Q & A ADVICE
Digital Photo Restoration, Face Biometrics, Facial Features Analysis, Identifying People in Old Photos, and Analyzing Handwriting on Old Photos
by Joelle Steele
I try to answer all questions by Monday mornings at the latest. Not all questions make it into this column, but every reasonable question is answered by E-mail, so be sure your E-mail address is correct. You can use your browser's "find" or "search" function on the Edit menu to search this page.
Q & A Material as of
APRIL 15, 2013
Q. Why do you reject so many of my photos for analysis of facial features?
A. The single biggest obstacle to making accurate analyses and comparisons of faces in photographs is the quality of the photographs. If I rejected your photos, it is only because I cannot analyze and compare any photos that are 72dpi and less than 2" wide. That's why I ask for 600dpi scans so that I can enlarge the photos onscreen and see the details.
Q. What do you mean when you say you work at the pixel level? Why is that so important?
A. I enlarge the photo until I can see the pixels — the small squares that make up a photo when it is digitized. Working at this level enables me to restore a photo by making very tiny changes that don't show up when the photo is later printed out, often significantly enlarged. And when I'm doing facial features analysis, it allows me to make an accurate comparison between photos.
Q. I have three antique photos of very famous people that I would like to have appraised and sold. Can you tell me what they're worth and then sell them for me and take a cut of the profit?
A. Sorry, I can't help you. I'm not an appraiser, and I don't sell photos for anyone.
Q. Are the facial features analyses you provide to collectors the same as the ones you provide to appraisers?
A. All of my analyses are the same, no matter who my clients are. However, I almost never work directly with collectors. The majority of my clients are appraisers, genealogists, private investigators, library/museum archives, and family historians — in that order.
Q. Can you tell me whether or not a photo has been retouched?
A. Usually yes, as long as you provide me with a very high resolution digital image of it. See my article on how to tell if a photo has been retouched for more information on this topic.
Q. Are cephalometry, anthropometry, and biometrics the same as facial features analysis? What about physiognomy? Is what you do considered forensic or physical anthropology?
A. These are all variations on the same theme, but they are not exactly what I do. For example, anthropometry is the measurement of the face and body, and is used in biometric systems, mainly for fingerprinting and iris pattern recognition. Cephalometry is a variation on anthropometry and involves the measurement of the face and head, usually from X-rays, and commonly used by dentists and plastic surgeons. Physiognomy, also called anthroposcopy, is not related to any of the above and is about the interpretation of facial characteristics to assess personality traits. In general, biometrics is the application of statistics to the measurements of the face and body. It is most commonly used today by law enforcement officials. I am an anthropometrist specializing in the analysis and comparison of facial features to authenticate or confirm the identity of a person in a photograph. My practice is based on forensic and physical anthropology but is highly specialized and adapted only for use with photographs.
Q. I am confused about ownership of the copyright in a photo. I have bought lots of photos that were made prior to 1880. Are you saying that I can't ever own their copyright?
A. That's right. According to the US Copyright Office, there are basically three ways that you can own the copyright in a photo: 1) you are the photographer; 2) you legally inherited both the photo and its copyright (this must be stated in writing in the will) from the estate of the photographer; or 3) you purchased the copyright to a photo in a written agreement (a rights assignment) with the photographer or other legal copyright owner.
Q. Why should an old black-and-white photo be scanned in color before you restore it?
A. If a black-and-white photo is scanned in color, you can better distinguish between a mole and mold. Mold frequently has color in it when viewed at the pixel level (the view at which most restoration is done), and this gets lost if you either scan or save a file as black and white. For more information, please read my article on scanners and scanning.
Q. How come you won't do a facial features comparison of my photos just because one of them was digitally restored?
A. Your image was not restored. It was retouched and enhanced. In restoration, the work is meticulously done by hand and all the tiniest lines and shading that were there originally are left intact. Your photo is so "clean" that it doesn't even look real. I need those original lines and shading for an accurate analysis because they are part and parcel to the facial features themselves. They indicate the depth, height, and breadth of a nose or chin or other feature. If you send me a 600 dpi scan of that photo — no adjustments at all — I will do your comparison.
Q. There are so many ways to restore photos in Photoshop. Can you recommend the best methods to use?
A. The clone stamp is best for removing damage. The main thing you don't want to do is use one of those one-size-fits-all types of clean-up routines because they give the photo an artificial look that is not a restoration at all, but instead results in an overly retouched photo. Another tip is to work at the pixel level. It's much harder to do, especially at first, but it ultimately gives you a far better result.
