Monday, August 31, 2009

A hairy situation

One of my biggest worries with image restoration is that somebody will come along and assume the whole thing was done in fifteen minutes with a couple of filters and plugins. That's not how I work: all of this dust and scratch removal is done by hand. So why not use plugins? For lack of a better word, because software is stupid. A plugin doesn't understand context. Sure it'd save time; for people who care more about time than about losing data that has its place. So Staxringold is working on another baseball restoration and I'm helping him out with the hard part. Above, that's Ed Walsh in 1911. The hairy situation is--of course--his hair.

This is a part of Walsh's hair as it looked when Stax reached the end of his tether and asked for assistance. Dirt, creases, and scratches are not necessarily created equal: junk in a clear sky is easy to fix; degradation that intersects significant image data is harder to resolve. Lots of scratches and hairline cracks that interact with a mop of tousled hair is a nightmare for restoration. I don't trust software to know the difference: it's a thing to reconstruct by hand.

After several hours' work on the portrait this segment has gotten this far. With these matters it's often a question of how detailed to get. Do you go with the quick solution? Do you call it 'good enough' and quit? Or do you do it right because it ought to be right?

At 300% resolution, here's where this is right now. The biggest problem remaining is a scratch on the right side that runs horizontally: it's almost parallel to a nearby lock of hair. Also at lower left there are several faint vertical cracks which haven't been eliminated completely yet, plus a few other things to do.

I don't like to put my name behind slapdash work, so I'll be tweaking this a while yet. Walsh has a lot of hair (and the rest of the portrait still needs tweaks also). Stax is a good guy: when I told him how much labor this was turning into and asked for a favor in return, he accepted three choices:

1. Start a biography for Mignon Nevada. She's a soprano whose portrait I restored yesterday. The daughter of Emma Nevada.
2. Improve the biography of Duke Snider.
3. Restore a photograph from the first successful transit of the Northwest Passage.

Stax selected the third option. So now he has a view of the Gjoa weather deck when it was at Nome, Alaska. The transit took three years; Roald Amundsen and his crew were iced in for two of them. Amundsen succeeded after everybody else had failed because he took a small ship and a small crew and lived off the land. "Cool!" was Stax's reaction when he saw the photo.

This stuff is infectious.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Friends and memories

In response to JoshuaZ's comment, following up with tips for the situations where readers want to remember friends and relatives. Above is a portrait of Gerard Meijssen. Not something I shot (he's in a country where I've never set foot), but a typical snapshot portrait. Today's tips are about things to do for friends and family.

Gerard stands on a balcony, probably because the decision to take the portrait was made indoors. This was the nearest location which had enough natural light to shoot without a flash. Overcast days are good for portraits: diffuse light flatters the skin. It's best to frame the shot so the gray sky remains outside the picture. This is one reason why family photographs that mix scenery with portraiture seldom turn out well: when the light is good for the setting it's usually far too harsh on faces.

Amateur portraits tend to be contrasty. Even though the light is diffuse Gerard's face still has harsh shadows. This happens because no camera responds as well to differences in brightness as the human eye does. For this informal balcony portrait, taken on the spur of the moment, I would have directed Gerard to stand at the far end of the balcony. That would permit the use of a longer lens setting to eliminate the slight wide angle distortion and allow a framing that would have gotten more of the softer tones from the trees and the red brick building. The thing to do would be frame the shot to minimize the gray sky and eliminate the cellular phone store completely (it's colorful but it's distracting). Even a gray sky will be very bright in early afternoon; reframe to minimize sky and the camera would handle the face better.

Also this shot would work better as more of a close-up to minimize the wrinkles on his shirt. This photographer is significantly taller than Gerard. It's unlikely I'd tower over him, but if that happened I'd bend my knees to bring the shot to eye level. Photographers who are vertically challenged do well to remember this tip: it often yields charming results when photographing children.

