The Vanishing Art of How to Spot (That Means Retouch) a Picture.





Introduction: The Vanishing Art of How to Spot (That Means Retouch) a Picture.

About: The name comes from the First Star Trek movie, that pretty much says it all.

Before we had digital retouching if there was a flaw or dust spot in a picture the way to fix it was with a brush and spot tone dye. Good retouching was an art in itself in the past but now it is something people have not even heard of. Now it is easy to digitally retouch a picture and with digital mediums you don't even have the problem of dust anymore. With film dust was and still is a real problem. Static in the film causes every bit of dust in the air to stick to it and when you print it all those little dust specks show up on the print. We used special anti static brushes to try and help with the problem but in the end most pictures had to be spotted to remove those specks that got through. The college photography classes that I took years ago required all prints to be spotted. If you turned in a print for a grade that was not spotted the best grade you could expect for it would be a C-. So we all learned to spot pictures.

I went back into my storage boxes and dug out some of my examples of spotting and also pulled out my old SpoTone and brushes so I could show you how it is done. If you want to do film work today spotting is something you should know about.

Spotting is not an expensive process. The brushes and the spot tone are pretty cheap. But it does take a lot of practice to learn how to do it correctly. If you try it, don't start out with a good print. I used to save a lot of the "mistakes" that I printed partly so I could practice spotting. When you make a mistake your print is ruined as there is no way to undo the dye process so practice until you can do it correctly if you want to try it.

Step 1: Mixing Shades

Spot tone is actually a water base dye. There are several colors of it, an olive one for doing sepia toned prints, a blue black one for blue colored prints and a black one for regular black and white. If you did color prints spotting was a whole different process with multiple dyes.

I checked on line and Spot tone is still available and is still pretty reasonable in price.

There is only one shade of each color of spot tone. To get lighter shades you thin it down with water. The normal way to do that is to have a small amount of water in something like a bottle cap and then just dip the brush in it and try it on an old piece of photo paper to check the shade. So you end up with a series of drops each lighter than the other. It takes a surprisingly small amount of spotter to do a print. I often just used the cap of the spot tone bottle to get enough dye. Just dip the brush in the little bit in the cap. Since it is a water base dye if it dries out all you have to do is add some water. One of my bottles had dried up while sitting in the desk and I just added water to it and after some shaking it was good as new.

I had a professor who used to just lick his brush until it got to the shade he wanted. We all thought that was pretty strange but apparently it isn't toxic.

Once it is applied to a print it becomes a part of the print. It is a dye and so it changes the print. You can't just put water on it and wipe it off if you get to much on a spot. Also the longer you leave a drop on a spot the darker it becomes. So the technique is to dab it on and leave it sit a moment and then wipe off the excess. If its not dark enough then do it again. You keep repeating until the dust spot disappears.

Step 2: The Spotting Process

Although the process looks like water color painting its a lot different. The longer you leave the dye sit on the paper the darker a spot it will leave. its best to start with a light shade and gradually darken the spot with multiple applications. You can't go back if you get it to dark. So the idea is to be conservative.

You might find yourself with a magnifying glass to see the spots close up. Also a desk lamp that can be moved close to the print helps also. This is very close up work. And it takes a lot more time than digital retouching. Although I was pretty good at doing it I can't say that I miss it.  One of the big advantages of digital retouching is that you can blow the picture up really big so you can see the smallest defects. Also you have an undo button. There is no undo with a brush.

This video shows the process of retouching a few dust spots. As you can see the print had a lot of them, it is actually just a test print. It was difficult to work with this around the video camera, trying to get close enough to see what I was doing while still not getting in the way of the shot. I also couldn't use bright directional light because it would have created glare on the print for the camera.  You should get the idea though of how this works. In what appear to be long pauses I am actually lightening and mixing the shade of the spot tone in a drop of toner.

Step 3: An Example of What You Can Do

I tried taking some pictures by firelight once as an experiment. Anyway the roll of film in the camera was half exposed already and I wanted to push the firelight pictures to the max. Pushing is a special development technique where we use special developer and higher temperatures so we can get more sensitivity out of the film. A TriX 400 film could be pushed to 1200 ASA with the developing technique. So I wanted to push the half that was shot by firelight.  This meant that I had to cut the film in half in the darkroom. There was no way of knowing where to cut, it was just a guess, so I took the scissors and in the dark tried to find the half way point and then cut.  Well of course I got it wrong. In fact I cut right down the middle of one of the best shots. Determined not to loose it I printed both half's on the same paper and then retouched the slice.  It turned out pretty good. In the finished print it looks totally blended. However if you blow the picture up to a larger size (compliments of a good scanner) the retouching becomes visible. Now today if I wanted I could continue with digital retouching and totally blend the line out. But for back then this was pretty good work.