Q. I loaned someone a copy of your 1992 book, Anthropometry and The Human Face in Photographs, and I'd like to buy a replacement. Where can I get a copy?
A. That book is no longer available. However, I have rewritten and expanded it into a much better book on the subject. It is titled Face To Face: Analysis and Comparison of Facial Features to Authenticate the Identities of People In Photographs. It will be available on this Web site as soon as I finish the editing and get it printed up. I'm shooting for Spring 2013.
Q. Why are all your examples for face analysis of famous people? What about ordinary people? Why don't you use examples of those?
A. Faces are faces, famous or not. I use famous faces when I teach face biometrics because they make my classes more entertaining. I try to do the same with my articles on this Web site.
Q. I have a 68" panorama photo that I would like to restore myself, but it exceeds Photoshop's width requirements. What can I do to get around this limitation?
A. You will have to reduce the width but keep the resolution high (at least 300 dpi) so that you can restore it in Photoshop but still be able to have it printed out at the original size. Please see my article on panoramic photographs.
Q. Can you identify people in surveillance photos?
A. Usually. It depends on how clear the surveillance photos are and whether you have good exemplars to which I can compare them.
Q. I want to digitally restore and then greatly enlarge and frame a photo. Is there a formula for determining how much a restored image can be enlarged?
A. No, there isn't. How big you make the final image is dependent on how big and how clear the original is, the resolution at which you scan it, and whether or not you do your restoration at the pixel level where it can't be seen when the photo is enlarged.
Q. In an old article in a genealogy newsletter you mentioned using a software called FaceShell. Is that a program you created, or is it now called something else?
A. Wow, you are going waaaaaay back in time! FaceShell was an early form of face biometric software and it was definitely not designed by me. It could only be used for part of a facial features analysis, similar to most of today's biometrics programs, such as Visual Face Recognition software. The rest had to be done by hand. I don't know what happened to FaceShell. It was okay for ruling out the non-matches, but not adequate for authenticating an identity.
Q. When you restore a photo of a person, can you also crop it for a close-up of the face to use in a family history book? Is there an additional fee for this?
A. Yes, it can usually be cropped to your specifications. You just need to let me know in advance. No charge for the cropping.
Q. How is copyright determined for an old photograph from about 1885?
A. According to the Registrar of the US Copyright Office, old photographs of that era fall into the public domain if they were created prior to 1923, or did not have a copyright notice on them prior to 1963, or did not have their copyright renewal registered prior to 1963, and were either created by someone who died more than 70 years ago or by an anonymous photographer more than 120 years ago.
Q. I had a photo restored by someone else and it looked kind of unreal. Your restorations don't look that way. What is the difference?
A. The difference is between restoration and retouching. In restoration, digital or otherwise, the goal is to restore the photo as closely as possible to the way it looked when it was first taken. Retouching alters the photograph in different ways according to the person doing the retouching and how much retouching they do. A retouched photo could just have a few specks removed or have the color adjusted, or it could have had much heavier retouching done that makes it look very clean or perfect, or even like a painting or graphic print.
Q. Why do you charge for your facial features analysis services when there are plenty of people who will do it free?
A. I charge for my services because I put a value on my time and expertise. If someone does it for free, it could be that you get what you pay for. See my article on working with experts for more information.
Q. Even though my photo says, "Mr. Lincoln" on the back of it, and it looks like Lincoln, you said it wasn't. How can you be so sure?
A. I know Lincoln's face very well and your image is not a match. Having a name written on a photo doesn't confirm the identity of the person in it. The man in your photo has a beard and is wearing a stovepipe hat, but that is where the resemblance ends. Someone probably wrote "Mr. Lincoln" on it because of that, probably as a joke. I have seen many photos labeled as people they are not for the very same reason, including numerous ones labeled "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Frank and Jesse James" that are definitely not the celebrated outlaws.
Q. I purchased an 1858 photo and am using it in a book I have written and am self-publishing. Do I then own the copyright to that photo, and do I have to register the copyright?
A. Purchasing a photo does not convey ownership of the copyright in that photo, even if you go on to duplicate or publish the photo in some way. Your photo falls within the public domain and can be duplicated by anyone in any way they wish. Since you do not own the copyright, you cannot register it.