But...this is what we've actually got to work with. It isn't bad for an amateur portrait. Let's tweak it a little. The first thing I did when I saw it (Gerard was running for the WMF board) was bring out the shadows in his face using the Photoshop shadow/highlight tool. It's a manual adjustment that helps get the facial shadows back to what the human eye would perceive. Also added a mild linear brightness gradient to reduce the shadows globally. Here's what resulted.

This type of minor change usually isn't a problem; this version ran at Meta during the latter part of the recent board election where Gerard was a candidate. Suppose we were editing for a private album? Well, for family and friends one can go a little further.

This adds a second gradient mask to put a little blue into the sky. Also brightened the whites of his eyes very slightly. Brightening the eyes is a retouching trick that makes people appear healthier. Also I'd still rather have a closer crop.

So here's what we get after ten minutes of editing. It's a little more processed than would be ideal for article space, but fine for friends and family.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Directing subjects

It's a pleasure when people share news about their work with images. Igor Berger pinged me yesterday that he had gotten a new camera and used it on a trip to Japan. Good for him! He uploaded several examples to Flickr and asked about adding them to articles. So this post is for Igor and others like him who want to take better photographs and help the encyclopedia.

The Walter Johnson/Calvin Coolidge handshake is provided again as an example where the photographer did not direct the subjects. The most obvious problem is that President Coolidge stands behind a barrier. Most amateur models have no idea where to stand for a camera. Yes, this includes famous baseball players and presidents. So ideally the photographer would move three paces to the right in order to get that barrier out of the way. That might not have been possible: the type of camera needed a tripod and there may have been stairs to the right, or perhaps other photographers had already taken the best positions for the publicity shot. So suppose you were operating that camera and couldn't move, but you could talk to the subjects. That would sound like this.

"Excuse me, Mr. President? The photograph would look better if you took three steps forward. Mr. Johnson, would you step to the side three paces with him? Yes, very good. Excuse me sir, in the pale suit? Would you make room for these two gentlemen please? Yes, and face toward them. Everybody! All eyes on the President and Mr. Johnson please. Pretend I'm not here. May we have a round of applause? A big round of applause for our great pitcher! Wonderful." (snap) "Great, let's try another..."

Whether you're shooting a birthday party or a presidential visit, it always helps to shoot more more photographs. Don't be shy. If you sound like you know what you're doing people cooperate. This used to be expensive in the days of film photography; not anymore. Memory chips are cheap (and you don't have to pay a developer). Best of all, you can preview the shots and delete the obvious duds. Take advantage of that; experiment with different ideas.

Before the photography actually begins, look over the location and decide which parts would make the best settings. You'd be surprised how many people go to a picnic and line up to pose in front of the dumpster instead of beside the flowers. Take charge of that situation. Your subjects will thank you.

The one exception to that rule is vacation photography. I've never understood the logic of plopping Uncle Joe in front of the Grand Canyon. What's the purpose? Are people afraid they'll be accused of faking the trip, so they document that they really did drag Joe past Barstow over to that big gorge in the desert? Might as well hand him the day's newspaper so he can hold that up too and prove when you were there. Great scenery looks better without family obstructing it, no matter how much you love them. Ansel Adams didn't drag his mother in front of Yosemite; he knew what he was doing. When you want to shoot a portrait, shoot a portrait. Half Dome looks a lot better without Mom in the way.

And please don't make them say 'cheese'. Teeth may appear but nobody really looks happy like that. Most amateur models have been taught to put on a big fake frozen grin when they get in front of the camera. Here's one of my secrets: to capture a good expression, talk to your subject and fiddle with the camera. Have the shot all set up as you start a conversation on another topic (something interesting and fun) and pretend to fine tune the controls. The aim is to distract them into a genuine expression--at the point where that 'cheese' smile finally drops away and they're really reacting, then snap the shutter. You may have to dodge for cover under the wrath of "But I wasn't ready!" Used to be, I'd lay low for days until the prints were in hand. Now things are easier: there's a preview screen. Most people aren't aware they look better when they aren't frozen in pose until they actually see the result; the appreciation afterward makes the risk worthwhile.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Throwing curves

It's always a pleasure to help editors get started with image restoration. Staxringold was looking for baseball-related images and asked for advice regarding copyright and technical issues.

