So here's some bad news: your favorite vintage photos were probably photoshopped. You know the ones: Marilyn Monroe sultrily holding down her billowing skirt, Audrey Hepburn smiling demurely into the camera, and a returning soldier planting a kiss on a WWII-era nurse. OK, so it wasn't the modern-day Photoshop you know and love — it was something much more time consuming. This before-and-after portrait of 1930s screen siren Joan Crawford shows the impressive results of a very time-consuming photo editing process, which modern photographers describe as "grueling."
When the image was posted on Reddit, vintage photography enthusiasts revealed intriguing details of photo editing from bygone decades. "Dodging" and "burning," two of the most effective editing techniques used by pre-Photoshop photographers, inspired the dodge and burn tools in today's editing software. These techniques respectively lighten and darken image negatives through lengthy exposure to harsh lights and were used to edit images until well into the 20th century. As one Redditor, higgs8, explained, this manual version of retouching was no easy task.
"Dodge" means you cast a shadow on the print with a tool (like a paper circle on a stick like the Photoshop Dodge tool icon) or your hand, as the negative is projected onto the photosensitive paper. As you cast a shadow, less light is allowed onto the sensitive paper and therefore it becomes lighter (since it's a negative, less light projected = lighter result).
"Burn" means you dodge everything except a small area, by making an "O" shape with your hand (like the Photoshop Burn tool icon) or using a piece of paper with a hole in it, to avoid light hitting the paper in all areas except the part you want to burn. This causes that part to receive more light, making it darker, since it's a negative and works in reverse.
Of course when you're exposing your negative onto the paper, you'll do it for many tens of seconds which gives you enough time to expose the whole image for some time, then dodge for some time, and then burn for some time. Of course you can't see shit and you have no idea what it's going to look like until you develop your print. At that point it's too late to change anything so you have to start over many times to get it right.
While your dreams of flawless classic film stars may be shattered, it's always fun to be enlightened about the quirks of an antiquated age. Next time you easily remove a zit from your favorite selfie, appreciate the simple software process that resulted from decades of hard work.