The Darkroom
Toward A Kinder, Gentler Camera; How To Soften "Character Lines"

1. Directional lighting shows all the wrinkles. Here I am wearing no makeup; the picture was shot on 5x7" Ilford HP5 Plus film using a 100-year-old Ross lens (21", f/7.7) on a 50-year-old 8x10" De Vere camera with a reducing back. It is far easier to use my own wrinkles for demonstration than to worry about offending another subject! This is from a silver halide contact print.
Photos © 2003, Roger W. Hicks, All Rights Reserved

1a. Here, I scanned the 5x7" negative, using a big transparency hood on an Agfa scanner; reversed it (Image Adjust Invert in Photoshop); and then corrected it for contrast (Image Adjust Levels), before retouching. The line down from the corner of my mouth (inherited from Grossmama Schultz!) repaid retouching best, but it is also fairly easy to minimize this with good lighting or makeup.

Wrinkles or character lines? Few people want their portraits to show every line on their face. The camera may not lie, but we can help it to put the facts in a better light by judicious use of makeup, posing, lighting, soft focus, and afterwork.

Pre-Retouch: Using Makeup
Concealing wrinkles with makeup is rarely successful unless the subject has considerable experience with makeup, or unless you have a professional stylist. Also remember that in many states you need to be a licensed cosmetician to apply makeup to your subject. But there are still a few tricks worth remembering.

Lipstick can be a terrible giveaway. Use a brush or matching lip liner to give a clean, clear outline. Applying it from the tube allows the color to smudge up into the wrinkles around the mouth. This makes them look deeper, and loses the definition of the lip line. Even with men, a natural tone lipstick can emphasize the lip line and knock years off your subject, but few men will accept this unless they are unusually vain. Politicians often do it.

Avoid old-fashioned makeup. Most women "freeze" their makeup when they are in their 30s and continue to use the same colors and techniques ever after--and even though this does not strictly concern wrinkles, it can age your subject. Think of the red lips of the 1930s to the '50s, the pale lips of the '60s and '70s, the browns of the '80s, the heavy, dark lip liner from the '90s...

To return to wrinkles, use two foundations, one for the natural skin tone, and one slightly lighter. Apply the natural foundation to give the skin a smooth, even tone. Be careful: heavy makeup can accumulate in wrinkles and make them look worse.

Think of wrinkles as shadows. With a fingertip, apply the lighter foundation over the deepest (darkest) part of the wrinkle. Pat the highlights gently until the edges blend into the base. Follow with a very light application of translucent powder, then check under the lights to make sure it looks natural. Unnatural makeup is worse than no makeup.

Posing Tips
Careful posing can help minimize wrinkles. Tension accentuates wrinkles: the more relaxed your subject is, the better. Look at the old Hollywood portraits. The subjects are usually leaning against some sort of support. Of course Hollywood portraitists were using 8x10" cameras and long exposures so the support was very important in maintaining the model's position as well as a natural, relaxed pose.
Study your subject's face to find their best angle. Many people have fixed ideas about their faces. Someone with a double chin may automatically lift her (or his) head when faced with a camera. You may need to persuade them tactfully that a less forced pose will look better.

To understand more, look in a hand mirror. Hold it below your face and look down. Then hold it above your face and look up. Even a small change of angle can have a dramatic effect. Wrinkles are often asymmetrical, too: a slight turn of the head, one way or the other, may reduce them or accentuate them.

2. Paramount lighting. A relaxed pose, plus a fill light to lighten the shadows from the key, softens the wrinkles and takes a few years off my age without any retouching. (De Vere camera, Ross lens, HP5 Plus film.)

Flatter With Lighting
Now for lighting. Soft, diffuse lighting which wraps around the subject is generally more flattering and less apt to show wrinkles than hard, directional lighting. There are lots of ways to achieve this: softboxes, umbrellas, and reflectors of different sizes, shapes, and materials.

Although this can involve expensive light modifiers you can get many of the same results with inexpensive, homemade equipment. A piece of Styrofoam or crumpled aluminum foil glued to a piece of cardboard will bounce light just as effectively as an expensive purpose-built reflector. Placing lights and reflectors is far more important than the equipment you use.

Lighting for portraits usually involves at least a key light (which gives the shadows) and a weaker fill. The famous "Paramount" lighting places the key well above the subject's eye line, very slightly to one side, with a fill well below the eye line and on the other side.

3a. Wraparound high-key lighting, and a bit of makeup, give a much more pleasing result. Although this was shot with a "soft-focus" lens--the legendary Leitz 90mm f/2.2 Thambar--it was taken at a small aperture (f/9) at which there is little or no softening effect. The lens was mounted on a Voigtländer Bessa R loaded with Paterson Acupan 200 film. Again, unretouched.

3b. At wide apertures the Leitz Thambar gives soft-focus effects: soft, but not too soft. Look at the side of my mouth and my forehead. It is almost magical the way the wrinkles diminish or disappear in this unretouched shot. Compare this with the shot taken at f/9. The lighting is identical. (Voigtländer Bessa R and Paterson Acupan film.).

High key is often useful. These are very light images, with only small areas of dark tones. Flood the subject with light; keep exposure to a minimum; and consider printing on very hard paper. This tends to "burn out" the wrinkles.

The Triflector, devised by British photographer Stu Williamson and made by Lastolite, has a central reflector with two wings. Use it to wrap the subject in light, with a softbox overhead. When Roger Hicks, Marie Muscat-King, and I were experimenting with a Triflector a while back, I decided it took about 10 years off my age!

The best way to learn which lighting techniques work best is to find a willing model and experiment. A session with two or three like-minded (preferably wrinkly!) photographers will teach you a lot. Not only will you benefit from collective knowledge and experience, but you will see what works and what doesn't, and why.

