Confessions of a Retouching Perfectionist
I learned photography using film in the 1980s, when you couldn’t see the results immediately and you had to be accurate with your exposure. We had light meters to help guide us and trust me, you thought about whether the image was worth it before you triggered the shutter. There where costs involved with each frame – film and processing, plus travel time to pick up the prints or slides. Imagine waiting weeks for a roll of Kodachrome slides to come back from the special Kodak lab in Ontario – it was frustrating sometimes!
I worked in many photo labs, starting with the One Hour Photo stores, and then after Ryerson University, custom labs, where I printed for discerning professional photographers. Thinking back, I should have been informed that I was using too much paper on test prints – but I guess the customers were happy! Of course, I was even fussier printing for myself, and every image, even snapshots of friends, had to be perfect.
This has carried over into my digital retouching and restoration work for my collages and photobooks. I can’t stop until I am completely satisfied that I have done everything I can to make the scan even better than the original. With my Wacom tablet and its pen, I feel like a painter. I create a layer, make the modification that I would like for a certain section of the image, invert it, then use my brush to reveal the adjusted layer. It may not be the fastest way, but I enjoy it. It also feels like how printing black and white images in the darkroom used to. I loved watching the image come through in the tray of chemicals, hoping my judgement had been correct. Now of course, with digital images you can see the effect immediately and make very precise adjustments. You can even toggle back and forth to compare the changes you have made with the original, which make perfection possible!
You can see how I have started to brush to reveal the red adjustment layer over half the girl and the back of the boat.
I sometimes rely on my knowledge from the days of shooting, processing and printing film. In Photoshop there is a warming filter, just like we used to use on the camera lens. Sometimes it’s the last step if I can’t get an image to look pleasing. Also, there are plenty of ways in Photoshop to burn and dodge areas that are too light or too dark. But in the darkroom we made our own tools using cardboard and coat hanger type wire… I may even have one or two stashed away in the attic somewhere. (Wait, what? In case I find myself in a darkroom again?!) The Shadow/Highlight feature in Photoshop is excellent for highlight recovery and often takes care of it for me; it’s almost too easy and I feel like I am cheating.
The Limits of Auto Colour
Using Auto Colour is a good start, but for me, just the beginning. I always do auto colour on a layer so that I can use the slider to see it in degrees. Sometimes 50% is a good start, then I do more precise adjustments to certain areas. I love correcting the colour in one area at a time. This is especially useful when fixing faded colour photos. I longed to be able to do that in the darkroom, but that was not possible! I used to add half a point of magenta to perk up an image as my last resort. Now you can use Selective Colour and see how a colour changes when you try the sliders but I find it is very limited. If you know what you want, select the area, or like I said before, create an adjustment layer. The adjustment layer is perfect if there are multiple areas you need to correct the same way. I learned to use curves, not levels, because they give me more control.
You can also use the software in your scanner. The higher end Epson models have filters to restore old photos in the scanning stage. I have tried it, but I like the control of doing it later in Photoshop. For an amateur it’s perfect. You can see what it wants to do in Preview then decide if it’s better or not.
This is how I corrected this image. You can see the limits of the Auto colour correction in Photoshop. In the Phase 1 sample I thought I was done and sent it to my client. But the next day I decided I couldn’t live with the magenta blotches in the water. After trying a few things, I found that selecting those areas and reducing the saturation helped. Then I used the blue photo filter in those areas to create the colour the water should have been. Then I went further and brushed in tiny amounts of colours that neutralized the magenta. It was a bit insane – it took quite a while. But it was very satisfying!
Retouching on Paper in the “Olden Days”
Here is a fond memory I would like to share. I worked at a professional lab in Calgary in the 1990s that also printed murals for displays. Paper 60 inches wide had to be cut in the dark and fastened to the wall with magnets in front of an enlarger that would project on the paper. This sounds so crazy now with the convenience of modern digital printers. Ok, I didn’t enjoy (the pressure of) this kind of printing but I did get involved with retouching these murals. Inevitably there would be dust on the negatives which, when projected, created a much bigger white spot on the image. The mural would be spread out on a huge table and multiple retouchers had to get busy, especially if the mural was due that day! We had tiny retouching brushes and spotting dyes. This could take hours and get tedious. You had to use multiple colours to simulate the grain, and being this close to it you could see how the colours of the grain blended to make that colour. There I was, Pretending-to-be-a-Painter, Phase 2 (Phase 1 was during high school art class).
But the “fond memory part” is enhanced by how cool my bosses were. They had a great stereo system and we could play whatever music we wanted. This was the 90s and I was intent on only listening to alternative music and rejected all popular mainstream radio hits. So Nirvana was ok, for example. One day my boss put on a Johnny Cash CD. Picture Ring of Fire blaring in the large, open cement-walled work space. I had not yet realized how great some country music could be and how classic this artist was! I made every possible plea to change the music and suffered through that long 40 minutes. Now I am thinking they should have fired me right then and there! Johnny Cash rules.
Back to the Future
With so many people shooting photos on their phones, often a lot of correction is needed before publishing an image. In this photo shot by my husband with his phone in Saskatchewan, the morning light caused a light flare which broke down all the colours. I worked long and hard on it, sections at a time, to get the rich colours back so it would look nicer on his blog.
I would like to add a brief tip here but can expand on it later. If you want to photograph an old photo on your phone for restoration please use diffused daylight to shoot it. Make sure there are no shadows: that the light is even. The camera or phone must be parallel to the photo. I find putting the photo below you, like on the floor on a background is quick and easy. Watch the edges of the photo, and if they aren’t square or look distorted readjust yourself (you are the tripod!).
What techniques and tools do you use to do retouching? I’d love to hear what works for you. Drop a comment below or in an email to me. Happy retouching!