WWII Reproduction File Photograph (How To)

Every reenactor should have a file photograph on, er, file. They are excellent for use on a unit website, forum avatar, blog gravatars (this blog uses gravatars), or for just generally looking cool on your computer. In any case, they are fairly easy to make if you (or someone you know) has access to Photoshop or similar.

For this tutorial I will be using Photoshop, but other full-featured graphics editors will also be able to do these functions. If you don’t have access to Photoshop, but still need/want a file photograph, let me know — for a few bucks I can make one up for you.

Take your mugshot

Taking the base photograph is probably the trickiest part to getting a period look for your file photograph.

The Uniform

Most of your impressions will have had your photograph taken when you went through induction, so ditch the 4 pocket jackets and fruit salad. You want the basic wool uniform shirt with a tucked in tie. Depending on your impression you may want to use a different uniform shit and a black tie. Do your research 🙂

I haven’t been able to figure out when brassards were issued to WWII medical personnel, so I suppose it is up to you to decide to wear it or not. If you are taking a photograph after you’ve made some rank, I would go ahead and wear it. If someone can offer a definitive answer, it’d be good. (update: see a comment posted below from Ben Major for some insight)

Photo Set-up

Either take the photograph outside in filtered shade or inside with lighting. You want the light to be very flat (evenly lit side to side). On camera flash is very flat, but it’s also very harsh. It would be more effective to set up two high power lights — like shop lights — on either side of your camera. The goal is to evenly illuminate your face as well as knock out any visible shadow behind you. Take a look at the ugly lighting the DMV used on your license and reproduce that.

You should be positioned with a white backdrop squarely behind you. Depending on your lighting you may not want to be right up against the wall. Again, the goal is to eliminate any shadows.

Prepare your letter board

I am assuming that most of y0u do not have access to a changeable letter board like this $200 one from Office Depot: Quartet Letter Board. If you do, use it instead of Photoshop. The real thing is always better.

Snap the photo

Original File Photograph

Original File Photograph

I’m not sure anyone really enjoyed the induction festivities, or the fact that they’re going to war, so don’t smile — you’ll just look goofy. Trust me.

To the right is a photo that I took of one of my fellow reenactors. Note that I didn’t really follow my own advice. This photo was taken inside a WWII battery at Fort Stevens on the second day of one of our events. We did have a letter board, though.

Clean it up in Photoshop

The clean-up procedure in Photoshop is as follows: Make everything the correct brightness (levels), change to black and white, delete stuff that doesn’t belong, compress the tonal range. I’ll be walking through each of the steps using Photoshop CS3 (although older versions should work fine). If you don’t have Photoshop, a comparable program (such as the free GIMP editor) will work, but you’ll have to figure out the program yourself. If you’re really stuck and would rather someone just do it for you, feel free to get in touch and we’ll talk business.

Make everything the correct brightness

For those of you that haven’t learned Photoshop, this technique will rock your world for all photographs (not just this one).

Photoshop Levels Dialog

Photoshop Levels Dialog

  1. Open your photograph in Photoshop (file->open)
  2. Open the “Levels” dialog (Image->Adjustments->Levels) (see photo at right)
  3. Select the black point eyedropper (left most one in the dialog box)
  4. Click on the portion of the photograph that should show up black (e.g. the pupil of their eye)
  5. Ignore the ugly color and continue
  6. Select the middle gray eyedropper (middle one in the dialog)
  7. Click on a portion of the photograph that should show up gray in the final photo. A good reference is a slightly darker patch of skin (on a white guy), perhaps under the cheek, or a lip
  8. Ignore the ugly color and continue
  9. Select the white point eyedropper (far right in the dialog)
  10. Click on your backdrop, which should be white

This should modify your photo slightly. It should make things a little more contrasty, but it will ensure that your backdrop is white like it should be and that there is an even tonal range across your subject. Here is how mine turned out:

File Photograph After Levels

File Photograph After Levels

Converting to Black & White

File photographs were in cheap black & white film, so we need to make things black and white. Although you could simply select “desaturate” from the Image->Adjustments menu, I always feel that this has a rather poor result. Instead, we are going to use a much more sophisticated conversion tool.

