• Publishing & printing

Ed #7 Retouching

Ed™ knows how to fake it. Ed wants to show you things as they aren’t. Yet are. Ever since Adobe® Photoshop® first appeared in 1990, photographs just haven’t been the same.

Retouching or, more accurately, manipulating images moved from the camera, the darkroom and the retoucher’s studio into the computer. And the way that people worked with photographs changed. Techniques that were once time-consuming and expensive became commonplace, and the range of effects that could be easily achieved expanded dramatically.

Today, photo retouching is used more widely than ever before, for everything from repairing tears or water damage to old photos to creating images that are no more real, but far more lifelike, than the most vivid dream.

In this issue, Ed looks at retouching. You’ll learn a little of the long history of manipulating photos, see some outstanding examples of the art, both old and new, and find some tips about how to make it work for you.

Why does Ed do it? Because Ed wants to help you do more. Because Ed wants to help spur your creativity. And because Ed wants to show you that Billerud should be your first choice in printing papers. We’re dedicated to helping you do your best work. So while you can’t always trust your eyes, can always trust Billerud papers—and the help you get from Ed.

Ed will never grow old, but some of the information in this issue is out of date.

Retouching history. The plain truth has never been enough. Photographs have been retouched from the time the first camera were invented.

Magical realism

Jerry Uelsmann combines a mastery of traditional darkroom practices with an artist’s vision to create timeless, haunting images. “The entire photographic process is a metamorphosis,” he writes. “The artist can invent a reality which is personally more meaningful than the one literally given to the eye.”


“In the very beginning, when the operator controls and regulates his time of exposure, when in the dark room the developer is mixed for detail, flatness or contrast, faking has been resorted to. In fact every photograph is a fake from start to finish, a purely impersonal unmanipulated photograph being practically impossible.” - Edward Steichen, 1903

As a promise, “the camera never lies” ranks right up there with “the check is in the mail.” While the camera may never lie, the hands that operate it can play all kinds of tricks—with the camera itself, in the darkroom, or on the print. And photographers have manipulated the images they have captured from the very beginning.

Think that retouching began with glamour shots of Hollywood stars? Think again. Even some of the earliest photographic portraits show signs of retouching to soften wrinkles or remove blemishes. The famed Civil War photographer Matthew Brady is known to have staged battle scenes and to have an inserted an additional officer into a previously made portrait of General Sherman’s staff. Even the way an image is cropped, focused or exposed can shade the truth. When Franklin Roosevelt was president, for example, photographers cropped the wheelchair he relied on out of the frame to conceal the evidence of his paralysis.

Unless it’s taken purely by accident, there is no such thing as an objective photo. Every image that is taken on purpose is the result of a number of subjective choices, ranging from the type of film or camera that is used to the selection of the subject and its lighting, framing, focus and composition. We do not see reality—only what the photographer chooses to show us.

But of course, some photos are far less objective than others. The honor of producing the first truly faked photo is usually awarded to a Frenchman named Hippolyte Bayard, whose invention of photography preceded that of both Louis Daguerre in France and William Talbot in London. In 1840, piqued by the lack of attention his work had received, Bayard made a photograph of himself posed as a corpse and then wrote a note on the back blaming the government’s lack of support for his “suicide” by drowning. Fortunately, he did not really end his own life and continued to take photographs. In fact, two years after his premature demise, the French Society for the Encouragement of Industry awarded Bayard a prize of 3,000 francs.

Several decades later, the use of faked photos became more widespread with the rise of spirit photography, which purported to show the ghost of a dead loved one. Spirit photographers would typically ask for a photo of the deceased, photograph it on a portion of a negative and then expose the negative again at a séance held to contact the dead. Voila! A photo of the dead person hovering over the living appeared. In public debates, spirit photos were attacked as frauds by the magician Harry Houdini, who made some spirit photos of his own to unmask the techniques involved. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, defended the veracity of the photos just as vehemently.

After halftone printing was introduced in the 1880s, faked pictures were created to accompany faked stories. As early as the 1900s politicians were combining photos to show opponents seemingly talking to communist leaders and other undesirables. On April Fool’s Day and sometimes other occasions as well, newspapers published images of giant sea monsters, space aliens and other fantastic creatures. Postcard printers followed suit with such now iconic images as the Jackalope. 

The temptation to not just improve reality, but change it, remains strong today. In the late 1980s, TV Guide wanted to run a photo of a newly slender Oprah Winfrey but didn’t have one. The editor solved the problem by putting Oprah’s head on the actress Ann-Margret’s body. In the 2004 presidential election, two images were combined to falsely show a young John Kerry seated next to Jane Fonda at a Vietnam-era anti-war rally.

