Photo Retouching before Adobe Photoshop?

The first invention to resemble the camera- the kind with the film, not the filmless digital ones- was first devised by Nicephorus Niépce in 1816. The calotype, the first process that created a negative that could then be used to develop as many prints as needed was first developed in 1841. However, the first act of retouching done to a photo was done only 5 years later. Photo retouching then is nothing new and has been practiced and painstakingly perfected by photographers and artists for years in the pursuit of the perfect shot. The lack of digital tools did not prevent people from trying to change the reality captured through their camera lenses to suit their needs. The history of photography goes hand in hand with that of photo retouching.

The history of photo retouching before the development of Photoshop – which was in 1988 – can be divided into two parts. The first would be from covering the period between the invention of photography and the digital age and the second shorter part from the advent of the digital age to the development of Photoshop.

The origin

Evidence of early photo retouching and manipulation can be seen in the various terms used in the business of photo manipulation today. Many of the terms used to describe the various functions and effects in Photoshop were born in the old analog photo retouching and manipulation industry- terms like layers, masks, exposure, brush, dodge, burn, airbrush and much more. Originally this editing was done on the negative itself. Negatives were scrapped and cut with knives, many negatives were stuck on top of one another and were even drawn and painted on with brushes. The first developed negative were made using glass sheets coated with gelatin. The editing happened on these same plates. The invention of plastic negatives in the 1910s did not need any changes in editing techniques and made editing much more convenient.

Retouching before photoshop

After the picture was captured on the negative, it was “fixed” in a dark room to make it insensitive to light. Coats of varnish were applied before editing to protect the original negative and after editing to seal the edits. This work was done on a retouching desk – an easel with an adjustable angle, a mirror hinged on the desk to reflect light on the glass panel on which the photo was edited and curtains covering the technician and the negative from all around. Because the darker parts of the negative develop to form the lighter areas, these needed to be dealt with first. Darker areas of the negative were reduced by shaving off with a blade or exfoliating with chalk or cuttlefish powder. For detailed work like reducing waistlines, a steady hand was needed to delicately etch areas with a knife. Much of the manipulation was carried out with the help of the etching knife to perfect all kinds of photographs and defects. Darkening of areas was done with the help of a graphite pencil or a paintbrush and ink. The surface was prepared before this by delicately rubbing with pumice or cuttlefish bone. Sometimes this was done on a base of turpentine and gum that could be erased in case of any mistakes.

Most professional photo retouching services of that era were engaged in perfecting portraits and it was all the rage in Europe of the 1850s with Germany having created many of the techniques. They also introduced America to it in 1868 and by 1870 everyone wanted their portraits to be retouched. With this growing craze, concerns over its misuse and abuse were also raised just like in the present times. Photo retouching services also saw a lot of use in creating images for political and war time propaganda and sometimes also to create special effects like adding missing people to photographs and even supernatural and funny photographs.

Coming up to the modern era

When we speak of the digital age before the development of Photoshop, we have to consider the biggest problem of digitizing images, as most images were still being taken using film photography. CCDs that made digital cameras a household name would be developed many years later. Digitization of images was done using drum scanners and photomultiplier tools. But they were still in early stages and became mainstream much later. Early image processors like Pericolor by Numelec back in 1984 allowed for photo retouching in those days. The image could be edited to restore damage caused by time especially with historical photos. For such an old piece of technology, they allowed for a surprisingly high amount of functions and quality.

Read- How To Choose A Photo Retouching Company To Suit Your Business?


To conclude we can safely say that Modern photo retouching techniques and software like Adobe Photoshop owes a lot to the past. What anyone today can do at home with a computer and just a few clicks of the mouse, once took a lot of dedication and perspiration and steady hands of a surgeon. The origins of this art can still teach us a lot about it even in the digital age.

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