Is photo retouching just another name for photoshopping? The wide use of this popular software platform has led us to think that photo manipulation never existed before the creation of Adobe Photoshop in 1988. History has to tell an altogether different, yet interesting story.

The idea of photo retouching can be as old as photography itself. Before even the invention of computers, photographers used to play with ink, paint and brushes to remove imperfections and create doctored images. A number of images were tampered for political reasons and were often the subject of criticism.

Irrespective of the intended purposes of tampered images, the darkroom techniques used by the photographers then became an inspiration for the creation of photo retouching software in later years. Several of the techniques that they used, such as dodge and burn, were later incorporated in Photoshop and similar image editing software.

photo manipulation

A manipulated photo of WWI battle scene. Source: Wikipedia

It is interesting to note that the basics of photo retouching have remained more or less the same in the digital era as they did in the old, classic era. Even the reasons why you need an image editing service have not changed too much in all those years. Looking at the work of classical artists, one really can’t distinguish it from a typical output of digital manipulation, although it was really hard to produce such results.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art based in New York hosted the first ever exhibition of manipulated photography in 2012, showcasing some of the awe-inspiring works of photo retouching created between the 1840s and 1990s. Multiple exposure, combination printing, airbrushing, and photomontage were some of the techniques used to alter images displayed in the exhibition.

The earliest attempts of retouching seem to have involved experiments with color. Photographers used powdered pigment, watercolor and oil paint to colorize black and white film, making it vibrant with colors and more acceptable to their customers.

Landscape photographers, on the other hand, found an innovative way to overcome the problems of overexposed and underexposed images. They would simply make two separate negatives – one exposed for the land and the other for the sky. All they needed to do was to print the two negatives together on a single sheet of paper.

Airbrushing has long been a favorite with photographers, which they used to paint the negatives and remove unwanted elements. One can still see Photoshop carrying the legacy of airbrushing with its variety of airbrush tools.

So, how the darkroom manipulation is different from Photoshop manipulation? It is not the quality, but the speed that makes the real difference. Also, one can’t ignore the fact how easy it has become to work in front of a computer than to do different sorts of things in a darkroom. Patience is still the biggest asset and creativity is the greatest boon for a digital photo retoucher.