Making it perfect

Restoration: Online services offer consumers professional-quality photo retouching.

August 08, 2002|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,SUN STAFF

Just because you're a digital camera enthusiast, you don't necessarily want to spend hours in front of a computer monitor, learning how to fix photos with complicated image-editing software.

After all, you'd rather get back out there and shoot pictures.

To help shots that have real potential but a few major flaws, consider one of the professional online retouching services that have sprung up to make bad pictures into good ones.

Some retouching is simple, such as removing flash-induced red-eye, or more complex, such as removing someone from a photograph. You might want to fix up an old, damaged, image so it can be printed again without the creases, tears and fading that come with time. Some retouching services will even turn photographs into caricatures.

While many digital camera owners have just begun to take advantage of the kind of professional editing that magazines and advertising agencies have used for years, retouchers say most of their clients simply want those old 1930s photographs of Grandma and Grandpa restored to glory.

One of the larger players is San Francisco-based DigitalCustom Group, which runs the Image Edit & Art Web site ( There, consumers can upload digital images - from a high-resolution digital camera or a scanner - and order a variety of services for an average fee between $25 and $40 per photo, although more serious restorations might cost closer to $100.

"The core concept is that - whatever you want done - you give us the instructions, we'll handle the quality control and return it to you so you can print it at your house," says Jeff Makoff, president of San Francisco-based DigitalCustom. "If you want us to print it, we'll print it for you. But the core business isn't printing."

Catering to consumers since the Web site started last year, DigitalCustom's services now are being extended to photo retailers who don't have in-house digital artists.

Consumers paid hundreds of dollars for photo restoration only a few years ago. Marie Madura, owner of Lilac Digital ( in Auston, Texas, says competition has helped lower prices. She says her work starts at about $40, with prices going upward of $100 for complex jobs.

"If there is damage to highly detailed areas - say, like, damage to a person's face or even parts are missing - that will cost more than just removing a wrinkle, say, from the background," she says.

Love of photography is what links Makoff, Madura and Clayton Schmidt, who started Digital Retouching and Restoration ( six months ago in Houston.

"I have been an amateur photographer for years," says Schmidt. "Then, I found out that processing pictures on a PC is easier than in a darkroom."

Now, he says, Adobe's Photoshop image-editing program is what he uses day in, day out - like most of the digital image editors.

DigitalCustom operates by farming out work to foreign artists who charge far less than their American counterparts.

Once customers place the image slated for fixing on their hard drives (either by downloading from a camera or scanning it in), they surf to DigitalCustom's site and use drag-and-drop software to upload it to the company's processing center in Cincinnati, where employees evaluate the image.

Users then answer several questions about what they want done to their image. If an old photo is sepia-toned, should the new image be black and white? Does the client want text added? A different background color? A glamorizing treatment with hints of Hollywood?

Within 24 hours, DigitalCustom sends back an estimate based on a three-, eight- or 15-day turnaround. The longer a user is willing to wait, the lower the charge.

Once a customer pays for the work, Makoff says, the photograph ships out to an artist with the right specialty. Photographs turned into cartoons or illustrations, for example, might go to a cartoonist in Spain.

The decision to use offshore labor comes down to serious numbers. "How are we going to deliver six hours of work for $45?" Makoff says. "We knew people weren't going to pay $200 to $300."

Makoff, who also is a lawyer, says other concerns play a role in his company's digital editing, specifically legal issues. For example, images that are copyrighted can't be altered without permission from the copyright holder. And, while editing someone out of a picture is rarely a problem, adding a person's image to a picture can create associations that one or all of the people in the image might not like.

"There can be a lot of mischief in digital editing," says Makoff, whose DigitalCustom Group has created ethics guidelines for image retouching for journalists.

On the other hand, the ability to manipulate images is what makes digital photography so appealing.

"Shortly after I heard about digital photography, it became clear that you weren't stuck with problems in your pictures anymore, and that's important for consumers," Makoff says. "You spend your whole life throwing pictures away because you flubbed it or someone closed their eyes." With digital photography, you don't have to do that anymore.

Madura says her clients are thrilled about digital imaging. Frequently, the pictures they want her to restore show beloved relatives long gone.

"People are just ecstatic," she says of the results of a retouching job. "That's the only the picture they had of the person and it's just falling apart. But we can provide them with a brand-new photo [that looks like] what it was originally."

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