  1. Open the “Black & White” dialog (Image->Adjustments->Black & White). In earlier version of Photoshop, this will be called the Channel Mixer and had a slightly different operation
  2. Your photograph will immediately show a desaturated preview automatically generated by Photoshop. I suggest playing slightly with the sliders to achieve a better look.
  3. When satisfied, click “OK”

I usually bump up the “reds” just a little bit to lighten the skin of the subject. In addition, I usually drop the blues which typically makes the whites to appear even whiter. Finally, the green and yellow slider can be adjusted to change how bright or dark the uniform shirt appears.
Feel free to play, but usually 20% here or there goes a long way. Here is my result:

File Photograph after Black and White Conversion

File Photograph after Black and White Conversion

Delete stuff that doesn’t belong

If you set things up properly in the first place, you shouldn’t have a whole lot that needs cleaning up. If you took your file photograph in a WWII bunker, like I did, you have a lot of work to do. Using a combination of the paint brush and clone stamp tool delete things in the background that don’t belong. The goal is to have a flat white background. If you aren’t sure how to use the clone stamp or paintbrush tool, there are lots of tutorials online — they are a bit complicated to explain in the context of this tutorial.

Tonal range compression

Tonal range is a photography term that explains the range of blacks to whites. Your eye has a fairly expansive tonal range: you can see detail in super dark areas and also see details in bright areas at the same time. Digital cameras have less of a tonal range. Old, inexpensive, black and white film has an even more restricted tonal range. Thus, we need to drop shadow and highlight detail on our file photograph.

  1. Open the levels dialog again (Image->Adjustments->Levels)
  2. You’ll notice three arrows below the histogram (black chart area).
  3. Slide the black arrow to the right slightly. You’ll notice some of the darker areas becoming black. Do this until it starts to look weird (unacceptable), then back off slightly.
  4. Slide the white arrow to cialis online 20mg the left slightly. Same thing. When things start to become too “blown out” (like foreheads and noses), stop and back off slightly.

Here’s my result after cleaning up the background and compressing the tonal range.

File Photograph after compressing the tonal range

File Photograph after compressing the tonal range

Add stuff

At this point the photograph should be looking pretty good. It is, however, missing the extras that make it a file photograph. We need to add the text (your name), crop the photo, and add signal corps logo.

Adding your name

Adding your name (and information) has a few steps. To make it easier, I’ve created a WWII Photoshop Action set that you can download (only 1 action currently 🙂 ). Just click on “Play” to run the “letter board” action in the “WWII Medic Photoshop Actions” action set. If you need help installing the action here’s a decent tutorial on Photoshop Actions.

You should run the “letter board” action. This will create a separate file where you can change all the pertinent information. (If the action doesn’t work, click cancel, then try again — if it’s still being stupid, let me know.) Feel free to move text around if you want — I just set the action in the format that I used. Hint: If you vary the spacing between letters slightly, you can make things look more “real.”

Once you are done merge all the layers together (Layer->Merge Visible). You can then drag and drop the letter board onto your file photograph.

When the letter board is on your file photograph it may be significantly larger than the photo itself. Select Edit->Transform->Scale to bring the letter board to a reasonable size. In reality, the letters are about 2″ (a bit less than 2 fingers) tall. Rule of thumb is to make things look good. If you are doing more than 1 file photo, make them all the same scale.

Here’s my result:

File Photograph with a name board

File Photograph with a name board


The space for viagra online cheap the file photograph on the Geneva convention card is approximately 1.5″ x 1.75″ Given this, I would crop to this ratio.

  1. Select the rectangular marquee tool
  2. In the options, set the “Style” to “Fixed Ratio”
  3. Enter 1.5 in the width and 1.75 in the height
  4. Drag a box around your file photograph, keeping a gap above the head, and all the text in view. You should crop the bottom of the information box (since there’s no support mechanism).
  5. When you are satisfied, permanently crop your image by selecting Image->Crop

Signal Corps Logo

The final touch is to add a signal corps logo. This logo would be added during the print development and is usually seen on official army photography. I’ve provided the signal corps logo in a .psd file for you to download.