While photographic fakery has a long history, it has become far more commonplace since John and Thomas Knoll developed Photoshop®, which was first sold in 1990. Until then retouching was performed manually, and the process was difficult and time-consuming. It took years of training to master the tools that were used—an airbrush, layers of friskets, or masks, that isolated each separate portion of the image, and special dyes—as well as outstanding hand-eye coordination. Completing major modifications could take days or weeks, and if mistakes were made the retoucher would sometimes have to start over from the beginning. So even though conventional retouching could deliver exceptional results, its use was limited.

All of that changed with the advent of electronic image editing. Scitex® and other early electronic prepress systems allowed printers to move beyond the basics of separating color to manipulating the image, but the technology was complex and expensive. Then Photoshop® brought electronic image editing to the desktop. While initial efforts often appeared crude, because the engineers who knew how to operate the technology frequently did not have training in the visual arts, results improved when trained retouchers began to go digital. What took hours or days with an airbrush could now be done in minutes, making retouching easier and cheaper than ever before. Digital retouching is more precise too—and virtually undetectable. And in the hands of a skilled operator, it’s possible to create startling and arresting images. The only real limits are time, budgets, technical skills, ethical considerations and your own imagination.

Today, the original image is increasingly considered as nothing more than the raw material for additional processing on the computer. Hundreds, if not thousands, of books, magazine articles and scores of Web sites have been devoted to explaining how to use the tools that Photoshop,®  and similar programs provide.

The tools that are most commonly used include sharpening, which can make a blurry area clearer, and the healing brush, which allows you to remove skin blemishes, wrinkles, dust, scratches and other small defects from the image. The blur tool, which lowers the resolution of a specified portion of the photo, is often used to reduce the signs of editing. Burn and dodge tools allow you to darken and lighten areas of a picture just as was done in the darkroom. The lasso tool selects areas to be altered or moved. Sponges help to remove color, including red eye. Curves can be used to correct or adjust the tonal balance; channels enable you to filter out or increase a certain color. Other tools that can help control color include grayscale and posterize. Actions and droplets enable you to automatically apply adjustments made to one image to others.

Photoshop and similar products offer a number of other tools as well, but almost all of them share three basic purposes: restoration, enhancement and manipulation. Restoration corrects the condition of the original photograph by mending tears, removing water damage and fixing yellowing, cracking and other problems. Enhancement subtly alters an image to remove flaws such as dust, scratches and blemishes, to correct color or improve skin tones. Improvements might also include such things as slightly darkening the corners of an image, so the eye is drawn to the center. Manipulation changes the content of the image by removing or adding objects, combining a number of images, or altering the relationships shown in the original image. (Think of Elvis shaking hands with an alien, whose head has been placed on Ann-Margret’s body).

Regardless of the type of retouching that you’re doing, it pays to follow a few simple rules. The first is to capture as much information as possible at the beginning. Some professional retouchers prefer to begin with a traditional film image and then convert it to a digital image, because the film offers greater saturation. If a digital image is used, it should be captured at the highest resolution possible. Digital files at lower resolutions may be used, but they often must be retouched more extensively—or even “reshot” on the computer. If you’re planning to create a composite image made from a number of separate images, each of the images should be as clearly defined as possible. It’s also a good idea to shoot the background by itself, with no models in it, so that the retoucher will have the most to work with when it comes time to assemble the final image.

Remember too that the credibility of an image rests on making sure that the light is believable. The best, most convincing retouching demands a good understanding of how the eye “sees” lighting, perspective, color, and depth of field. If a hand is shown in the foreground, for example, it should be sharper than the arm that’s farther away in the frame. Shadows should match. Bad motion lines, poor outlining and muddy color all can give a retouched photo away quickly.

Corrections can easily go too far. Subtle improvements are the most believable. Skin should look like skin, not polystyrene, and no one should look too good to be true. Many people wish that their teeth and eyes were whiter than a picture portrays them, but if all the eyes and teeth in a group portrait are brightened to the same degree, the result will look like a toothpaste ad. To achieve the greatest impact—and the most credible image—and keep a client out of trouble, designers and art directors must resist that client’s urging to make things perfect. Adding six inches to the CEO’s height may seem like a good idea until the manipulation is discovered and everyone starts calling him “Stretch.”

