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Can’t You Just Photoshop It?

I’ve heard it time and time again, “can’t you just Photoshop it?” I blame all the magicians out there who accomplish unreal feats every day using Photoshop. They’ve built up a mythos that stands nearly impossible to live up to if you, like me, consider yourself “good, but not great” at using the program.

In May, we will be opening a new exhibition, Answering America’s Call: Newport News in World War I. The exhibit will explore the local impacts of WWI through personal stories and artifacts as well as lots and lots of posters. Posters like this one:

Catalog number 1969.0124.000001

We are a history museum, so, to some extent, we expect that artifacts may have some damage. This poster has survived since 1917. It’s not surprising to find that it has some tears and creases, but when a reproduction is going on display, it’s nice to see it restored to its former glory. So what’s the solution? Can’t you just Photoshop it?

Yes. Yes, I can…I think.

This poster presented a couple of unique problems. Digital restoration can be quite straightforward these days, with the help of features like content-aware healing but that isn’t always the best solution. In this poster’s case, the method of printing was going to present a challenge.

This poster was printed with a dot pattern that makes digital repairs more difficult.

A dot-based printing method was used to produce this poster. When using the healing brush, even in content-aware mode, the dots can easily end up distorted and leave a feathering blur where the brush was applied, making it apparent there used to be something else there.

You can see a clear line where the brush was used. It also removed the last prong of her crown.

I needed to find a method that gave me more control and didn’t have the same blurring effect along the edges of my repairs. The solution? The clone stamp. If you aren’t familiar, the clone stamp allows you to replicate a selected area in a new location. Using the clone stamp with no feathering and 100% opacity, I was able to “paint” over damaged pixels with the appropriate color and dot pattern.

Using the clone stamp tool makes the repairs much more subtle and gave me the ability to “rebuild” the damaged prong on her crown.

Now, repeat. Every section of damage had to be carefully painted over with the clone stamp tool sampling from nearby areas that were not damaged. In some cases, like the last prong on her crown, I had to find the correct sample point and entirely remake it while still making it convincing as the original.

Digital restoration is not for the faint of heart in cases like this. Fortunately, I had ample time to make my repairs as subtle and convincing as I could. The results were more than worth the effort involved.

Before and after digital restoration.

You might have noticed I didn’t make the poster “perfect.” That is an essential piece of digital restoration. I wanted it to look cleaner and in better condition, but still real. The foxing and few remaining blemishes help to make that case. If you had never seen the original piece, you would never know that it had undergone restoration at all.

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