Plate photography is one technological generation advanced from daguerrotype: glass plate photography does use a negative (which daguerrotype doesn't) but the photographic emulsion adheres to glass.

Ever have trouble getting stuff to stick to glass? Same problem here. Those two white spots top and center are places where the emulsion peeled away from the plate. Same with the larger white spots at upper right. At full resolution the image is also marred with hairline scratches. Glass plate negatives are very prone to damage; these are among the reasons film photography supplanted glass plates for most uses during the early twentieth century.

So it's rare that I give the thumbs-up to glass plate work as a first project. Staxringold wanted to do a baseball picture, this is Walter Johnson shaking the hand of Calvin Coolidge, and this image was less badly damaged than most glass plates.

The hardest decision about it was how to crop. The photographer in me wants to take three steps to the right in order to get that foreground barrier out of the way. That isn't possible without a time machine. So either we'll have to accept a major compositional problem or lose data. The issue here is which data is expendable. Staxringold's first edit is at left: he squared and centered the composition by cropping out the woman who wears a white dress.

That wasn't satisfactory so he tried a couple of other ideas including a portrait orientation crop at right. The difficulty with this is that it enhances the distracting presence of a man in full profile who stands behind Walter Johnson. It would be worse to cut off part of Mr. Profile and in order to lose him entirely we would also have to crop out part of Walter Johnson. Plus that darn barricade takes up a third of the image. So although the usual crop for a handshake photo would be vertical, that composition isn't successful here. I suggested a different approach.

We lose the lower half of Walter Johnson with a panorama crop, but this regains the sense of crowd scene including applause from the spectators at far right. The man in profile behind Johnson's left shoulder blends into the scene. This crop still has the handshake and sheds nearly all of the barrier. The hard part is he'll still have to patch and fix all the emulsion damage. Well, no compromise is perfect. Staxringold went away happy and was so enthusiastic that he soon nominated the following version for featured picture.

Staxringold is a great sport about these things. What caught my eye at first about the patching was the firm horizontal line. At far right the heads don't match the shoulders. Started out thinking we could do a little better, then (inevitably) worked on hundreds of overlooked dirt specks and hairline scratches. It would take a close view at 200% resolution on the full version to find those flaws, but they were there. Shoemaker's Holiday and I both helped clean them out.

The final step is to manage the histogram. Couldn't blog about the portrait of a great pitcher without making a pun, so the essential part of today's discussion is the Photoshop curves tool. It's a more sophisticated variant on levels: curves allows an editor finer control over brightness contrasts.

It almost feels like Coolidge and Johnson have come into sharper focus. Midtones dominate both of their clothes; notice how much sharper Johnson's pinstripes appear. The curves tool allows an editor to enhance contrast within particular ranges of brightness. That's why those pinstripes and Coolidge's lapel look more crisp. Now these two principal figures stand out better from the crowd, which is mostly darker toned. Viewers respond intuitively to subtle changes that convey information about what is important in a scene.

Mostly this is a moderate curves adjustment. The white point is moved normally to the brightest point where the original actually had data. The one unusual element about this particular adjustment is that I reduced the contrast slightly in the brightest part of the range. This accomplished two things: it helped prevent that woman in the white dress from becoming a dominant element and it reduced the shine on Johnson's forehead.

And that, in terms of image editing, is how to throw a curve.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A day in the life of a historic image editor