  1. Download and open signalcorpsbrand.psd
  2. Drag “Layer 3” from signalcorpsbrand to your file photograph
  3. Scale the logo until it looks decent. It shouldn’t take up a huge amount of room, but it should be visible
  4. Rotate the logo randomly keeping it mostly upright. The logo was applied by hand during development by placing a sheet of acetate over top the photo paper while it was printed, thus it wouldn’t be perfectly aligned
  5. I usually cut the logo off of one side or another — not required.
  6. If you’re doing a lot of these file photographs, the signal corps logo placement and rotation should be more or less different on each one, but the size should stay the same.
  7. Turn the opacity on the logo down to about 90% to let some of the underlying photo leak through

Note: According to a comment below from Ben Major — the WWII Medical Guru of http://med-dept.com, you may not want to include a signal corps logo after all, it appears they weren’t part of the ID photo — at least not of the ID photos he’s seen.

You are done!
You can see my result below:

File Photo Complete

File Photo Complete

Hit me up in the comments if you used this tutorial to make your own WWII Reproduction File Photograph, I’d love to see your results, too.


  • Ben Major says:

    Hi Taylor,

    Geneva Convention Brassards were issued to Medical personnel during the interbellum years. However, they were not worn for Identification photographs.

    Also, of the 6 first pattern and 2 second pattern Medical ID cards I have, none of the photographs that are used has the Signal Corps logo, and to my knowledge, this was not part of the Identification Card photograph.


    • admin says:

      Hey, Ben, Thanks for stopping by.

      Do you happen to know when, during a particular soldier’s training, they would be issued a brassard?

      Also, thanks for the heads up on the signal corps logo — I’ll make sure to notate that in the above.

  • Ben Major says:

    Hi Taylor,

    With regard to the GC Brassard, troops were issued with them during training in the ZI as early as 1941, but their ‘service’ Brassard, so to speak, was issued at the same time (or during the same process) as their Identification Card.

    No problem on the logo, I hope it’ll help.


  • Ryan Henry says:

    Here’s a link to a pic of me with my Geneva Convention Non-Combatant card. This photo was published in a Japanese magazine that did a feature on Combat Medic Re-enactors.


    This little card has saved me when “captured” in quite a few tacticals!

    • Taylor Dewey says:

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting on a bunch of posts, Ryan.

      You’ve got a very nice reproduction version of the Geneva convention card. I’ve created a similar version for myself from photos around the ‘net, but I’d really like to produce a detailed tutorial here with the appropriate PSD files.

      If anyone has an original card that they could scan, I could clean it up for reproduction purposes. Ben?

  • Ben says:

    I just thought I’d stop by and indicate that I have seen some examples that feature the Signal Corps logo on the actual nameboard itself, but this is not imposed during development, it has been placed on the board when the photograph was taken.
    You can get quality reproductions from our online For Sale section on our WWII Medical site.

  • Matthew says:

    So, out of curiosity, on the letter board what other nomenclature would be used besides “1 med?” For example, what would infantry, Air Corps, etc. be? Since this is an induction picture I would assume they will be pretty limited.

    • Taylor Dewey says:

      From what I’ve seen — which isn’t all that many — the actual writing on the letter board varied quite a bit. I would assume infantry would be INF — not sure about air corps, etc.

  • Matthew says:

    Would you have new photo taken with each promotion? Seems like a bit of a stretch out in the field.

    • Taylor Dewey says:

      Probably not if you were in a combat theater, but I can’t say for sure. I know there was the ETO ID card — which didn’t have a photograph and would be easily replaceable.

      Along the same lines, given the condition that these men were fighting in, I wonder how many kept important paperwork (id cards, drivers licenses, paybooks, etc) in serviceable condition.

      • Matthew says:

        I agree. I bet these guys let that kinda stuff just kinda lapse. I have mostly Air Corpse guys as volunteers but I will ask them what they kept with them on base or leave.