Digitisation and the Question of Retouching

The opportunity to digitize a collection such as ours is an amazing thing. It allows for material of local and national interest to be preserved for posterity and to be shared on the internet with a whole world of people who would otherwise have no access to such a unique collection. For us, as researchers of the sitters and places depicted, it enables the access and identification of sources in faraway places that could potentially uncover information otherwise out of our grasp. In our case, these fragile glass plates could so easily have been lost, but even after their rescue and relocation to the Sutton Archives in 1978 they remained stored away, uncatalogued and largely unknown for close to 40 years.  The nature of this collection and its fragile state means it is unlikely that they would ever have been ‘available’ to the public without the opportunity that digitisation offers.  Digitisation will not only preserve them for posterity, it will bring them back to life. But of course, as with many opportunities of this sort, you only get one chance to get things right.  The kind of investment that is required for a project of this type, both financial, and of time and commitment means that there are a number of things of which we must remain aware and must be careful to avoid or take into account.

Digitisation brings with it a number of decisions. One of the most commonly questioned decision in any digitisation project is ‘to what extent does one ‘manipulate’ images’ – and I use this phrase in the loosest sense.


Mlle Fary c. 1906 – Plate showing peeling or delaminating emulsion in top left corner

Obviously it is important to be honest in our presentation of the plates, as objects as well as images. We want to make sure that we do not mask, or indeed highlight any damage that has occurred, in the same way we will be transparent about any conservation that takes place over time.  Being honest in our presentation of the condition of these objects means that we present all the physical flaws of the objects, even if this means the photographic images that we present are compromised. Of course, in many cases they have been compromised already by the degradation of time and the elements. But when it comes to making an assessment of whether we should be actively and artificially adjusting colour, contrast and brightness using imaging software to try and approximate the printed result which the original photographer/processor would have wanted; when we make decisions about cropping the images, straightening up the original framing or in choosing or rejecting scanner settings in our capture of the digital images we face a conundrum.

All these decisions are very subjective. Just as a photographer makes decisions about the images they produce at the point of capture, and then about retouching, and then again in their development & printing,  we too have to make a judgement call about how we think the printed images might have looked. On the whole we have no printed images to go by. We can look at other contemporary photos and make an educated guess, but even that is a subjective call.  

The detail and definition we get from glass plates is astounding, but we have been surprised by the variation in quality across the collection.  When scanned in high resolution and viewed close up on a computer screen, some of these images do not stand up well. Of course, they were never intended to be hugely magnified or enlarged.  Indeed, while the majority of the images in this collection are well executed and professional portraits there are a number which are simply out of focus, badly framed, over or under exposed, or otherwise poor examples of the studio’s output.  The studio employed a number of staff as far as we are aware and saw thousands of clients over the thirteen years it was in operation. Quality duly varied as a result.  One of the most interesting things we have observed across the collection, regardless of quality however is the amount of contemporary retouching that has taken place.  Almost single plate has been retouched to some extent by Knights-Whittome or his team and while this acknowledgement certainly does not give us carte blanche to ‘retouch’ in addition as we think fit, it does make it easier to accept that Knights-Whittome would probably not have disapproved of a little minor enhancement should it be necessary.

This original retouching – tiny pencil markings etched all over the faces of the sitters – can look absurd and amateurish when magnified on a computer screen and it is easy to wonder, why did he do that? But of course, we have to remember that these techniques were never intended to bear close examination, and that in the normal printing process of the time, these hand-made marks would have enhanced and flattered the clients and been used to make adjustments for which we now rely on Photoshop and the perfect, seamless finish it can offer.

IMG_4822This ‘analogue retouching’, pre-Photoshop Photoshopping, is something that we are learning about all the time and that I will touch upon in more detail in a later post, but for now, it is enough to say that this is another huge consideration in our decision-making process about how to handle these scans.

