What Is Airbrushing in Photography?

Photography 101

Retouching. Agnes/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

What Is Airbrushing

Airbrushing refers to any retouching done to a photo that changes the reality of the photo. People or objects removed, acne erased, or body shapes altered.

History of Airbrushing

Before digital photography brought about digital editing, negatives and prints were directly altered through a variety of techniques. Airbrushing was probably the most popular of these techniques.

In the early days of photography, retouching was often needed due to limitations of the plates and cameras.

Especially with the Daguerreotype just before 1940, touch up was needed to create high-quality images. Until the 1860s, hand brushing was the most common technique for altering photographs. This often left visible brush strokes in the resulting photographs.

In the 1890's airbrushes were developed and photo retouching changed forever. Camera equipment was continually improving and the new capabilities for smooth edits with airbrushes led to an incredibly high demand for photos with moles, scars, and other imperfections removed. Also highly popular were large oval prints airbrushed with color (color photography was not available until much later). Demand was so high that factories were built to handle the demand for airbrushed photos.

Continued improvement in cameras and availability of cameras, such as the Kodak Brownie, reduced the need for professional airbrushing in the United States. However, in the mid to late 1930s, the Stalin regime in Russia embraced airbrushing as a way to remove "disappeared" people or other out of favor people from official photographs.

Airbrushing Today

While airbrushes have today given way to digital editing, the style and technique of airbrush retouching are thriving. Software programs such as Photoshop and many others allow users to edit photographs much more precisely than even the most skilled airbrush artist from the days of film only photography.


History of the Airbrush by Artool
Inside Stalin's Darkroom by Robert Conquest