What Everybody Ought to Know About Digital Photo Retouching

Categories Articles, Filmspiration

Today we take a look deeper into the hidden art of digital retouching where skies can always be blue and imperfections simply disappear. Whether you like it or hate it, think it’s necessary or not, retouching is here to stay.

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The majority of images you see online, in print, on television and certainly on sky-high billboards have all played victim to hours of enhancement, manipulation and tweaking that makes up the retouching process. Before you set your eyes on that magazine fashion spread, celebrity portrait, or even fast food burger advertisement, chances are it has been given the full retouch treatment and the raw originals filed away without trace.

Jon, founder of recently redesigned Retouch Village tells us “The majority of our clients are looking for that perfect balance for their image; an end result that isn’t blown out or pushed too far, trying to avoid the plastic Barbie girl look, while bringing the shot to it’s full potential. The most valuable tool that makes a great retoucher is a good eye; software know-how goes a long way but the creative eye and vision is what’s needed to assess an image and know exactly what the end result needs to look like. It’s a strange business to be in because our greatest professional success and praise most often comes when you can’t necessarily see that an image has had any work done to it; you just see a stunning photograph. There is however the other side of the coin where agencies or clients allow you to really push the boundaries and create an impossible image that makes the beholder wonder, ‘just how is that possible?’”

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Retouching is ultimately a step in a long collaborative process. In the modern world a shot is no longer finished when the film has been processed and the bike has left the studio, in fact it is then that a huge part of the process just begins. With so much digital information available to twist, skew and distort, there can be a much greater collaborative creative output; art directors can not only work with the photographers but also with the retouchers, and this opens up a world of endless possibilities where a vision can truly be made a reality. These visions have gradually made their way to be the standard image we’re used to seeing when we flip open a magazine or watch a commercial, whether it be the perfectly tanned and blemish free skin on the model’s face, or the remarkably bright colours in the landscape of a travel photograph, and yet many rarely consider the importance of retouching in the creative process.

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Occasionally there are voices heard shouting outrage of the physical distortions and manipulations of images, usually in the celebrity and beauty worlds, but it is impossible to imagine the print, online and digital industries going back to the days before retouching became a part of the deal. Just as digital cameras enhanced the possibilities of image capture, the tools of skilled retouchers bring a world of potential options that just weren’t available in previous times, and won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Retouch Village are currently at the top of their game, and it’s their ability to strike the perfect balance between maintaining the integrity of the original image while making the right improvements so that their images “pop”, that keeps them there.

Jochen Braun

Next, we asked Jochen Braun, a well known fashion photographer, what’s his take on this subject: Retouching has become the extended arm of photographers – it can enhance and it can destroy. An arm that seems to create real magic when its well connected to its initial ideas and concepts, when the communication between photographer and retoucher works and when its got the right skills and understandings of what to achieve without overdoing it for the sake of it. Retouching is one part of the process of generating the image, like a model would be in a fashion photo, the styling, hair/makeup etc – retouching needs to fulfill its part of the overall final image.

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I heard colleagues saying that certain fashion magazines are almost putting the retouching over the work of photographers. I wonder what they reply if you tell them that a fashion editors work is dominated by fashion designers work and the seasons and the fashion designers themselves most likely have to go along a commercial concept of their marketing people….

There is an awful lot retouching out there that is wrong and over done to my taste and that lacks the understanding of using retouching skills that are applicable to a photo and a sense of beauty. Also that understand Zeitgeist and trends in visual expression – it is a process which needs permanent change and it needs courage to permanently push boundaries. In certain parts of commercial photography like automotive photography, images can’t even exist anymore without the final big retouching job at the end. In that field its therefore not surprising t hat these technical machineries and images of it can even be generated solely with CGI techniques. In fact, the viewer is now so much used to retouched and polished images, that anything without it might be alienating and it feels like relict of the Stone Ages.

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I am trained in a traditional photographic sense which meant you also know how to do conventional prints, black and white and colour. So taking on the the possibilities of retouching with Photoshop, I still think it is a part of the photographers vision as much as the dark room was a part of the photographers vision. It is essential for the final image and it absolutely requires talented craft and skills and understanding to make it work.

What do you think?

Your call now – tell us in the comments what do you think about digital photo retouching.

Catalin is the founder of Mostash - a social marketing boutique - and he's always happy to share his passion for graphic design & social media.
  • REAL photographers don’t need Photoshop, OK well maybe Light Room. :-)

  • thank for the info

  • At this point, being against photo retouching has become useless, because like you said in this article, there´s no going back, and these kind of knowledge must now be a part of any photographer’s education. It´s very useful to use these techniques to make a good photo even better, but it also has its negative points,. For example when people go too far in trying to copy the models on the magazines, and their perfect skins, and perfect bodys. Because most of the times what we see is not “real”, and those models are not so perfect after all, and have the same defects as we do.

