mobile photography technology, culture and community

5 pre-digital photo tricks and the apps to make them today

Photo manipulation has been used since the beginning of photography for art, politics and fun. Ein kraftiger Zusammenstoss (A Powerfull Collision) was created in 1914, The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

The Picture Show photography blog has rounded up series of photographs that were taken and edited before the age of Photoshop. The images feature surreal composites that prove that photographers were pushing the limits of their tools even in the “good ol’ days.”

The article written by Claire O’Neil and accompanying radio story from the American National Public Radio show "All Things Considered," frames the images in the context of what viewers expected from photographs in the past and present. Today, many people assume the commercial photographs we see are digitally edited to remove all imperfections, while we attach a sense of honesty to darkroom days of old.

O’Neil instead argues: “In a sense, people have always kind of known that photography isn't entirely truthful. In the earliest days, some manipulation was certainly tolerated, if not preferred.”

The images chosen by NPR from the Metropolitan Museum’s “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop” exhibit are not those usually associated with analog image manipulation—there are no beheaded subjects and only one political “changing history” example. Instead, NPR chose images that seem to prove that photographers enjoyed manipulating photos for the sake of art, composition and fun, long before software made it commonplace.

While looking through the showcased images, one can't help but wonder how much time was put into these photographs. It's easy to imagine the creators sweating in a chemical-filled darkroom, adjusting and readjusting the images to make them perfect, only to display the finished product to a handful of people in their homes or maybe in an art gallery. Today, the same effects can be done in seconds using a mobile app and shared instantly with the entire world. What modern mobile image editors could be used to make similar photographic illustrations today?

1. Man In a Bottle c. 1888/Image Blender (iOS)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

This image by J.C. Higgins and Son was created in around 1888. You can bet it took far more work than if they'd used the super easy Image Blender ($2.99) app for iPhone.

2. Max Ernst, 1946/Canvas Pro (Android)

The J. Paul Getty Museum/Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

This image by Frederick Sommer shows a man immersed in the texture of a wall. The effect is gorgeous, thought provoking and could today be done in a few swipes with the $2.99 Canvas Pro app for Android

3. Io + gatto (Cat + I), 1932 / Double Exposure Pro (iOS)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

That’s right. A selfie and a cat photo in 1932—further proof that the Internet is only a stage for our natural tendency towards self indulgence and pet idolatry. Wanda Wulz’s image of her face and a cat’s face was made by combining her self portrait with a photo of her cat. (Both images can be seen separately here.) You can make your own with the $1.99 Double Exposure app for iOS.

4. Leap into the Void, 1960 / Photoshop Touch (iOS/Android)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

Levitation photography has seen quite a bit of popularity recently in mobile photography but the effect can also be found in older images. This image by Yves Klein, Harry Shunk and Jean Kender was created by stitching together two negatives—one of the man jumping into a tarpaulin and one of the empty scene. (Read the full story here.) Similar effects can be quickly created using the $4.99 Photoshop Touch app for both iOS and Android. 

5. The Pond — Moonrise, 1904 / Sketch Camera (Windows Phone 8) and Fantastia Painter (Windows Phone 8)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

This image by Edward Steichen is intended to look like a painting. By using the technique of multiple printing, this photo of a pond was transformed into a dreamy vision of nature. (Read the Met’s description here.) Windows Phone 8 users can achieve a similar result by combining the effects of the $1.49 Sketch Camera app with the layering tools of Fantasia Painter


Total comments: 9

for #4 could also use FreezePaint ( which would let you do it on-the-fly, like in this photo:


basically there is no difference between digital and chemical, besides technical details and that digital sounds cleaner.

1 upvote
The Scurvy Dog of PR

Yea, we're old. It made the transition to Photoshop from the darkroom pretty easy. I had been doing color separations on a Hell scanner before desktop publishing came around so working in color channels and unsharp mask came naturally. For fun, I used to have 3 enlargers at home so I could composite black & white prints. It was fun, but no substitute for Photoshop. And I've been using it since version 2.0! Art springs from the creative side of the mind. There are no rules. Don't be afraid to explore. You'll never know what you find if you don't. Pixels are over-rated.

Wye Photography

Image manipulation is nothing new. Except that in the chemical filled darkroom it took a lot of effort, time, resources and skill to do it convincingly. Generally, such work was a one-off.

Today, a monkey (sorry to insult you monkeys out there) fake it in a few clicks and then replicate it a million times.

I think a lot of modern photographers point an accusing finger at the old dead photographers and announce "THEY DID IT!!!!" as justification for their own works of fantasy.


Whilst I agree that it used to be a lot harder, it doesn't necessarily follow that Photoshopping is then "faking it". Sure, some things are easy, overused etc, but one can also manipulate things in ways that would have not been possible in the darkroom. I think it's a great thing; you still need to have the vision to create the end-product...and isn't that what counts?

Also....I think there was a similar discussion when photography was introduced....painters would say: photography is "faking it", no skill involved etc...


Wonderful article which shows that there is little new under the sun... Great photographs!


Never, ever combine cat faces with people faces.


The hell does any of these oldtime pix have got to do with $1.99 iOS apps? Too weird,,,

Aaron Tsuru

Bunch of hipsters, they were!


Total comments: 9
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