Soft-Focus Lenses
You can do more with good lighting than with soft focus, but both together can be very effective. Soft-focus lenses are more usual in medium and large format than in 35mm, where they are harder to use.

Soft-focus pictures consist of a sharply focused "core," with a halo around the highlights which spreads them into the shadows. This softens and masks wrinkles. Traditional but effective ways to get soft focus without a soft-focus lens include shooting through net or a nylon stocking or a filter smeared with Vaseline, or shooting wide-open with an uncoated lens or an old, cheap, nasty zoom. Cut exposure as compared with normal lenses, because flare fills the shadows.

Post-Exposure Processes
What you do after shooting will depend on whether you take the digital route to printing--scanned film or from a digital camera--or the traditional wet route.

The easiest approach is to use Adobe Photoshop or another image-manipulation program. Remember three things. First, some wrinkles are more obvious (and aging) than others. Concentrate on the ones that matter most. Second, within reason, the bigger the magnification at which you work, the better. Third, keep checking the overall image.

Working at high magnifications may be deadly slow, but always gives you the most control. You may also see faint wrinkles that are hard to see at smaller magnifications. On the other hand, you may miss larger lines that are clear in the whole image, so zoom back frequently to full-image size on the screen. Save the file if you are happy, or go back to the previous generation if you are not. I usually save different generations under different names, using the "Save As" command in Photoshop. If I decide later that I have overdone the retouching, I can go back to the last generation I am happy with.

4. I call this portrait "A Certain Age." It could have been taken almost any time in my adult life. Only the hairstyle gives it away. It is perhaps the way I see myself in dreams. Taken with a Nikkormat using a 90mm f/4 Dreamagon lens and Paterson Acupan film. Unretouched.

Which control you use is up to you, but I mostly use "dodge," set to about 20 percent, with a fairly small soft-edged brush. I just lighten the wrinkles. I don't worry if they are not removed fully. It can be surprising how much younger someone can look just with the wrinkles lightened, not removed. It leaves the character in, but removes some of the age. The same goes for liver spots, though I use a bigger brush for these. Other control possibilities are "clone" and "smudge," but neither works as well for me, though I occasionally use "burn" (again at about 10-20 percent, again with a small brush) to lighten the bright highlights beside a deep wrinkle or jowl. "Burn" can also be useful for emphasizing a faint lip line, but be careful: do not overdo it.

As with all retouching, electronic or manual, do not try to "paint out" lines. Instead, break them up using tiny "dabs" or short strokes of retouching. The aim is to stop the eye following the line. "Painting it out" leaves the line in place, sometimes more obviously than before (because it is less natural). A useful trick is to follow the line with the mouse or trackball, pressing only intermittently on the button, so the line is followed but broken up at the same time.

5. Printing through a screen can mask wrinkles. This was contact printed from an 8x10" negative with an 8x10 Mortensen Craquelure screen (from Texturefects) sandwiched between it and the paper. I used the De Vere 8x10" camera and 21" Ross lens, shooting on lford Ortho Plus.

You can work in negative instead of positive, in which case the wrinkles are light and the adjacent skin is dark. This may make it easier to concentrate on the mechanical process of wrinkle removal, rather than worrying about the overall picture, but I find positives easier.

The drawback to digital manipulation is that it is extremely difficult to achieve the same print quality and permanence that you take for granted with traditional silver halide, especially in black and white. This is why some top professionals have their film images scanned; retouched electronically; and then printed (via a film writer) onto silver halide film, which is then developed and printed conventionally. The price of film writers makes this impossible for most people, so it is well worth looking at the possibilities of the traditional darkroom.

The Darkroom Route
To begin with, some enlargers hide wrinkles better than others: a diffuser enlarger tends to soften the image while a condenser shows every tiny line. Many people reckon that cold cathode light sources are best of all.
Trying to soften an image by using modifiers under the enlarger lens is rarely satisfactory. Instead of the highlights spreading into the shadows, the shadows spread into the highlights. The image is softer, yes, but it is also likely to be flat, dead and muddy.

6a. This is an enlargement from a 5x7" negative and shows Roger Hicks' eye before retouching.

6b. Roger Hicks' eye after retouching. This was my first attempt. I used a soft pencil to fill in the wrinkles under the eye and between the eyebrows. You can see the retouching clearly in an enlargement, but in a contact print, you have to look for it.

Printing through a texture screen can disguise wrinkles. Paterson and FX Files screens are sandwiched with the negative in the carrier; Texturefects screens are sandwiched with the paper in the easel.

Retouching negatives is a time honored approach, much loved in Hollywood right up to the '50s. A large negative, 5x7" or above, is best, but you can retouch medium format if you have a really good magnifier and very good light. The wrinkles show as clear lines, and are just filled in. Use a very sharp pencil with a very soft lead (at least 3B or 4B), making tiny, gentle tick marks on the emulsion side of the film. Fix the retouching by steaming the negative: the pencil lead sinks into the gelatin. It is much easier than it sounds and gives a real "old-time" look. You don't even need a steady hand: in the old days negs were retouched on a vibrating retouching desk.

Old-time retouchers used to retouch fiber-based prints with a very sharp scalpel, physically shaving off the wrinkles. This requires a very steady hand and nerves of steel. So does localized bleaching with very dilute Farmer's solution. But both are possible, and were once commonplace.

Whether you choose the digital or traditional route, it is almost always quicker to get the picture right at the taking stage (via lighting and soft focus) than to try to fix it later. The main thing to remember is that you don't want to get rid of all the lines. If you do, you get rid of much of the character at the same time. If you want to see what happens when you overdo it, just look at anyone who has had too many face lifts...


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