The atmosphere in old photos is not something you can add afterwards. It is only present at the time of the shutter press. Trying to retouch a photo that doesn’t have an atmosphere nearly always ends up looking false. Take this photo.

Natural Light

The fall of light through a window, a darkened room, smoke hanging in the air and reflective light bouncing around the scene. You cannot add this or recreate this in “retouching”. This image has a real atmosphere.

Having a vision for a photo is a good thing. But we have to be realistic about what we can achieve.  With an outside photo that is dull and has no shadows or contrast, we can’t add a sunny sky. If we do we then have to add dark shadows to everything, re-light any faces with shadows under noses and ears etc. Same for a brightly lit sunny image, we can’t go adding overly dramatic evening skies.

Changing elements of the image to fit in with what is already there or that compliments the lighting works best.


Atmosphere in old photos

Atmosphere in old photos


In this image, it was possible to add a suitable sky that could be backlighting the dress. It has the correct direction of light and works with the image. Trying to force the issue results in obvious fakery.  Any image that looks fake is what every artist strives to avoid. Realistic results are the desired outcome. It is rare to find two elements that mesh so well. In practice, this rarely happens. Replacing the background like this comes with many issues described in this post “Photo retouching replacing a background

Restoration works to restore and improve the photo, very rarely can the atmosphere be added. If the image is just an everyday shot, say in the back garden of a relative or ancestor, it is probably best left as is.

The purest view of restoration would not add anything at all. From a historical standpoint, nothing should be changed but clients demand a variety of tweaks and interesting adjustments that challenge my skills. However, I won’t carry out any work that I know won’t work or will look fake.

Natural atmosphere through lighting, texture, weather, dust, rain, dark and light and composition is what makes a great photo. If all you have is a poorly composed image no amount of retouching will create an atmospheric shot. “You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear,” says the old proverb…

Adding atmosphere in old photos

Adding atmosphere in old photos