High Fidelity

Why sourcing the original image is so important in the craft of Colourisation

A major consideration for any colouriser is access to original, high quality scans of the physical photo and why it’s important.

For the home stereo enthusiast, the phrase ‘Hi-Fi’, short for ‘High Fidelity’ is used to describe equipment that reproduces sound in high quality through minimising noise and distortion, to distinguish it from poor quality audio equipment. High Fidelity can also be described as ‘getting as close to the original as possible’.

It is also a convenient way to try and convey my approach to the craft of colourisation. ‘Getting as close to the original as possible’ in order to reproduce an authentic interpretation of a black and white image in colour is one of my biggest priorities, which explains the extra lengths a serious colouriser would go to in order to obtain accurate colour references.

Whilst the methodical research varies depending on the subject, central to a successful colourisation is the quality of the original image that is being worked upon. Thankfully colourisers now have it easy: wonderful resources such as the Library of Congress means we can access high quality uncompressed TIFF files straight from the negative which are mostly free from copyright restrictions.

These resources are also a great source for professional restoration in black and white and historical interest groups. One of my favourite websites is the excellent Shorpy.com, the best vintage photography blog on the internet. On it, editors Dave Hall and Ken Booth curate original scans of historical images and provide commentary for its community of history buffs.

More importantly to us however, is the fact that Hall and Booth meticulously retouch the image, providing stunning, high resolution images in black and white which are available as prints. The work is so good in fact, it’s actually very difficult to tell what work has been done on them. I came to this realisation a while ago when I was working on an earlier colourisation, the Lanier Hotel on the Bowery in New York in 1921.

The Lanier Hotel. On the left is the Shorpy.com restored image, and on the right is my colourisation worked straight on the Shorpy image.

Whilst on the surface the colourisation is executed fairly well, the final result is heavily stylised and not particularly realistic. I came to realise this is because the original black and white has been so heavily retouched before it was posted on Shorpy.com. To show how much work has been done, consider the original glass negative from the Library of Congress:

Original image (left), provided by the George Grantham Bain’s Bain News Service. The Shorpy.com retouched version is on the right.

There are significant differences in the exposure between the original glass negative and the Shorpy.com version. Overall luminosity adjustments have been made, but in particular the exposure on the foreground has completely been reworked. Sometimes the differences are subtle, but they are there.

Whilst the retouched images are undoubtably very good, they are intended to be viewed in black and white — not in colour — and doubly so if you intend on colourising a retouched version of a black and white image. Quite simply, adding colour to a retouched black and white image is a no-no as the luminosity information has been changed, thus affecting not just the colour itself in terms of saturation and relative brightness, but also it’s perception.

If the differences were not clear enough, here’s another example.

The Dexter & Crozier Rambler Biclorama, Auckland, New Zealand 1902. Image courtesy of National Library of New Zealand
In this detailed image, we can pick out four major changes: 1. The texture on the stonework on the fascia to the shop has been brought out. 2. The reflectiveness of the lead sheeting on the roof has been emphasised. 3. The luminosity of the main signage has been significantly darkened and 4. A sepia tone has been applied to the image

When this kind of luminosity change affects the monochrome channels in the base image, it completely alters our perception in what we think the colour might be — even if accurate colour references can be found.

In this comparison, changing the luminosity information completely adjusts the colour.

The solution to this is quite simple: go to great lengths to source the original, unaltered image. Whether or not you track it down in some forgotten archive or make the scan yourself, you as the colouriser should be making the necessary luminosity adjustments; preferably after you have applied colour to the original (bar making some basic global tonal adjustments). It is a necessary part of the restoration process and should not be overlooked.

Jordan J. Lloyd is an image specialist at Dynamichrome.

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