Q. In analyzing the angle of the eyes when comparing facial features of people in photographs, what exactly is being measured? How accurate is this as a comparison method?
A. The angle is measured at the corners of the eyes, which are called the medial and lateral canthi. The angle of each canthus is measured. I use a protractor to do this. Its accuracy depends on whether both people in the photos you're comparing are looking ahead normally. If one is wide-eyed and the other is obviously squinting, it is of little value.
Q. Can a CDV that has faded to a very light purple be digitally restored?
A. Possibly. If you want me to tell you whether an image can be restored, you have to send me a high resolution scan of it so that I can tell you for sure (and also tell you how much it will cost).
Q. The "preliminary" analyses in your articles seem pretty flimsy to me. How can you say for sure that a photo is or is not someone after such a quick glance?
A. I can't and I don't. The preliminary analysis rules out most matches, but regardless of whether it does or doesn't, I still measure the faces to ensure accuracy. All of the photos mentioned in my articles about face biometrics have been through the preliminary analysis and were also measured.
Q. Why do you do all your restoration by hand when there are so many programs out there that fix a photo instantly?
A. Because those programs are not suitable for restoration work. They create an artificial image that does not look photographic, and most of my clients want their photos to look real, just without the damage.
Q. I have a Daguerreotype that I think dates to about 1842. Can you authenticate it for me, and if so, what is the cost?
A. No, I don't authenticate photos at all, only the identity of people in photos.
Q. You mention in an article that the alignment of facial features with the ears might not be useful if a photo is taken at an angle. How can you tell?
A. Most of the time you can tell by looking at the chin and the shadows made by the angle of the lighting. Sometimes you can tell by how much of the top of the head is exposed — or not. Those are clues that tell you if the person's head was leaning backwards or tilted forward. In the oldest of photos that had long exposure times, the head was braced, and so most of the time the person is looking straight ahead, but the camera could be at an angle.
Q. I inherited six photo albums from the late 19th and early 20th century. Should I conserve the albums intact or remove and store the photos (all on paper) separately?
A. Conserve the photos separately but note which albums they were in and in what order they appeared (that can sometimes help with identification). Those albums are not made of archival materials, and the acids in the pages will ultimately destroy the images.
Q. In digital restoration, is it possible to reconstruct a missing part of a face in a photo? Is this something you can do?
A. I can and have done it before. It depends on the photo itself and whether you have other photos of that person for me to compare it to. I can't just create, say, an ear, if I have no idea what that ear is supposed to look like on that particular person.
Q. Do you need to be a physical anthropologist or a forensic anthropologist to be a facial features analyst?
A. No. Physical anthropology (bioanthropology) is about human biology and how humans came into being, how we adapted and changed over time, particularly in relation to our non-human relatives, the primates. Forensic anthropologists, on the other hand, deal mainly with bones, usually of people long dead and already turned to bone, and they are known most popularly these days for their facial reconstruction skills. I have never met or heard of any physical anthropologist or forensic anthropologist who would be educated sufficiently in face biometrics to authenticate identities of people in photographs. It is a specialty unto itself and is pretty far out of their areas of expertise. See my article on selecting an expert for more information on this.
Q. Can you analyze facial features if a person is facing straight ahead in one photo and the other person is in three-quarter view?
A. Usually, yes; sometimes, no. It depends on the individual photos and how much is visible in each to make a comparison. If both photos are very clear with a lot of detail, then the chance of successfully comparing the two different views is much better, especially with regard to the vertical line-up of the features.
Q. Is facial features analysis the same as physiognomy?
A. No, not even close. Physiognomy is the interpretation of character traits based on facial features. I do not interpret anything. I am an anthropometrist and I compare and analyze (measure) facial features of people in photographs in order to confirm their identity as being one in the same person.
Q. How can I tell if a photograph was laterally reversed inside the camera?
A. It's rare to find one made that way, but you can look for clues in the clothing, such as buttons — usually on the left for women, on the right for men (but this is not a standard in old clothing). You can also compare the photo to another of the same person (no two faces are entirely symmetric). Or, you can research the photographer, if identified, and see what kind of equipment he/she used.
Q. I have a copy of your 1992 book, Anthropometry and the Human Face in Photographs. It doesn't mention the latest ways to analyze faces. What do you suggest?