0:00 Discover high resolution digitized file of a royal Spanish grant of arms.
0:10 Select page for download and restoration.
0:12 Brew coffee.
0:15 Begin restoration.
10:15 Finish restoration. Whew! Feels great.
10:45 Complete notated uploads to Wikimedia Commons, insert at relevant articles with captioning.
11:00 Nominate for featured picture candidacy.
11:17 User:I Love Photography leaves long comment, obviously without having looked at the original file or reading the upload notes or clicking on the source link to the original file. Wonders whether there was text with the original image (there was; nineteen pages of it). Insists that without text the illustration has no encyclopedic value at all except at a nonexistent biography. Never mind its use at the Law of Arms or at Spanish heraldry.
11:18 - 12:00 Mope.
12:15 Upload remaining 18 manuscript pages.
12:29 User:I Love Photography Two demands full translation.
12:30 Brew stronger pot of coffee.
19:45 Complete full translation of calligraphy manuscript from sixteenth century Spanish.
20:00 Add translation to all relevant file hosting pages.
20:57 User:I Love Photography Three opposes because only one of the nineteen pages is used in article space.
21:00 Brew stronger pot of coffee.
21:05 User:I Love Photography Four nominates an image of a dung beetle.
23:00 I Love Photography One, Two, and Three have all supported the dung beetle.
23:30 Talk page conversation:
Historic Image Editor: "Why the difference?"
I Love Photography: "We can't promote too many illustrations from manuscript royal grants."
Historic Image Editor: "But we don't have any FPs of royal grants at all."
I Love Photography Two: "This is preventative."
Historic Image Editor: "How many featured pictures of dung beetles do we have?"
I Love Photography Three: "Twenty-seven. But this one is rolling an unusually large dung ball."
23:58 Cry self to sleep.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Crafty solutions

One of the copyright issues Wikimedians seldom think about is the creative copyright of original craft art designs. It's worth considering: in many cases this is the work of artists who operate microbusinesses. The creative design is their livelihood.

This is one reason why Wikipedians who have creative hobbies should be photographing and uploading their work. If you make your own designs then you own the copyright on those designs and you can place them under free license.

Don't be shy. It may seem like vanity at first, but it's actually a responsible way to address the economic pressures that globalization has been having on craft artists in first world countries. While raising the Navajo rug article to GA, one of the things I researched was the impact of imported Asian imitations on the indigenous weaving industry. The cost of living in Thailand or China is so much lower than in North America that the 150 year tradition of handwoven Navajo blankets is in decline.

Traditional Navajo designs are in the public domain, but most craft artists create their own patterns. These are as much their financial lifeblood as a writer's words are the writer's livelihood. Yet there are Wikimedians who wouldn't dream of plagiarizing text who violate copyright on craft work. Usually they do so accidentally; they hadn't thought about this.

And after all, sometimes the crafty hobbyist has an idea that is just plain fun. The number 12 on the clock below is a fossilized tooth from a mosasaur.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The face of history

John Quincy Adams was the youngest of the statesmen to emerge from the American Revolution. He was just eleven years old when he first accompanied his father on a diplomatic mission to France. At age fourteen he went to Russia, without his father, to assist another mission that sought diplomatic recognition for the United States. Seven decades later this portrait was drawn in pencil during his final hours of life.

After a long career as a diplomat, as Secretary of State under James Monroe, and a single term as president, John Quincy Adams spent seventeen years in the House of Representatives as a congressman from Massachusetts. His last public act was to vote against a bill to honor veterans of the Mexican-American War. After uttering a loud "No!" he collapsed from a stroke. Adams was too weak to be moved from the building; he lingered for two days.

The librarian's notes on the mounting for this image read, "The original sketch of Mr Adams, taken when dying by AJS. In the Rotunda of the Capitol at Washington".
This is not a well known image, probably because the staining and fade are so extensive that the face is barely discernible. Depending on several factors stains in images could be difficult or easy to fix. A medium sized stain in a clear blue sky is easy to correct. Stains that interact with image features are more challenging. This example is particularly difficult: dozens of small stains intersect the subject's facial features. A single careless edit could transform a placid expression into a scowl.

The restoration was several days' work interrupted by about a month's hiatus. Normally I wouldn't attempt work on an image this badly damaged. It isn't great art or even technically correct. The depiction of the pillow is primitive and Adams's neck ends without a shoulder to support it. But there was something about the historic context that made this exceptional. The eyes kept drawing me in: there in 1848, as those lids shut, the living memory of the revolution faded from public life.
It feels like an honor to find those eyes again 161 years later. I wonder why there aren't more people looking for these things.