Confessions of a Retouching Perfectionist

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!




My new Life & Legacy Impressions Collection


Reta Smith (nee Roe) loved fashion, enjoyed drawing and painting and appreciated all the arts. She bestowed this sensibility on her daughter Karrie. Karrie wanted to honour her mother and create a multi-image print to frame for their hallway entrance where everyone would see it every day and smile.

I love my repeat clients so much. Karrie Smith has bought so many sets of floral cards from me, that now she can make requests and I will produce them just for her. Last year I carefully scanned an oversized scrapbook that her mom had made for Karrie’s son. This woman, in her late 60s, made 6 scrapbooks, 2 for her children and 4 more, one for each grandchild. We should all be so lucky to have scrapbooks lovingly made by hand by our mother! She left her legacy for generations to come with personal stories related to each person.

When she called me to discuss getting something printed to hang on the wall I already had most of the images I needed. Since I have these 300 dpi scans of this scrapbook on file, we could produce this request quickly. I told her about my new Life & Legacy Impressions Collection. These are like one page of a book formatted to frame on the wall, with a selection of photos and some text.

We decided on a theme and started planning. These days, most people have access to a scanner, and I can also work with phone photos, because when they are done properly they can be perfectly fine for printing. I can send you directions on how to make a good copy of a photo on your phone. I can also scan your prints, slides or negatives for you.

I also know that my client loves William Morris wallpapers as much as me, so in behind of her piece is a screened back classic one with roses and his signature swirly leaves.

I will be building a collection of samples over the next few months. I have a Special Offer for you at this time. Impressions that are 11×14 inches in size are $75.00, with up to 8 images, like the sample shown here. I estimate approximately $95.00 with tax and shipping within Canada and the US. Call me for a quote on other sizes or formats.

I look forward to hearing from you and discussing your ideas. These collages make a perfect Mother’s Day, Father’s Day or birthday gift to honour your family’s matriarch or patriarch. If we are organized and I am not too busy, I could ship your 11×14 print within 2 weeks. If it’s more convenient, I can also send you the file instead to print locally for $95.00.

We can make a Gift Certificate in any amount and send it to you.


The Best Dog in the World


We had a lot of nicknames for our beloved dog including The Best Dog in the World. He was to us. As we pass this one year milestone since we had to let him go at the age of 15, we can start to reflect in a different way.

Whenever I look at the video clip at the end of this post, I am filled with pure joy.

To be honest, when I moved to Montreal in 2009 after marrying Kevin, I was as excited about becoming a dog mom as I was about having a new human family. I hadn’t shown much interest in other dogs to this point, but to know Digby was to love him. Everyone said so. He connected easily and was always calm despite being mostly Border Collie. We did a DNA test and found he had some German Shepherd and Whippit, so he was doubly smart, triple fast and really intuitive and sweet.

We took him everywhere. He went to Alberta, Nova Scotia, all over Quebec, and of course to family visits in Ontario (they are all dog lovers). He got me out walking every day, rain or shine,
-20 with wind chill or plus 30/feels like 40. Kevin ran many kilometres with him, he was a perfect running partner, as it is hard to wear out a border collie who loves to run!

He loved the water. Our favourite memories of him are summer vacations at the lake. He was an expert at dock diving and we have a precious video of a synchronized video of the dog and I diving together. I couldn’t believe it! You didn’t have to teach him things, he just got it. Kevin is a great dog trainer and he also encouraged a sense of humour and fun once the basic rules were established. Digby was always in on the joke.

The boys took him canoe camping every summer. He was great in the canoe and just settled down and watched the world go by, never causing trouble. He got his own life jacket and saddle bags to help out. They have great tales of the dog’s antics, he made everything more fun.

You realize acutely how therapeutic their presence is when you have to face that their life span is short. I did prepare myself as best I could when he became ill.

One year ago, COVID-19 hit and with it panic when we heard that potentially the vets might have to close suddenly. Our dog was terminally ill and we were told there was nothing we could do. It was so very hard to accept that this vibrant, healthy, athletic dog was in decline. I won’t talk about grief here since anyone who has had a pet knows what this experience is like. Your pet is at your side, literally and is so finely tuned to your every move.


What I did in the weeks after he died, was look through the thousands of photos I had taken of him. I had used our very photogenic dog in so many of my images, for scale, to make an otherwise uninteresting scene more fun, or to complete the “I was there” family photo. I always tried to capture action shots and his goofy expressions. As he got older and mellowed he would be more tolerant of the camera coming between us so I could capture how he would communicate with me through his eyes.

The first step to make any photobook is finding all the photos and my filing system is pretty good. But I had photos filed under iphone (folders month by month) and by camera, by month, year and event. It took time to collect them all in preparation for a photobook selection. Since there were so many good ones, this was difficult. Some people might find this too difficult, and it really kept him alive in my mind and heart… it was as if he was still with us in a way. It may have prolonged my acceptance that he was gone. But it gave me a focus. Everyone who knows me knows I can focus very well when it comes to Photoshop or design work. It was difficult to do much else for that first week. My stepson’s birthday was approaching so I had a firm goal. I selected the photos that would be the most meaningful for him and made a 40 page photobook. Then I started over, and went crazy with one for us. It has 185 photos over 60 pages.

Whenever I miss him I can easily pick up the book and reminisce. Some days it makes me smile, and some days, like on this anniversary, I have to shed more than a few tears. We will be ready to rescue another dog soon, and make him The Next Best Dog in the World.

Just try not to laugh when you see this video clip!




Choose between a Memory Book or a Legacy Book. We now offer two types of custom designed photo books.

Whether you call it a Memory Book, a Life Story Photobook, a Legacy Book or a photo memoir, hiring a professional to custom-design it for you might not be something you’ve ever thought you would do. But you realize how precious this type of book would be to an ageing parent as well as the whole family, and the months and years keep zooming by.

This year I have added a new type of photobook called the Memory Book. This photobook package offers one-on-one time to plan your book, scanning and photo retouching, and lots of choice for design. It is perfect for clients who prefer a clean, classic, photo album-style book with one or two photos per page on a plain background.

This style is ideal for people suffering from dementia because the text is minimal and easy to read. These books can cover themes like: My life Story, Who’s Who in my Family, Favourite Things or Favourite Places. When my dad was in the last few years of his life and his room became his world, photobooks were a wonderful way of sharing stories from the past and sparking memories. His photo albums were yellowed and crumbling so we removed and scanned the best photos. Photo books are bright and clear, durable, convenient to look at, and they feel like a story book in your lap!

These Memory Book packages start at $475 for photos and captions, or $575 with stories as well.

The fully customized, more detailed Legacy Book packages start at $900.

Together, we will make the process enjoyable. I can take most of the decisions off your hands, and keep the project on track. My clients love to hand over the photos we’ve chosen, with the text we’ve worked on, and wait for the book to be designed. If you would like to use the photobook as a birthday or anniversary gift, we will work within that timeline.

What makes my service special is that I can digitize anything you have from the past and make your images beautiful again. My style makes the most of your images while integrating the stories I have helped you write.

Let me help you save a lifetime of memories and share them with the whole family.


Get a custom designed photobook made as a special, very personal gift

Many people tell me that they would love to have a photobook of their family history or a book to honour a special family member but do not have the time or all the skills. It may be difficult to decide which stories to tell, how long the book should be, which photos to include, how to digitize your images, what point of view to take, what printer to use, etc.
The reality is, what seems like a simple project can quickly become overwhelming. The good news is that I can help you through the entire process from conception, to choosing photos, scanning, retouching or restoring, writing, editing, design, and printing your heirloom photobook.

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