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I’m currently kind of obsessed with researching my ancestors. I signed up for a trial membership with one of the popular ancestry research websites and have been sifting through the clues I find there. I’ve gone as far as the great-grandparent stage of my maternal grandmother’s side of the family, but my grandfather’s side remains a mystery. With each new clue, however, I feel more and more securely rooted in a family that, prior to this, I knew really very little about.

One of the lovely features of this particular research site is the ability to add archival photographs. They really fascinate me, even the pictures of people I don’t know and who are of no relation to me. Their stoic faces and static poses remind me that, back in that time, there was no such thing as a candid photograph. The subjects had to stand very, very still to accommodate the photographic technology of the day. We have William Henry Talbot and Frederick Scott Archer and George Eastman, among many others, to thank for pioneering the science of photography. And thanks to today’s technology and the widespread use of scanners, one-of-a-kind images taken over a hundred years ago can now be saved from ruin, preserved for all time, and shared across continents.

It’s amazing, when you think about it. I wonder how many people being photographed so long ago thought their image could potentially be seen by hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Ha… maybe they would have smiled more if they knew.

If you have old shoeboxes filled with ancient family photographs, I highly recommend that you make a project of scanning them and preserving them. The old photographic media that was used in the 1800′s and early 1900′s is, by now, quite fragile. Photographic detail is diminished by the day, and these details of a lost era are precious and fading fast. Restoration of damaged physical photographs is also essential for preserving our history. has an excellent article regarding physically and digitally restoring old photographs.

The historical purist in me leans toward NOT altering or enhancing the photos in any way, via Photoshop or any other photographic software. The quality of the photographs are, after all, a part of their history. There is something to be said, though, for the ability to bring back detail that was lost in the original image. It’s a matter of personal preference.

If you’ve scanned, restored, and/or preserved ancestral photographs of your own, we would LOVE to see them! And if you used any sort of enhancement techniques that you feel truly benefited the quality of the photographs, please leave your advice in the comments so we can all learn from your experience.

Photo Credits (in order of appearance):
- “Edwardian Couple” by Smabs Sputzer on Flickr Creative Commons.
- “Rural Free Delivery Carrier” by The Smithsonian Institution in The Commons on Flickr.
- “Louis & Lola ?– TITANIC survivors (LOC)” by The Library of Congress in The Commons on Flickr.

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  • Brett

    Regarding the retouching of old photographs, I think the only hard & fast rule is to preserve the original scan. If you want to make adjustments in Photoshop go ahead, but use a copy so that the original, un-altered scan is available in the future.

  • Emily

    I agree with Brett.

    I've also got a few old photos that are so faded you almost can't see what the subject is. I'm not opposed to altering those for clarity.