A. I suggest you be patient, because I've got a new version coming out within a year. It is a greatly expanded version called Face To Face: Analysis And Comparison Of Facial Features To Authenticate Identities of People In Photographs. I'm hoping to release it next year (2013), and when I do, it will be available on this website.
Q. I have a tintype of my great-grandfather, and it has a long scratch running through it. Can this be restored?
A. I can probably digitally restore it, and it can probably be physically restored. I only do digital restorations, so if you want the latter, you'll need to find someone who does that sort of work.
Q. You seem very negative towards historians who authenticate photos. I would think they are the best sources for accurate authentication.
A. Historians are often good at authenticating photos. But I don't authenticate photos. I am an anthropometrist and I authenticate identities of people in photos, and I use my knowledge of cranial and facial and ear anatomy to do that. I don't rely on provenance at all. The fact that a photo was found with other photos of the same person or relatives or associates of that same person, or that the photo was taken in a particular studio is irrelevant to what I do. I let the person's features tell who they are. Most historians don't do that very well, if at all. See my article on selecting an expert for more information.
Q. I removed a photo from its case, and the glass broke. Can the image be restored?
A. I don't know. I only do digital restorations, and I can probably digitally restore it, but you'll need to find a professional conservator to advise you on the item itself. Perhaps a museum can help you.
Q. When you measure the distance between facial features on each face, how do you then compare those measurements? It would seem they would always be different because the sizes of photos are different.
A. You are absolutely correct. You compare the percentages of the face that compose the sizes of the features in proportion to the rest of the face. For example, if the height of the chin in one photo represents 19% of the total length/height of the face, then you would want to find that same percentage in the chin of the face to which you are comparing it for it to be a match. See my article on measuring facial features for more on this subject.
Q. I have an old photo of my great-great-uncle who is Norwegian. The photo is kind of small, but you can see his hooded eyelids. I don't think we have any Asian ancestors. What else could account for this?
A. He may just have heavily hooded eyes and not the true epicanthic folds found in the eyes of some indigenous Asian peoples. If that's not the case, perhaps he inherited the trait from a much earlier Saami (Sámi) ancestor.
Q. Can I see a copy of one of your facial features reports before I hire you for this service?
A. Yes, here's a PDF of a sample report done in June 2012.
Q. If an old photograph is yellow, what color was it to begin with?
A. It was probably a black-and-white photo or an old albumen print. The chemicals and paper turned yellow with time and improper storage.
Q. How should I store photos that are under glass and in union cases?
A. These photos are extremely fragile. They should be left in their union cases and wrapped separately in soft white cotton cloth. Store them either upright or glass side down in an archival box. See my article on handling and storing photos for more details.
Q. I have a photo that is 1-1/4" wide by 1-3/4" high, and I'd like to know if it can be cleaned up and then enlarged and, if so, how much bigger it can be made?
A. There are two factors involved in enlarging a tiny photo. First, the photo has to be very clear and detailed, just small. Second, if it is clear, it needs to be scanned at about 1200 dpi to retain that detail and allow for enlarging it. If your photo is very clear, it can probably be enlarged up to 5x7, possibly to 8x10.
Q. There is a lot of writing on the back of an old photo, and the content is of historic value to my family if it was written by my great-great-grandmother and not by her sister. Their handwriting is similar. Can you tell the difference?
A. Yes. Like two faces, no handwriting of two people is ever exactly the same. You would need to have known samples of their handwriting for comparison. See my article on handwriting analysis for more information.
Q. How important is a photo's provenance when identifying people?
A. As an anthropometrist specializing in facial features, it's not important to me at all. If a face is an exact match for the person it's purported to be, then the provenance merely matches that person. Where and when a photo is taken is of interest in dating the photo, but it won't make a person be who you think it is or want it to be unless the face is analyzed and compared with a known photo of that person and is found to be an exact match. See my article about provenance for more information.
Q. Why don't you compare photos of children with photos of their adult selves? Can't age progression software make this possible?
A. I don't do age progression. It isn't my specialty. It requires a lot of research into family photos to help determine how a person might age based on how their ancestors did. Even then, the result is just a guideline. In that way, it is a great tool for assisting law enforcement in finding missing children who have grown up, but it would not be adequate for making an exact match of a child's and adult's photo.
