Teaching and doing digital history.

Confessions of a Photoshop Hack

I admit it. I’m a hack. I know enough about Photoshop to be dangerous, but not really enough to know if what I’m doing is correct. And after reading Katrin Eismann’s Photoshop Restoration & Retouching, I am flat-out breaking some cardinal rules.

I never use layers. Gasp. I just move the sliders around until I like what I’ve got. No! I don’t flatten my images when I’m done. Sacrilege.

Okay, kidding aside. I read this book and realized all the mistakes I was making and how they probably weren’t helping me get the most out of my own images, let alone restore or retouch historic ones. Not that I’ve ever tried this before last week’s class. Furthermore, I realize that I was using Photoshop in the most inefficient way imaginable.

Truth be told, I never effectively learned it beyond surface-level adjustments. Someone in the photo department at work showed me how to open, resize, crop, stroke, adjust some curves and sharpen images for use on our sites and I never looked back. For the last 6 years, I think I’ve expressed, at least twice a year, a desire to really learn it. To take a class. Or watch a tutorial or something. But I never found the time.

So I was very happy there was a Photoshop book and an images assignment on the syllabus. At least I hope to get beyond this basic understanding of what these things do. And I have to admit, I already know what I’m doing wrong. And potentially, how to fix it, so that’s a start, right?

As a happy coincidence, I have a bunch of photos to play with, so I tried my hand at some of the tone and contrast adjustments.

Take for example these shots of poor Mrs. Barnes, who asphyxiated in her kitchen.

The image on the left is the original shot.  I’m terrible at calculating light and exposure, so I took an image that’s washed out and badly exposed.

I knew I wanted the colors to pop, so I adjusted the tone using curves and then fiddled with the saturation until I got the look I wanted. In the image on the right, the colors are richer. You can actually see the blues and reds in her apron and the auburn in her hair. More importantly you can see bright pink in her cheeks indicative of asphyxiation. Do you see it? (I did crop the image, which is why she’s much closer on the right. I promise, they are the same.)

Anyway, I’m not super thrilled with the ridiculously white refrigerator door, but given what is in the book, I can continue to tweak it and see what I come up with.

I haven’t tried hand-coloring since class. That was a bit of an explosion of peach and red on that poor man’s face!

Morris and Photo Staging

I am very impressed with how everyone has, so far, addressed the issues raised by the Morris readings. I know that as an editor of both a magazine and a website, I’ve made very specific photo assignments, because I needed a specific visual or emotion to match the accompanying story. The only “staged” images I’ve ever requested were for the express purpose of stock art. (I worked for an equestrian magazine and surprisingly, you can’t buy useful equestrian stock art at istockphoto..)

I won’t recap it here, namely because Clay, Kellie, Zayna, Ruel, Roger and Laura all do a fantastic job of starting an interesting conversation about the matter on their own blogs. But I do think it is worth noting that photos, like text, need to be read with the potential bias of their creators in mind.

As Dr. Larry Levine told us in his Reading Autobiography class back in 2003, reading autobiography as a primary source is extremely dangerous because each author was trying to present an image of themselves to the reader. Similarly, most photographers are attempting to evoke a certain perspective. Theirs.

While it’s impossible for me to fake images of these dolls (they are glued to the floor), I can use Photoshop to highlight certain aspects of the images, say by making the blood redder or more grotesque. It takes a light hand on the editing front and a sharp mind on the analysis. Much like with my colorization project, I’m still learning about the light hand.


  1. Wow! The spring break sure did fly by! I spent time in Eastern Long Island interviewing a former reporter who covered Mohammed Mossadeq’s overthrow in 1953 for the New York Times. It reacquainted me with both the promise–and perils–of interviewing people in an attempt to fill in the gaps in the written record.

    Like you, I was rather satisfied with a fairly rudimentary methodology when dealing with Photoshop, and until recently I still used the techniques I learned at a seminar at a National Press Photographers Association convention in 1998! I admit I should know better than to have stuck with Photoshop 5.5 techniques when we are now up to version 12 (CS5), but when you nail down a system that gives you what you want using the fewest individual steps, it is hard to grow, isn’t it? I only used multiple layers when dealing with text or putting multiple images together, so we were traveling in similar boats before this class.

    A unique factor that you seem to be dealing with when producing images of your subject is that these are models. It would be difficult to allege that you would be ‘faking’ anything when adjusting tones or perspective because the subject is only a simulation of a real event. With that being said, however, it’s a tough call on just how much you should change because you want to remain true to the original intent of the models, right? In other words, although I understand you did not in this case, wouldn’t it be easy using Photoshop to overdo the visual clues that Mrs. Barnes had been done-in by asphixiation in order to make those clues clear to visitors to your site. Yet the finished image would not necessarily remain true to the actual model you photographed (incidentally, I see no problem with the “ridiculously white” refrigerator door on your zoomed-in image on the right as it appears on my monitor, maybe because I have no concrete idea in my own head of what the door looked like in ‘real life,’ and taking into account of the age of these models, who’s to say how white it was intended to be?).

    I think to some extent this is the central dilemma confronting all of us when we manipulate our images (particularly colorizing, which I make liberal use of on my image assignment page). Should we use all technical means available to make our images legible to readers even at the cost of not depicting the scene exactly as we found it? That was what I was thinking about a few minutes ago when I was using Dr. P’s engraving technique to make a Radio Free Europe logo I found at the National Archives more legible for those looking at my site (which is at this moment still in production but I should have it “live” by Tuesday morning). In this case, I have no qualms with using the technique because it will help the logo ‘mesh’ with the other visual elements of the site, yet I could see my manipulation of other visual elements (such as the colorizing I have already mentioned) having an impact, even on an unconscious level, of how visitors to the site would assess its credibility.

  2. erinbush says:

    It’s true, I was thinking about that. The only real manipulation I could do to these images is to create “evidence” where there is none by adding blood to the scene, or changing the color of a doll corpse.

    There are also a couple of instances where the model has clearly aged and it’s hard to tell if the artifact is intended or appeared with age. I think though that for the most part, they have aged pretty well. They’re well cared for. Thanks for your comments. I haven’t fixed that fridge yet as I’m not sure which shots I’ll end up using. I have over 160 images so I’m trying to be efficient with my editing!!

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