Digital Photo Retouching
The New Wacom Intuos 9x12 Graphics Tablet System

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This small part of a photograph of oil wells was damaged in processing with fine scratch lines, some of which print black and others print white.
Photos © 1998, David B. Brooks, All Rights Reserved

For photographers one of the greatest advantages of digital photo processing is the ability to do all of your retouching, repair, and spotting just once and store it permanently in a computer file. Then, every print or other reproduction of the image is perfectly clean. You never have to spot or retouch that image again no matter how many times it is printed. Additionally, digital retouching is much easier, faster to accomplish, can be much more precise, extensive, as well as being entirely undetectable, when done with a computer. Learning how to retouch, cleanup, and repair a digital photograph on a computer is a simple process that requires learning just a few simple tools. Skill and refinement in retouching come with practice and the application of visual attention and discrimination which accumulates and refines the eye over time.

Just using Photoshop's Rubber Stamp brush tool the scratch lines were easily removed by replacing the color information with adjacent image tones.

Digital photo retouching can be accomplished with any computer that's sufficient to run Photoshop and other photo image-editing applications like PhotoPaint, Photo-Impact, and Picture Publisher. All of the major image-editing applications, and some of the lesser consumer photo applications, have the tools (brushes) required to do basic retouching. The standard hardware that comes with most computers is also sufficient to do photo retouching, but the ubiquitous mouse has distinct limitations applied to this task. A more precise and efficient tool is a drawing or graphics tablet. For this introductory article on digital photo retouching I acquired the use of the latest Wacom Intuos 9x12" graphics tablet, which is supplied with a pressure sensitive pen and their new 4D Mouse. I found this new size Wacom tablet and the new 4D Mouse an ideal setup for the most precise and efficient application of digital photo retouching.

Telephone and power lines are the worst enemy of a photographer, cluttering up a scene with distracting lines. This sunset street scene of Virginia City, Nevada was almost discarded were it not for the computer's ability to retouch out all of the offending wires and cables.

The Basics Of Digital Photo Retouching. Essentially most digital retouching can be done with just one primary tool for all three kinds of work you may require doing: spotting specs of dirt and minor scratches in film scans, repairing major damage and removing and replacing ugly distractions in an image, as well as doing cosmetic retouching on people's images. In Photoshop that tool is the Rubber Stamp, and in other applications it is sometimes referred to as a Clone brush. This brush-type tool is quite unique, although it applies image information like many other brushes, because it obtains that information from a designated location in the image in which you are working.

In retouching minor flaws the purpose of using the Stamp/Clone brush tool is to replace a white or black dirt spot with color/tone information from the area that immediately surrounds the dirt spot. This is accomplished, after clicking on the Stamp/Clone brush tool, by locating the area next to the "spot" with which you want to replace the spot with the mouse cursor, and then by depressing a control key (Alt in Photoshop). Select that reference spot by simultaneously clicking the mouse button (left button in Windows). This sets the relative location of where the Stamp/Clone brush tool obtains its color information. Then place the mouse cursor on the spot you want to remove and click the mouse button. The spot is replaced by color and tone information from the area near it you selected. Then, if you move the mouse cursor to another spot you want to fill-in with adjacent color, the cursor pickup reference point moves with the cursor and is located the same distance and angle from where the cursor is located in the center of a dirt spot you want to retouch.

Again, just using Photoshop's Rubber Stamp brush tool and carefully placing the pickup point as I moved along, I was able to replace all of the cables and wires making them entirely disappear so the picture looks like they were never there.

As you fill-in this little speck of black, that spot of white, in a blue sky for instance, you may find that the reference pickup point for the Stamp/Clone brush needs to be moved to another angle or distance from where the spot is to get just the right color and tone to fill-in the offending bit of dirt. To move the pickup reference point for the Stamp/Clone brush tool, locate the cursor at the new area from which you want to select information and depress the control key while you click the mouse button. As you go from one area in an image to another to cleanup dirt and scratches, you will find you may not have to relocate the Stamp/Clone brush pickup point for every spot you fill-in, just some where the spot may be next to a shadow, highlight, or other image detail.

The "shadow" and lines under a portrait subject's eyes always look more pronounced in a photograph than what you noticed in real life.

Obviously, like working on actual film or a print in analog mode, with a computer you'll need to magnify the image to do the spotting and retouching. So, use the application's zoom view control to display just a small portion of the image magnified so it fills the entire screen. I find when retouching 20MB image files, which I use for making 11x14 prints, that I have the best visual control of the Stamp/Clone brush at 150-200 percent of actual image size. In addition to this adjustment, most applications like Photoshop support specifying the size of brush tools, as well as sometime the shape, and equally important the edge softness of the brush, which aids in blending the information applied into the surrounding image area. However, in some image subject areas, like human hair, you may need to use very little edge softening to preserve the fine image detail. This fine detail area retouching often requires selecting a smaller brush size as well, and also working at a higher image magnification (zoom) setting.

