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Black and White Photo Retouching: A Primer

black-and-white-photo-retouchingThis article won’t teach you all there is to know about photo retouching– that’s why its called a primer. But what it will tell you, in concrete terms, is what you need to bring to the craft of print retouching, including black and white photo retouching, even before you start-and what you first need to practice after you start.

We have chosen to discuss black and white photo retouching
because it presents fewer variables to consider,
not because black and white retouching is easier than
color. In fact, a good many professional retouchers might
argue that celor retouching is actually easier to learnsince
color photographs more closely represent our
everyday visual experiences.

For the purposes of this article we will assume that you
know that photo retouching is not photo coloring (the
process of adding or subtracting tones from photos) nor is
it photographic manipulation (darkroom tricks of combinations
and distortions such as an expert darkroom technician
can achieve). What we mean by photo retouching is
altering photographic images either on a print or a

We will also have to assume that you have some basic
skills with a double-action airbrush. You should be relatively
at ease with mixing airbrush pigments (in this case
black and white) to create a value scale (in this case a gray
scale) going from light to dark in even value steps. You
should also be able to use shadows and highlights to define
volume-cubes, spheres and cylinders, for example.
Also, you should know how to use prepared frisket.

Black and white photo retouching

What we won’t assume is that you know anything about
photography. Of course it is helpful if you have some
first-hand experience with photography or an understanding
of the process-but it is not absolutely necessary.
What is important, hbwever, is that you know what you are
looking at when you view a photograph. In most instances,
a photograph is a two-dimensional representation
of a three-dimensional object. In other words, in simplistic
terms, it can be said that the photographer uses his
negative to paint on a “canvas” (print paper) with light.

In this view photographs are nothing more than very
precise, realistic illustrations. In most cases the job of a
photo retoucher is to alter these “paintings made with
light” in such a way that they still contain very precise,  realistic features even after they have been altered. For example, if the name on a sign is to be changed and the sign has been shot in perspective, the retoucher must keep the new lettering on the sign in the same perspective as the original lettering.

The good retoucher is, in fact, a good realistic illustrator.
You might get along without the skills of the illustrator
when first getting into retouching photographs.

But, after a while your lack of skill in this respect will catch
up with you. There will be a photo that you won’t be able
to retouch-perhaps you won’t even know where to

If you bring to photo retouching the skills of the airbrusher,
the ability to render shadows and highlights, and
know the principles of precise, realistic illustration-you
will be able to tackle almost any retouching job ifyou
practice properly.

Practice Prints

To practice properly, you have to get the right photographic
prints to practice upon. It doesn’t matter if they
are your own prints or someone else’s-but the subject
and the degree of difficulty do matter.

Practice prints, in our view, should be fairly straightforward and have only a few problems-photos where things need to be removed but where not too much reconstruction is required; photos that allow you to deal with surface properties, such as photos of metal, where you can learn about planes and light contrast. In other words, photos like the ones we present as examples are good for starters.

Obtaining prints. Call around to a few photographers
who are listed as commercial photographers. Tell them
the kinds of Simple photographs you are looking for, and
ask them if they can supply you with black and white enlargements
ofsuch shots-flubbed shots with which they
aren’t exactly pleased. You should expect to pay something
for the prints, but since you aren’t looking for perfect
photos you shouldn’t have to pay more than $10 to $15
per print. You may want to inspect the negatives before
prints are made-but this may not help you decide. In the
beginning you will probably have to trust the judgment of
the photographer.

Airbrush Digest, July August 1982

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