Also keep in mind that some types of photos have been devalued by the widespread use of hundreds, if not thousands, of books, magazine articles and scores of Web sites have been devoted to explaining how to use the tools that Photoshop,® just as counterfeit currency drives down the value of legal tender. That may be especially true for photos that rely on a large mass of objects for their impact. The photo of the fleet of company vehicles, for example, or a crowd scene, may not be as impressive as they once were if everyone knows that such images can be easily created on a computer. A photo of a beautiful person can now leave us asking: how much retouching was required? Some of the wonder has gone out of a photo of a beautiful moonrise over a city skyline.

While designers and art directors can often handle simple retouching tasks on their own, many have found that it’s better to work with a professional retoucher, especially for large or complex projects. People who use the technology every day are more practiced and can spot opportunities for improvement that may not be seen by a less experienced eye. Professionals also understand how to best capture the original image or images to ensure that they’re easy to work with, and have a good understanding of the requirements of different media. Art prepared for newspapers, for example, will not transfer well to magazines. The same holds true for coated and uncoated papers. Color that pops on a high-gloss coated paper may turn dull and muddy on an uncoated stock.

If you choose to work with a professional, it pays to get them involved early in the process, especially if large amounts of manipulation will be required. Planning for retouching should begin at the time the photographer is selected. Often, the dialogue begins with determining the look, feel and effect the client is looking for. Discussions should touch on what will be featured in the photo, the best way to capture the data, the size and proportion of the finished image, how the color should look, how any type that appears should be treated and a number of other concerns. Retouching also should be factored into the schedule and budget. While cleaning up an image may only require hours, or a few days, creating complex images like some of the ones that appear in this publication can take several times longer.

Whether you work with a professional or tackle a project on your own, there are legal and ethical issues to consider as well. Sampling, or taking bits of existing images to use in a new one, for example, might raise copyright concerns.

Photojournalists, in particular, face broader issues too. When backgrounds are cleaned up or unappealing objects disappear, some of the “truth” of the photo disappears along with them—the eyewitness view of the scene becomes an illustration of it. In its code of ethics, the National Press Photographers Association says that “Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic image’s content and context.” But the line is far from clear. A photographer in North Carolina lost some awards he received after it was learned he had used traditional wet darkroom techniques of dodging and burning to lighten and darken portions of his images. Such changes are usually considered acceptable, but then the photographer went on to delete the background, which was judged to change the content of the photo.

In advertising and corporate communications, the standards are somewhat different. Reality can be improved, but a line can still be drawn at the intent to deceive. Enhancing images might be acceptable and creating new images might be acceptable, but creating an image that lies, to support a lie, would not. That’s pretty much where the standard has always been. The technology involved does not change the ethics—the same applies whether you’re using a computer or an airbrush.

Applied honestly, creatively and skillfully, retouching can enhance the quality and impact of many print projects. But quality printing begins with trusted coated papers, such as our gloss, dull and matte papers showcased in the Ed books. That’s because the hard, nonporous surface of coated paper holds inks, varnishes and films on the top of the paper, without them absorbing into the surface of uncoated stocks. The smoother the finish, the better the quality. Simple.

You can find the right kind of coated paper for practically every project, and different coated paper finishes help you achieve different effects. Gloss allows you to print highly reflective art, such as photography, with wonderful clarity and sharpness of detail, and it also provides the brightest reflective light source for foil coatings. Dull combines lower light reflection with better readability and uniform print and surface smoothness. New, glare-free, easy-to-read, matte has a rich, tactile feel that can help show high-gloss spot varnishes and foils to advantage, and works well with embossing.

Seeing things. Manipulating photographic images can capture what the mind’s eye sees, providing amazingly convincing views of alternative realities.

Plaid hair day

To create the new hair, a plaid pattern was combined with hair that was “wrapped” using a three-dimensional electronic wire frame model. Relatively light retouching of the model’s skin helped to make the image more lifelike—and believable.


Open up

An image for an exhibit entitled “Skin Tight,” at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, blurs the line between fabric and skin. Small puckers at the edge of the zipper help to suggest that it has been stitched into place.


Design noir

An invitation for a Chicago Creative Club awards ceremony recreates the look of a film noir mystery, with a design presentation inserted beneath the sheets in the morgue. The resolution of the photo was softened somewhat to give it an appropriately grainy feel.


Digital mayhem

In another invitation for a Chicago Creative Club awards ceremony, bullet holes—and a designer’s portfolio—were added to the photo of an old car.


Real. Or not.

An image of a real car in a dreamlike landscape, by the photographer Comrade, began with shooting the MINI Cooper® in a parking lot. The car, the gravel and the sky were the only “real” parts of the image. The background was generated by a computer program that allows users to model landscapes. Digital retouching was used to blend the various components and create the right atmosphere.