Q. I'm trying to learn how you do what you do so that I can identify some of the hundreds of family photos I have. One of the problems I keep coming up against is being able to make a good comparison of the lips. They all seem to look so similar.
A. That's probably because they are part of the genetic resemblance in your family photos. I've identified a lot of people in family albums, and it is very challenging to do so. All I can say is that as you keep studying your photos, you will eventually be better at catching the very subtle differences that distinguish one family member's lips and their other features from another family member's similar features.
Q. I have several pictures of my great-grandmother, and her weight varies throughout her life. Are there any tricks to analyzing these photos to be sure they are all of her?
A. In most cases, weight gain/loss doesn't make much difference in analyzing features, especially the ears, and also in a vertical comparison of the facial features. The overall shape of the head and face may change slightly with weight gain, but the ear placement and configuration, the eye size and shape, and possibly the nose and lips, will remain the same, as will the alignment of all the other features.
Q. Do you use biometric software to identify people in photographs?
A. No, because it does not work well in making exact identifications of people in photographs. This is because biometric software is used for quick face recognition by security systems and law enforcement agencies. It measures only a few facial features to do this, while I use more than 100 to confirm identities. At this point in time, the trained eye and detailed measurements are far more accurate for identifying people in photos.
Q. I have two Daguerreotypes that I was told are of my great-great-grandfather who was a slave in Mississippi. But he is very dark in the Dags and our family history says he was half white. In another photo of him, a CDV taken in 1887 when he is much older, he is much lighter, even though he looks like the same person. Could those old Dags be of someone else, a brother perhaps? Any thoughts on this?
A. It is certainly possible that the Daguerreotypes are not of your great-great-grandfather. But, Dags had very long exposure times, and as a result, the final image was very high contrast — what was dark was darker and what was light was lighter. The later methods of photography didn't require that long exposure time, so the contrast was not as high and provided a more natural appearance. So they could all be photos of your great-great-grandfather, differences in skin tones courtesy of the photographic processes.
Q. I bought an old photo in a glass case and it says that the image is an amphitype. What is that? Is it rare?
A. An amphitype is what Europeans called the ambrotype. Ambros were at the height of their popularity in America between 1853 and 1870 but were still made in the 1890s. They are not any more rare than any other antique photos from the 19th century. See my article on antique photo processes for more information.
Q. How can you tell so quickly whether someone is not the person they are purported to be?
A. I do a preliminary analysis (quick assessment) that rules out non-matches based on the shape of the head and face, and the vertical alignment and proportions of the facial features, all of which are dependent on the underlying bone structure of the face and head. If that bony infrastructure isn't a match, then the two people cannot be a match, and there is no reason to do a full facial features analysis unless my client requests one (which is unlikely).
Q. I can't make my scanner scan a photo at anything other than 72 dpi. Why can't that be used for a digital restoration job when the image is so big in its dimensions?
A. It can be used, but the results will not be anywhere near as good as they would be if it was scanned at 300 dpi or 600 dpi. The difference is in the number of pixels per inch. Digital restoration is done at the pixel level, and the more pixels you have to work with in each inch of the photo, the more natural the photo will appear when the restoration is complete and the bigger you can print the photo without the restoration work showing. Most scanners do have the ability to scan higher than 72 dpi, so I suggest you try to figure out how to adjust the settings on your scanner.
Q. Do you use any kind of facial reconstruction software that can help identify a face that was severely damaged in an accident?
A. Sorry, that's not my specialty at all, so I don't know what kind of software might be available for it.
Q. What is the best way to display antique photos on paper? Should they be mounted under UV protective glass and in metal frames?
A. The best way to ensure that your antique photos are not damaged by exposure to light, moisture, smog, cigarette smoke, or anything else, is to display copies only and store the originals in polypropylene bags between sheets of archival tissue. See my article on storing and displaying photos for more information.
Q. We inherited a photo that was inside a glass dome. It was shipped to us and arrived broken and I don't know what to do to fix it.
A. This is not something I can advise you on. All I can tell you is not to try to separate the photo from the frame, and to find someone local who can do this kind of delicate repair for you. My first stop would be a museum.
Q. I purchased a Daguerreotype that looks very different than others I've seen. It's kind of brownish instead of the blue-gray. Is this due to some form of environmental damage?
A. No, you probably have a "gilded" Daguerreotype. They were made a little later with gold chloride, and that created the warmer brown or gold tone that they referred to at the time as gilding.