enhance AI. It does a decent job and is something I’ll use on our library of digitized tapes and films as we go forward.
I hope the info hasn’t been too tedious. I suspect you can tell that I enjoy most everything about digitizing and fixing up the museum’s media. If you have and questions or comments feel free to post them to Kewanee Nostalgia or email me at email@example.com
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