Step 4: Toneing Big Areas

I shot this picture and printed it and thought that it would look really interesting if I could get the entire area in the background to be black. I tried burning it in while printing but that only got it part way. I finished up with a brush and a lot of spot tone. It is hard to get the dye to be black so it took many coats to get it where I wanted. I think the end result was pretty good. It gave an interesting perspective and made use of the film grain also. This picture would just not work in color the way it does In B&W.  The final finished print is 10 inches by 14 inches which emphasizes the long perspective and it is dry mounted on a 16 X 20 board. The full picture did not fit my scanner.



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    I certainly appreciate the time and effort to do things the "old fashioned way", and you may be the only instructable person I can ask as searches turn up nothing. I would like to be able to hand "tint" old photos. I know it couldn't be done on glossy paper, but perhaps on watercolor paper. Seems like I saw an article years ago about using colored pencils, make up blush, chalk or something. You know just the lips or a few flowers on a dress.6559

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    I have a Kodak book at work that has the whole process in it. I will try to scan it and email it to you if you like.

    In line with Agemon's comment you can change the color of the entire print. You can for instance use a sepia toner that will change the entire to a brown sepia color. I don't think that is what you were thinking though

    The color retouching dyes would work on B&W prints if that is what you really wanted. However what I would suggest is not to make any changes to the original prints. Instead scan them and convert them to digital. Then either use an editing program to make the changes you want or print out the duplicates and then tint them. Photo print paper will take most inks with no trouble. You should always try to preserve the original.
    Glossy paper will take retouching dyes with no problems. A lot of the old glossy prints were made on the same photo paper as the matte prints. Wether they are glossy or flat depends on which way they get run through the dryer. To get a glossy print you put the print face in the dryer against the hot shiny dryer drum. To get a flat print you put it paper side towards the dryer and face down on the cloth belt. RC paper (resin coated) had different surfaces, glossy, flat, low luster, but it was designed so it didn't need to be put in a dryer. It was more of a plastic base than a paper base.

    I cannot find the english page for this, but this is the frenche wikipedia link :
    You use chemical for replacing the silver in the paper.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    This brings back old memories of 45 years ago. I haven't seen Spotone since I switched to color transparencies, and then software. Thank you for reminding me of a portion of my past that I was never good at.

    Nice work. I myself used much dryer brush and avoided touching the print with fingers because wet emulsion surface is very vulnerable and could easily wear off. Also residues of grease and sweat of skin make adhesion of retouching color more difficult. An airbrush is a handy and quicker way to tone or cover large areas as well as making continuous tone backgrounds. And there is a "undo-button". If everything goes wrong wash the print, dry and start over again.

    2 replies

    My college classes were more intent on producing something rather than longevity and we didn't always have a lot of better equipment like an air brush. It was more oriented to learning how and experimenting so we could develop our talent. Some of us (myself included) were interested in producing archival prints that would stand up to time while others just wanted to have something to turn in for a grade. Some even used Ecktamatic machines to make prints which barley lasted a few weeks unless they were fixed and washed.
    Hand printing color prints one at a time was by far the most difficult thing we did. We didn't do a lot of color retouching

    I did try washing the prints and starting over but it often didn't work well. And often we did the spotting after the prints were dry mounted which made it impossible to wash them. I found it easier just to reprint and start over if it didn't need a lot of spotting.

    Even dry mounted prints can be washed with a small wet cotton swab gently sweeping small areas one after another and letting them dry.

    Spotone was discontinued about a year ago, I saw a set offered for $48.00 online, I think I gave a couple of bucks for mine back in the day. Marshall makes something similar called Spotall, you could look on Freestyle or B&H photo.

    1 reply

    I guess I should have horded it when it was a buck a bottle.

    ah, you brought back memories. I used to work first for a photographer, and then a photo lab. I was very proficient at spotting photos. I also still have a negative retouching machine. I didn't like doing negatives. Couldn't wash them and invariably they were so spotted it was triple the work once they were printed. 4x5 negs. 120 was too small to retouch. Guess I'm showing my age LOL

    Nice one! Funnily enough I bumped into my retouching kit a few weeks ago - unused this past 30 years so I chucked it all out.
    Thanks for the memories!

    Thank you for the memories. I had no idea SpoTone was still available. Wow, I don't miss retouching photographs.

    Yeah! Good to see the art is still alive. I just bought a 100' roll of B/W and loaded up a bunch of 35mm cans. Trying to get the old dark room together again after a decade.

    cool... its cool to see people still using the "True Art" side of Photography. Sure it takes skill and a lot of learning and practicing to take a great photo but to post edit it is a whole other form of Art. And seeing that most every shot needs some post work done before its final print, taking some art classes would be a big help and learning this technique, even if you just shoot digital now, is a good thing to learn as you'll never know when that one huge customer says, "Oh yeah, that big photography Job I just gave you, it needs to be shot on film!" lol

    this bring a lot of memory, i have learned this kind of thing in school (french school, "lycée Quinault").
    We used Siberian mink for the brush (number 1 or 2) and pebeo ink.

    After 4 years of studying Photographyt am I supposed to be able to do this. I never was able to do it well enough.
    I was one of the last generations in my school who learned to do this. Aaah the good old times.