As with many of the decisions we have made in regard to our methods, we have been largely guided by our limitations.  I have worked as a retoucher for a number of years (I caveat this by saying that my own experience has been entirely gained ‘on the job’ and is limited therefore to the specific needs of the projects upon which I have worked), and what has become clear to me over years of working alongside volunteers is that retouching images is not a job that anyone can do.  While the kind of work we are doing is minimal as I will describe below, it still takes an attention to detail and a real ‘seeing eye’ that not everyone possesses – and while method and technique can be taught, an eye for detail cannot.  Any adjustments made to an image equate in real terms to a loss of original data, and it is very easy to overstep the mark and lose tonal detail if one is overzealous with the curves or levels tools.  It may well be that some, or all of our volunteers would be excellent at this work, given the opportunity to try.  They are, to a man (or woman!), excellent at what they do for us already, but the digitisation of our plates and their envelopes; the cleaning and rehousing and cataloguing and scanning and checking and double checking and filing of all the separate elements is a convoluted process with many details and stages, and for volunteers who come in just a couple of hours, or a half day every week, it can be quite hard to remember all the detail.  Asking them to familiarise themselves with even the most basic tasks in Photoshop on top of this, just seemed like a stage too far.

So what do we do with our images?  The real answer is, very little.  There is much that could be done, as described briefly above.  The temptation to play around with the scans is there for sure, but while we can approximate what we think ‘might’ have been intended by Knights-Whittome and his team, we cannot possibly know for sure. The general rule is that we re-orient, straighten and crop each scan to a minimum and try to retain annotation and edge detail wherever possible.  This does not always work out.  The precut cardboard masks within which we scan our plates are a set size, cut to fit the dimensions of a quarter plate, or a half plate etc. We also preset our scanner marquees, so that the images are automatically captured without any adjustment. However, as we have found out, the plates are not quite as uniform as you might imagine, despite being machine produced, and if a volunteer is not meticulous about lining up the plate in the mask, and checking the marquee around each plate has not cropped off an edge, we do sometimes find that the bottom or side of a plate can be cropped too closely.  Of course, if this crops out important detail then we would go back and rescan the plate, but to do this for each scan would be time consuming and a waste of our precious volunteer time, and so we do not.  Over time, we have tweaked the masks we use, played around with the presets, and hopefully achived a more consistent result, but we will  not revisit earlier scans unless there is a very good reason to do so.


The images we scan are assessed individually.  If on the whole they are legible and clear then no further adjustments are made.  If however they are badly under or over exposed, then we use the levels tool in Photoshop to make them more ‘legible’, using preview tools to ensure we do not clip any shadows or highlights.

Images on left are originals, as scanned. Images on right have been minimally retouched.

In line with best practice, all original scans are retained, so we always have a record of the image, ‘pre-manipulation’.  While originally, the ‘finishing’ of these image was a task that was shared among myself and a small number of volunteers with an interest and/or experience of the work, over time it has proven more efficient to allocate this part of the process to one person.  This not only maintains consistency, but speeds up the process in a basic studio with limited hardware as we can keep our laptop computers entirely free for scanning and cataloguing processes.

There is always more that can be done.  A number of scans do slip through the net. Occasionally I look through past Flickr sets and notice a scan that is upside down or a bit wonky, and this is something quickly remedied, something that got missed.  In terms of ‘doing more’ to enhance these scans in general, I think it is generally acknowledged that it is important to know where to stop.  Not only do we recognise our practical limitations in terms of skills and experience with this material, but we must recognise that there are moral boundaries too when dealing with the artistic legacy and archive of a creative individual.  If an image is underexposed, or a bit wonky in its framing, it is not our place to decide how this ‘should’ look.

Working with collections such as this is a privilege and a joy.  It enables you to gain a real familiarity with someone’s work, to begin to see the world through their eyes.  But even if we think we understand someone else’s vision, working with somebody else’s legacy is a responsibility that we must never take lightly.

I am sure there is much that could be done to improve many of these scans hugely. There is certainly a place for this kind of work, when dealt with professionally and presented with honesty and integrity but it is not within the remit of this project to undertake such work.

As far as we are concerned, these images speak strongly enough for themselves.






4 thoughts on “Digitisation and the Question of Retouching

  1. Pingback: Best of the Blogs – January | Conservation Conversations

  2. Pingback: Vol. 9, no. 20 | I-Heritage.info

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