Retouching Photographs

I Need an Improved Picture!

Overview of handling photographic files
You will use an application like Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, or iPhoto to work with your picture files. Read their manuals, but those books often describe features beyond our needs. Our recommendation is to stick to the elementary tasks outlined on these four pages.

  • File formats (uses, benefits, and conversion of different file formats)
  • File formats revisited (dots, pixels, resolution, and file conversion)
  • Scanning photographs (using a scanner and generating a master file)
  • Retouching photographs (alignment, cropping, color modes, light and contrast)

Objective: Objective: Learn how and when to retouch a historic photograph.

There are four cases when art is commonly enhanced to suit the needs of printing a newsletter or posting a photograph on the web. In each of these cases, you should read the instructions from the software (IPhoto, Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, etc.) for the specific techniques you can use.

Alignment of the picture
Check picture alignment first by clicking on the ruler and drag a horizontal or vertical alignment rule down as a guide. If necessary, use the rotate tool to correct the alignment. Usually, a noticably cockeyed picture may actually need only a fraction of a degree of correction. When you are satisfied, save in the TIF format.

Cropping of the picture
Once the alignment is correct, you can use the cropping tool to trim extraneous material from the edges of the picture. Generally, you don’t want to eliminate any of the original picture, but you do want to eliminate any edge of boxes or frames that are not an integral part of the photo.

There may be times when your intent is to focus the viewer’s attention on a particular part of the picture and will therefore want to crop out the rest of the picture.

Also, if you are working on a photograph of a painting, you may want to keep the painting’s frame in your file. Save again as a TIF.

Mode of color
The color mode defines how color is handled within a file. There are three modes common in our work:

  • Grayscale means shades of black and white in photographs
  • CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow, and black — the colors available on traditional Linotype presses
  • RGB is standard in the electronics industry, and signifies red, green, and blue.

The majority of your files will have been saved in color while the original photographs were grayscale. You may also have modern color photos of older artifacts. To correct color mode settings:

  • Change files of black and white photographs to grayscale (note: in most cases, the grayscale version will be preferable, but occasionally the conversion may muddy a picture. If this happens, revert to an earlier save of the color picture and work CMYK or RGB.)
  • Change files of color photographs that are for monitor use to RGB
  • Change files of color photographs that will be used for creating a new copy of the photograph to RGB
  • Change files of color photographs that will be printed on other papers to CMYK

Save as a TIF file.

Enhancing light and contrast
Enhancing light or contrast should be done with a very light touch. If a picture is very dark, you can often improve its appearance by increasing its lightness and possibly also increasing its contrast. However, keep your alterations on the conservative side of what looks good on the screen. For instance, if the contrast looks better set at 115% than at the current 100%, I recommend backing off from the higher value and settling on about half of the alteration (107%) — too drastic a change (in contrast, lightness, or whatever) can destroy the historical feel of the photo, while too little will still feel like a historical photograph that’s simply a little too dark. Save As TIF.

If you want to do more than this in Photoshop and the end result will be important to your society, it would be best to go to a professional graphic artist. It will cost more but be worth it to the organization.

Gerry Stoner

Gerry Stoner

This article is one of several to help you document local history. Other articles will help you convert your interviews, documents, pictures, and artifacts into documentation of your local history that can be shared with your community.