What Is Airbrushing in Photography?

The Manual Technique of Retouching Photographs

Retouching. Agnes/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

In photography, the term "airbrushing" refers to any retouching done to a photo that changes the reality of the photo. It may include removing people or objects, erasing acne or scars, altering body shapes, or any other form of manipulation of the original photograph.

Prior to digital photography and the introduction of Adobe Photoshop and similar programs, airbrushing was done by hand. Artists were tasked with cleaning up photographs manually.

They would use airbrushes as well as paint brushes, dyes, and other materials to correct any imperfections. It was a skill that took great talent.

Today, airbrushing is primarily done with the computer and it's often grouped into the category of "retouching." Yet, you will still hear the term used, especially when discussing models who seem to have flawless bodies in advertisements.

The History of Airbrushing

Before digital photography brought about digital editing, negatives and prints were altered directly 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 used by photographers. Especially with the Daguerreotype just before 1840, 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 1890s, 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 airbrushed with color. Keep in mind that color photography was not available until the 1930s, though people wanted their portraits in color, just like paintings. Artists would tint the black and white photos using airbrushes to mimic the look of a full-color portrait. Demand was so high that factories were built to handle the demand for airbrushed photos.

The continued improvement and availability of cameras, such as the Kodak Brownie, reduced the need for professional airbrushing in the United States. 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.

Manual retouching continued to be used by professional photographers for portrait and commercial work. Many airbrush artists and professional retouchers continued working with film and paper prints until digital photography came along. At that point, many took their craft to the computer and continued to offer retouching services using the new tools.

Airbrushing Today

While airbrushes have given way to digital editing, the style and technique of airbrush retouching continue to thrive.

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. Quite often, the term airbrushed has been replaced with Photoshopped.

This advancement in technology has also led to many debates. The ability to manipulate a photo in such a precise manner and with such easy-to-use tools brings up ethical concerns. Has too much retouching on models led to unrealistic perceptions about the ideal body image? Can photojournalists remove an element from a photo to alter the reality of what happened? Are companies using it to create false advertising?​

The question of how much "Photoshopping" is too much is one of great debate in photography today. It has led many people to be very skeptical of nearly any photograph they see.

Their concerns are not unwarranted, either, as cases of unscrupulous photo manipulation have been the subject many headlines.