Scanning Around With Gene: The Old Way of Photo Retouching

Originally posted March 16, 2012

I’ve never been much of an artist, though I did, early in my career, have several opportunities to do some basic black and white photo retouching — mostly taking out a background, fixing a flaw or trying to tone down glare from reflected light. These tasks were done back then not on the computer, but with a set of special photo-retouch paints and a variety of fine brushes. Sometimes in a pinch we’d use a black Sharpie or a soft pencil. In those days you did whatever was necessary to achieve your final result, regardless of how bad it looked on the original. Fortunately, reproduction quality wasn’t what it is today and you could cover up a host of flaws when making a halftone in the process camera.

After reading a article about retouching photos, I decided to devote this column to the art of retouching as it was done pre-Photoshop. I recently came across a 1946 book on the art of photo retouching and it reminded me of those youthful days, though I had none of the skills evidenced by the author, Raymond Wardell. Here was a true illustrator and artist who could dramatically change a photograph using the simplest of tools and a steady hand. But what caught my eye was how similar the basics of photo retouching were in 1946 to what they are today. The tools have changed and we now work much more in color, but the reasons for tackling a retouching job are surprisingly consistent over the decades. Click on any scan for a larger version. Below the cover image is the author at his work table.

Wardell starts by showing us the tools of the photo retouching trade which were, back then, primarily focused on black and white reproduction. He did, by the way, all of the hand lettering for the book which has no traditional typesetting.

Technique was, and still is, key to successful retouching. Clearly a steady hand was essential back then and you could argue, still essential today, even if it is to precisely control the mouse or stylus. Only back then you couldn’t simply enlarge the image on screen to see better, you had to use a magnifying glass.

Before giving a lot of specific retouching examples Wardell covers the basics, such as how to crop a photo and what a halftone is.

And of course it takes Wardell almost two pages to explain how to scale a photograph proportionately, which back then was a mathematical exercise not for the weak of heart. Here is just one step in the process – measuring the image area of the photograph.

It’s also important, as it is today, to choose your work methods carefully and make sure the effort you put in is worth the reward.

Masking or “silhouetting” was just as popular back then as it is today, only there were no magic selection tools to make the job easier – backgrounds were simply painted out.

But what impresses me the most in Wardell’s book are the examples, which include the sort of detail that could bring a modern Photoshop jockey to their knees. Here, for example, he talks about highlighting individual grains of rice, and shows how, with a little patience, you can add detail to a set of instrument dials.

Some basics never change. Darkness still dramatizes.

And there is nothing like taking a complex image and making it simpler as in this case of a factory building.

And finally, a scene that Wardell “glamorizes” by turning it from a daylight picture to nighttime, complete with moon and dramatic clouds. And he advises without hesitation that it would be good to change some cars in the parking lot to trucks.

Photo retouching has always been a lot about simplifying images and imagining what isn’t there. We have much more sophisticated tools today, but a good retoucher is still an artist at the core, not just a technician. Wardell, it appears, was both.


Posted on: July 27, 2015

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on

7 Comments on Scanning Around With Gene: The Old Way of Photo Retouching

  1. Brilliant and thanks for sharing this. As you say at the core retouchers are artists. Without a good grounding in brush work, perspective and design, its difficult to implement the knowhow to fix up a photo.

  2. It would be interesting to see an article on retouching with airbrushing. And what about transparency dye retouching? We are so spoiled with what we can do with Photoshop. Back in the days, we labored over our photo shoots knowing that every spec of dust or errant shadows would be in the final product. Now, we just say, ” we will fix in Photoshop!”

  3. Gene, when are you going to put all this stuff you put on Creative Pro into bookform? I’d definitely buy it. It’s both entertaining and informative at the same time: fantastic!

  4. I agree – While this article gives some insight, there’s obviously so much more to it (and I’m sure everyone understands that). I still remember watching my dad hunched over his art table, magnifying visor on his head, painstakingly working on projects. His skill with airbrushing was amazing as was his transparency work. I can almost hear the compressor as I type this. Not many people understood the work it took to do what he did, but watching him through the years, I saw him as a real artist. And I think there is something lost because of the simplicity and ease of the digital world. If you can re-do it a million times at no cost, or fix it whenever, you may not work as hard to compose shots or consider the overall work. Is there anywhere that has people doing it the old school way anymore? I wonder.

  5. I think it’s funny given the amount of artistic license they took with these images to “glamorize” them vs. what we do with images in Photoshop. Pushing the envelope for what was “real” and what was “fake” obviously started long time before Photoshop.

    • I learned retouching in the 1950s. All photoshop has done is speed up the process. What used to take a day’s work can now be done in an hour or two. And you still need to be an artist.

  6. When I started out in graphic design, the company I worked for had a retired retoucher that would come in for special projects. Watching that guy work was fascinating… the stuff he could do with an airbrush was amazing (like a freehanded arrow-straight 1 pt. line along a horizon). Any day that he came in was a red-letter day for me. Years later I found what he’d taught me invaluable when I got my first (beta) copy of Photoshop, and I still catch myself using his tips and techniques today.
    One thing he always said: “…if you do it right nobody should notice what you’ve done…”.

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