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Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2008-03-13/Dispatches

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Dispatches: Vintage image restoration

By Durova, March 13 2008
Mulberry Street, New York City, 1900

Let's face it: not everyone is a wordsmith. Editors who think visually instead of verbally can contribute featured content too. It isn't necessary to be a talented photographer or even to own a camera, because a portion of Wikipedia's featured pictures are historic images that individual editors have uploaded or restored.

A few of the images already hosted at Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons are neglected gems, and other quality archives such as the Library of Congress host feature-worthy public domain material. It takes a working understanding of copyright law to search for images offsite and proficiency in at least one type of image processing software to do restorations. Fortunately, good free software programs are available and plenty of restorable images are already waiting for attention.

At its best, image restoration is like cleaning a window onto the past. It's a way to improve the encyclopedia where few editor conflicts happen. Just fire up the image software, start some music or maybe open a chat, and relax. If you're patient enough and careful enough, the window you open may bring history to life on Wikipedia's main page.

Featured picture criteria

The page that describes Wikipedia's featured picture criteria is essential reading for editors who want to contribute featured pictures. This overview focuses on the aspects that are of special interest for vintage image work. Editors who are making their first efforts will find Wikipedia:Picture peer review a good place to seek feedback.

High technical standard

Featured picture criteria allow flexibility for historic images, but in practice that's often less flexibility than an enthusiastic newcomer would like. The file itself needs to be a quality scan without halftoning or JPEG artifacting. Reviewers will accept moderate compromises in quality if the nominator provides good reasons why no better replacement is available.

  • Example 1 is a 1904 landscape by Edward S. Curtis and a stunning photograph by any standard. Vintage landscapes or architectural photographs need to be of top quality unless a historic element prevents a contemporary photographer from recreating the scene on state-of-the-art equipment.
  • Example 2 is an architectural image that could not be replaced with a later photograph. This passed featured picture candidacy even though it looks tilted, because the problem is caused by a distortion inherent to early camera lenses. The building underwent new construction before the lens technology improved.
  • Example 3 is a photograph from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Its inherent importance outweighs minor flaws such as the turned face of the woman at left.

High resolution

Featured picture criteria ask for a minimum of 1,000 pixels on at least one side. Although historic images are allowed as exceptions, nearly all vintage pictures actually are this size or larger.

  • Example 4 is one of Wikipedia's smallest featured pictures at 800 × 769 pixels. It is also one of the earliest vintage images to have been promoted (it ran on the main page in 2004) and would probably have a hard time passing if nominated today.
  • Example 5 is more of a typical size for featured material at 2,962 × 2,048 pixels.

Free license

Wikipedia features only pictures that are public domain, or that have been given GFDL or another suitable copyleft license. Fair-use copyrighted material is not eligible.

Editors who upload vintage images have to become familiar with the quirks of copyright duration. Material should be uploaded to Wikimedia Commons whenever possible because Commons serves all Wikimedia Foundation projects, including all foreign-language editions of Wikipedia. Occasionally a difference in hosting policy makes it necessary to upload to the English-language Wikipedia instead of Commons.

  • Example 6 is unusual because it is a featured image on Wikipedia that cannot be hosted at Commons. It was published in France by an artist who lived until 1968, so is public domain in the United States but copyrighted in France. Wikipedia observes United States copyright law where most images published before 1923 are in the public domain, but Commons also observes the copyright of the country of publication. French law keeps material under copyright for the lifetime of the creator plus 70 years.

Avoids inappropriate digital manipulation

Encyclopedic restorations are a conservative undertaking. Several practices are specifically acceptable:

  • Cropping
  • Perspective correction
  • Sharpening/blurring
  • Color/exposure correction

Reviewers tolerate other modest changes as long as the work recreates the original photograph. Radical filters or composition changes are not viewed favorably. It's good practice to upload an original version of every image and to include restoration notes.

  • Examples 7 and 8 are before and after examples of an intensive image restoration. The original was slightly tilted and faded, and had numerous problems with dust, scratches and chemical decomposition. The restoration took three days to correct those problems at high resolution and denoise the sky. Most restorations require less work than this.


On average, about 1 in 1,000 archival images has the potential to become a featured picture. So I maintain an open workshop at User:Durova/Landmark images, where editors are welcome to pick up images for restoration, or to drop off extra needles from whichever haystacks they've been searching.

The technical side of restoration is mostly a matter of working slowly and up close. I start at 300% addressing simple problems, and then go in as much as 700–800% for challenging areas such as human faces. The results are worth the effort.

Hone restoration skills in one or two areas, familiarizing yourself with the technical background for each medium, and try new things as your interests and confidence grow. Some editors work with paintings. Others specialize in engravings, etchings, and lithographs. An interest in nineteenth century photography can lead to arcane knowledge about daguerrotypes, colloidon glass emulsions, salt paper calotypes, and photochrom prints. As much as possible, combine technical research with historical and cultural background to make your restoration choices as accurate as possible.

It can help to collaborate with an editing partner to review work in progress and share suggestions, and then to conominate the image together. If several similar images excite you, concentrate on your favorite one first and space out the nominations.

Free image manipulation software

Further reading

Also this week:

From the editor — Scandal fallout continues — WikiWorld — News and notes — In the news — Dispatches — WikiProject report — Tutorial — Features and admins — Technology report — Arbitration report

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