Smoothing and softening face tones using Photoshop's Rubber Stamp brush tool, I've found, works best with the transparency adjustment set at 50 percent. This supports gradually shifting clean skin tones to replace the shadowed fine lines under a subject's eyes. I also use the freehand selection tool with a five pixel soft edge to outline the eyes and then use the Brightness/Contrast adjustment, increasing both to add sparkle to the eyes.

Also, with most applications like Photoshop, you can define the degree of transparency of the brush's application of information. If transparency is set at 100 percent, then the area where the brush applies image color and tone is replaced completely with the new information. If the transparency of the brush is adjusted to less than 100 percent, 50 percent for instance, half of the original information density remains after application and half is the new information. This ability to adjust transparency makes it possible to gradually replace the color and tone in an area with color and tone from another, making the softening of shadows under the eyes and the hiding of blemishes in skin tones, subtle and smooth while preserving the natural texture and contours of complexion tones.

The combination of natural cracks and shiny lipstick creates strong, distracting highlights and shadows.

Sometimes when a larger area of an image has been damaged, replacing the damage with adjacent image information does not blend into the picture and provide as smooth a result as you would like. Another brush found in most applications, which usually has a water drop icon symbol and is sometimes called a Blur tool, applies local softening. This brush will soften edges and irregularities, and can be used gradually, by making multiple applications, to attain just the right amount of smoothness and blending. Also, in some instances the damaged area requiring retouching includes fine detail. Another brush that "smears" color information from one area to another, often called a Smudge brush, is also useful in blending and even reshaping color information in the area of an image which includes fine detail that has been severely damaged. All of these brushes, like the Rubber Stamp, can be size adjusted, and the degree of effect can also be lessened or intensified, as well as the edge of the brushes' application area softened to varying degrees.

Again, using Photoshop's Rubber Stamp brush tool set at 50 percent transparency, select a small brush size and fill-in the stray highlights and soften the dark shadows with adjacent lip color. The freehand selection tool was again used to outline the teeth, and the Hue/Saturation adjustments was used to reduce color and lighten the teeth.

The Wacom Intuos 9x12 Graphics Tablet
For nearly all of the 10 years I've been doing image processing on a computer, I've used a graphics tablet to do retouching. The few times when I have had to use a mouse for this purpose I found my work was far less precise, and it was slow progress and frustratingly difficult to do well. So, why should I need a new Wacom Intuos graphics tablet to do this project? Well, even though the graphics tablet is as mature technology as computer peripherals go, Wacom has made the first "ideal" 9x12" sized tablet, and added some great efficiency features like the 4D Mouse--not to mention, refining the entire product from its ergonomic physical design to its software.

First of all, the beauty of a graphics tablet is that in a size like 9x12", it corresponds in area to that of the monitor screen. And, because the position of the sensor (pen or mouse on the tablet) is absolutely related (1:1 with a 17" monitor) to the position of the cursor on-screen, the hand control is extremely precise. For retouching I personally prefer, having worked with both pen and mouse (formerly related to in tablet lingo as a puck), the Wacom Intuos 4D Mouse provides a surer grasp for steadier control. In addition, the programmable buttons (five on the 4D Mouse), allow assigning functions which are a great aid in retouching, reducing the number of keystroke and cursor movements necessary to using and adjusting the Rubber Stamp and other tools. Another feature of the Intuos 4D Mouse is a side wheel, which can function like the Microsoft Intellimouse wheel for navigation, or in Photoshop with a new plug-in the wheel can control the Zoom function to adjust the magnification of the image on-screen. Like the entire Intuos system, the 4D Mouse is easily converted from right to left-hand use. In fact, the 4D Mouse can be used, with cursor movement turned off, in one hand to input button commands or rotate 3D objects, masks, etc., while working with a pen in the other hand.

Evaluation And Recommendation. As I noted, I have been a graphics tablet user for most of the time I've been doing digital image processing, and when I obtained the loan of the Wacom Intuos 9x12, I still had and have another tablet functioning on another Windows workstation. Regardless, I have found the Intuos 9x12 so advantageous to my work, Wacom will not get it back--just a check.

There is much more in features and tools, like a new Intuos Airbrush, as well as software support for the tablet and pen pressure input by every major imaging application I know of, as well as some I've never even heard of. The 9x12 Wacom Intuos graphics tablet, including both the pen and 4D Mouse, lists at $509. The Intuos line of tablets includes a full range of sizes from 4x5 to 12x18", and supports Apple Macintosh, Windows, and SGI systems. Extensive and detailed information is available from the company's web site at: or call (800) 922-6613.

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