Retouching Images (but if you have that extra head growing out of your right shoulder well…)


Composite portrait.

Composite portrait.

Retouching is always a topic that generates interesting opinions, some people say it is bad and others like it and there are also those who do not know what exactly a “retoucher” is or what they do. So let’s talk first a little about how I retouch and when I retouch. Retouching goes beyond the basic editing of an image. A basic edit would be to maybe crop, adjust contrast & color and sharpening to be done at the end. However retouching goes a little or even a great deal further than just the basics.

The amount I retouch an image is based upon what photographic category the image is in or how the image will be used. Is the image a headshot or is the image a portrait? Or is the image going to be used for commercial purposes? Is it a composite or and illustration? As you can see there are many different categories and each one demands a different approach. So let’s look at the average portrait. Someone is paying me to photograph them, so we will have a short conversation about retouching and most of it will focus on blemishes and maybe scars. Essentially I tell them that “it is always ok to remove what should have never should have been there in the first place,” such as you wake up that morning and you have a pimple. Or maybe the person has a scratch on the hand. Then there are the choices I will make such as a stray hair across the face. Most times the client never sees it, but I see it in the post edit and it obviously has to be removed. So that is my basic retouching rule “if it shouldn’t be there it can be removed.” But if you have that extra head growing out of your right shoulder well… yeah that gets to stay, because how cool would that be lol. Now with all that said, I do have people who know what retouching is and they know I can do it and they ask for more than blemishes to be removed. They may have sought me out because they know I do retouching and they want or need a great headshot for business purposes. This then takes us to the next level as I call it, where we can soften skin, fix makeup, reduce age lines and spots, there can also be a little enhancing of eye color and removing red lines in the whites of the eyes. These techniques are often requested by a “paying” customer so I will accommodate accordingly. I don’t feel this is cheating, because someone is asking me to do it. Are they cheating? I really don’t think so, although I do think there is a line to be drawn in the sand with this kind of retouching. The line is essentially you do not want to make them look fake or totally turn them into something they are not. With that said, you must keep in mind that a good camera & lens can take a very detailed shot showing every single pore in the skin and if it is a close up shot we may want address this issue because our eyes do not see all this detail in real life. Example; I’m having coffee with a friend and she is sitting right across the table from me, most likely I’m never going to look at her face as close as I would in an 8×10 headshot. I mean, she is right there across the table from me drinking coffee and yes I see her clearly, but as normal humans we tend not to look at somebody that closely, even when we’re in close proximity. However when I freeze that look and put it on my monitor I see every little detail and knowing full well the photo is headed to the web or to be printed as an 8×10… well that is where the retouching is almost a must.

So let’s change it up a bit and look at the opinion of some purists who believe retouching is the red-headed stepchild of digital photography and Adobe Photoshop is akin to the anti-Christ. Believe me I have been blasted about retouching. I have had negative comments left on social media; I have had emails from both photographers & lay people telling me “real photographers don’t retouch” and I have been told right to my face that “retouching is like making something that was real a fake.” This of course is mostly referring to my composites and most times I let the comment roll off because most have no idea what is or was real and what is not. See when it comes to making a composite in Photoshop I view this work much the same as a movie. Movies have special effects and nobody really seems to have a problem with the special effect as they help enhance the movie and make it more interesting. So too retouching in photography can add enhancement to the image giving the viewer more pleasure or enjoyment, or maybe giving them fright. Or better yet making them think. After all this really is what an impactful image does, it makes you think, however some people do not want to think. In quoting Die Antwoord (South African Hip Hop artist) “People are unconscious, and you have to use your art as a shock machine to wake them up. Some people are too far gone. They’ll just keep asking, Is it real? Is it real?” Check out a music video from Die Antwoord and if it doesn’t make you think… well you might as well get in a grave because if nobody has told you… “Well my friend you are brain-dead.”

Retouching at a much higher level can lend creativity to the image and raise the viewing pleasure up to another level. Because in this age of digital cameras where anybody can take an awesome photograph there has to be something to rise up above and be better. What I mean by that statement is; today the only thing that limits a person from being able to take a really good photograph is your budget… you know it’s all about how much money you have. If you buy a $1200 camera body and a $2800 lens, your there. I know darn well any 12-year-old kid given the same camera and lens that I have in my bag right now could take a great shot, just as good as I or any other photographer could. But can he/she be creative? And I feel creativity is not just using shallow depth of field or the rule of thirds and all of the other things they teach in high school photography class. While all those rules are great and yes once you know them you can break them (oh how I hate that cliché) they are your foundation. Now it is what you do with light or no light that begins the real creative process. Then you add Photoshop as a tool and it is used to edit just about every image you see today. Unless it is a journalistic shot it is going to have some type of enhancement. Journalistic shots are like watching the news; there is no enhancing or special effects when we watch the news. News is dramatic enough and needs nothing added, it is life as the reporter is seeing it. But let’s say we turn on a movie and we see special effects and I’m not just talking about explosions and car chase scenes. The effects can be subtle, ever watch a situation comedy? Let’s go way back to one of my favorite TV shows of the 70’s (hey I’m old) M.A.S.H. was a really funny show with lots of humor. But it had a laugh track added. When a joke was told the fake audience would laugh and so would you. The show took place at a field hospital during the Korean War, so when you really think about it… an audience laughing in the background is a laughable subject by its self. So turning back to photography and retouching I really see retouching as the laugh track to help enhance the image. Photoshop is an amazing tool and the creativity is endless. While there are images that are clearly a Photoshop fabrication, such as the simple making an image of someone holding their head in their hand and this always gets a good laugh. However retouching is more subtle in most cases. It is usually more about color and depth and putting elements together in a way that… well they make you think. And not always in a crazy abstract way, but for me what I want the viewer to think is more along the lines of “wow that is an interesting scene” or “where is that place?” If I get a viewer to look at a composite portrait and think that the person in the portrait was really standing in front of my lens on that island in the Gulf of Thailand then I’m very pleased.

So as we can see there are many roads leading through the topic of retouching and it is in almost all forms of photography. There is not one “A” list celebrity in Hollywood that lets a photo be released without it first going to a retoucher. Actually it is their agents who care to most about the retouching because that bad image means bad press and in some way taints the brand that is that celebrity. I can’t confirm my source but I heard the other day that Kim Kardashian has a retoucher on retainer for $100k a year. Nothing she posts, be it from her iPhone or whatever, it first goes to the retoucher before it heads to social media. I still respect the opinion of the purists who do not like retouching and those who say they “only see in black & white” and all the other photography purists. But retouching for me is a big part of my creativity.

Thank you everybody for reading and have a great day.

One thought on “Retouching Images (but if you have that extra head growing out of your right shoulder well…)

  1. Great photo composition and an informative post.

    Most people are unaware of basic Media Literacy and how to read a photograph. As soon as you choose a camera angle & distance and frame the subject you have constructed a reality. Choosing colour or B&W changes the reality. All forms of Mass Media are constructed realities shaped by the codes & conventions of the medium, such as a laugh track or framing of subject, and those realities convey a set of values, beliefs & ideologies.

    Every photograph is touched, either in the darkroom, the digital darkroom or the specific printing method. It is the intended goal of the process & target audience that is the issue.

    Liked by 1 person

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