A Negative Experience…

By Jeffrey M. Greene

Last month I made a quick trip to Durango, CO to visit my mom and dad to help out with a few things around the property.  After a full day of shoveling snow, restocking firewood, and fixing some minor tractor repairs, I spent the evening in my dad’s study catching up on email and work.

As I was rummaging around his desk for a notepad, I uncovered an old black & white 120 negative wedged between some old papers and receipts.  No envelope, no protective sleeve. Nada. It was dirty, scratched up, and in pretty bad shape. I could tell it was a photo of my dad in his army uniform so I thought it would be cool if I could restore it and make a decent print.

Whenever I visit, I’ve gotten into the habit of photographing all the old family photos that are hanging around their house. I’m certain there are negatives and duplicates filed away somewhere, but I’d rather not spend hours searching for them, so I simply use my smartphone to quickly capture a digital image of each image. It’s not scanner quality, but I’ll trade that hassle for a quick, easy, and instant digital file every time. If I watch the lighting and angles, I can usually avoid reflections.

However, this was a different challenge because it was an old negative. One that had been kicked around my dad’s study for god-knows-how-many years… Although I have the Helmut app (more on that later), I decided to use my smartphone to photograph the negative. Since there wasn’t a light table handy, I simply used the computer monitor with a blank Word document filling the screen as a backlight and made certain there was adequate separation between the negative and monitor to avoid picking up the lenticular surface texture of the screen.

Neg on screen

After I returned home and started working on the file, the first thing I needed to do was to convert the negative into a positive image.

In Photoshop, I just clicked on Images > Adjustments > Invert.
(Ctrl+I is the macro shortcut for Invert if you’re into the whole brevity thing…)

Invert GIF

But what a mess.  It was worse than I thought…

Corporal Greene unretouched

After converting the file to B&W and applying some basic tonal corrections, I spent about an hour removing the dust spots and scratches. I always work in layers and used a separate layer for applying corrections using the Clone Stamp tool and Spot Healing Brush tool.

In order to make the most accurate corrections, I typically zoom the image up to 100% magnification and then systematically work on one small section at a time, completing each section before moving on to the next.
It’s tedious as hell, but well worth the effort to restore a lost moment of time.

Here’s what my retouching layer looked like…

Corporal Greene PS 2


And, finally, after some more tonal corrections, dodging & burning, and a bit of cropping, the final image of my dad; US Army Corporal Eric J. Greene.

Corporal Greene 5x7

I have no idea who the other guy is…

I will post an alternative method for converting negatives and slides using the Helmut app in an upcoming blog post…


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