Old School Photo Retouching Techniques

Just How Did We Retouch Photos in a World BEFORE Photoshop Entered the Public Conscious?

You might have thought the concise and learned art of digital image retouching might seem pretty laborious today? In terms of how long it perceivably takes to transform photographs (and yes, by many accounts; image manipulators do like to milk it on occasion). If so, then just wait until you learn how time-consuming the process of enhancing visuals were some seventy years ago. Which was some 43 years before the advent of Adobe Photoshop (and therein, photo retouching techniques). Just to familiarise ourselves with the key timelines.

Retro Photograph Retouching Poster


It’s fair to say that Photoshop exists to provide the perfect foil to ensure that a professional retoucher can create the precise visual representation of what a client briefs them on. Photoshop being a synonym for virtual photo editing tools. in the same way as Hoover is for vacuum cleaners. Read the same for Google too, and the way it’s systematically entered the Oxford English as a bona fide verb. But back in the 1940s, those who operated in this sector had to be a bit more, creative. Especially in their approach to the job in hand. Thinking outside the box, way before ‘the box’ (in the shape and form of an Apple Mac) had been given the nod.

Old style retouching

Elaborate image-editing software had yet to be invented, you see. Chiefly because the hardware to accommodate their needs was still a long way off Charles Babbage’s drawing board. So hat’s off (stove and otherwise) to the unsung heroes/pioneers of their day. Men and women who ploughed the photo retouching furrow, equipped with little more than a keen eye. Together with an extremely steady hand. Not forgetting a bag of tools which would be more identifiable with a surgeon. Rather than someone who made their living in the more artistic industries.

The World of Photo-editing was Revolutionised by the Ushering in Photoshop

Old School Image Editing

Essentially, the post-production manipulation of photos amounted to considerably more than effort being applied than simply jumping on a laptop and getting to grips with software. Not that we’re downplaying what we do of course. Nor are all our happy clients. Merely drawing fascinating comparisons.

So. How do we afford both professional image enhancers (and enthusiastic amateurs) a clearer understanding of the sheer scale of the undertaking? Back when we weren’t that far removed from a land of sepia. Although MGM Studios had experimented with Technicolour in the seminal movie, ‘The Wizard of Oz’ a few years earlier.

Well, the existence of a particularly insightful book resurfaced recently, which lifted the lid on photo retouching techniques and practices in 1946. And as we intonated earlier, a good four decades before Photoshop was born.

Discovery of Old Book Reminds Today’s Photo Retouching Experts How Simplistic (and Labour Intensive) Sector Used to Be

Traditional Materials Required for Photographic Retouching in 1940s

Jauntily entitled ‘Shortcuts to Photo Retouching for Commercial Use’, 1940s retouching expert, Raymond Wardell was its author. He who describes how to frequent the rudimentary craftsmanship necessitated to enhance images over half a century ago. His carefully chosen words partnered by appropriate tech drawings, monochrome photos and public information poster-esque graphics. He explains plundering such basic implements as pastes, rulers, brushes, cotton, palettes and rubber rollers. So as to deliver client briefs on time and budget. While also maintaining an absolute sense of illustrative professionalism. For the time, at least.

Eventually – and mercifully – the photo editing sector moved on. Technical advancements paved the way for Photoshop and its ilk to take centre stage. And no, we’re not talking about inferior ‘lick n stick’ image editing software such MS Paint. But do, conversely and respectfully namecheck the likes of Corel Draw. And Adobe’s Photoshop stablemate and forerunner-of-sorts; Illustrator. The latter of which figured prominently in the metamorphosis witnessed by those of us who plied our trade in the professional field of image enhancing.

All of which seems a lifetime removed from the way our forefathers went about their photo enhancing business.

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