  • bloodygeese

    Aaron B Brown, obviously not shooting much these days!

  • Hey, things change. A hundred years ago there were no photo labs to speak of. I wonder if photographers then bellyached about the first labs making it too easy for anyone to be a photographer? How about the first air brush retouchers of commercial photography in the early days of advertising? Or the the advent of automatic on-board camera metering systems? Or Polaroid images finding their way into professional photography? All these changes give the professional tools that raise the level of their craft. It’s that simple. To complain about it is to admit that amateurs could threaten the territory of the seasoned professional, which is something that can, but rarely, happens. And when it does, all this technology has empowered that individual’s innate creativity. Humans are creative, technology is not. Adapt or die.

  • MJ

    I used to be a pro retoucher and most of the time the clients would go cheap on the models and I would have to do crazy facial and body reconstruction in Photoshop. The changes were so drastic that many times the models couldn’t put the image in their portfolio. In the end, its up to the art director and photographer what the final product should look like. They have a budget to work with and if they can get a better ad by paying a retouching $100 an hour vs a better looking model $200 an hour they will choose the retoucher.

  • Keith P

    Retouching is like anything else in this world, there is top quality and there are cowboys, judging by there portfolio- retouch village are quality, plus I have read in other articles about them that they do not employ any body manipulation tricks apart from cleaning of blemishes! Retouchers with morals!

    Retouching should be embrased by togs not feared.

  • I did not really understand about Photograpy but a good photograph is a photo of a high art with a good light placement

  • There’s a difference between photographing what’s there, and taking what you see and the camera captures and creating art with it. There’s a fine line between touching something up, and creating something completely different and original with the tools of the day.

    I’m old school, started off with film cameras, and trained as a journalist, so I know the difference between offering an accurate representation of what exists in the real world, and creating something that is an idealized representation of what exists in the real world.

    I have no problem with photographic art, what I do have a problem with is someone taking a photograph of something real, and then altering it and passing it off as an accurate representation of that thing. Unfortunately too many people today don’t understand the importance of maintaining that differentiation. If you lose that separation within your own mind, then soon you won’t know what’s real and what’s not, that’s the danger, that’s the trap. It’s always existed in art and photography, it’s just that the line has become so easily blurred in recent years, we face the possibility of creating whole generations of people who won’t be able to understand or grasp that important difference, and we’ll all suffer as a result.

  • Retouching is a great way to emphasis your message in a photo. So it has to be done as wisely as shooting the image itself.

    I studied design and we learned how to sketch different surfaces in different ways (skin vs. metal for example).

    Nowadays this is often neglected and the skin structure is just blurred.

    In my photos I try to use as little retouching as possible to keep them natural. But still, all images are retouched.

  • Retouching is touch upto some level it should not fake the viewer :)

  • The digital darkroom has replaced the traditional one, but enhancement and manipulation were a part of the photographer’s toolbox before digital imaging.
    Ansel Adams once said “You don’t take a photograph, you make a photograph.” Or not. Or, in my case sometimes yes and sometimes absolutely not.

  • kiim

    Aaron B Brown: LAZY photographers dont use photoshp.

  • I do photo restoration, a specialized form of retouching, for a living. You might want to see the following:

    Retouching Ghost Story http://bit.ly/ghoststory

    http://hatchphotofix.com for samples and information about how retouching (restoration) works

    http://www.slideshare.net/erichocinc/photo-restoration-slide-show-by-eric-hatch for a little slideshow showing tons of before-and-afters plus some reasons why we do it

  • DigitalSuture

    We have been lying for a long time, this is nothing new or revolutionary

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship_of_images_in_the_Soviet_Union

    It depends on the morals of the artist and the vision they have. Did Salvador Dali stay pure with his perspective and realism or did he heighten it? Did M.C. Escher decide to draw/engrave reality? Did pin-up artists decide to use a different facial structure instead of their photographic reference? Did Norman Rockwell think that he would only use his references as a whole, instead of compiling some detail shots to make his final images?

    It has always been about the message and the ability to deliver a vision. The amateurs point out what not do to.

  • excellent informative stuff.

  • Most of people’s issues about photo retouching have much less to do with removing a blemish than it is reshaping a person’s figure to something unnatural and almost unhealthy. I’ve been devouring fashion magazines for the better part of 30 years and the only earlier complaints I heard (and had) were when they always airbrushed Cindy Crawford’s mole out. The message to me – who has a mole on my face – “That’s ugly. It has to go.”

    The came can be said for the airbrushing of hips and thighs and the painting in of ribs. It’s not that these people are fat or even out of shape. They’re human and they’re natural. If you wanted a photograph of a perfectly proportioned android, you should have photographed one. Or put the head of a celebrity on an android’s body.

    I believe that photo retouching does have its place in photography, but not in completely reshaping the subjects and the perceptions that can accompany it. But overall, it comes down to the shot, how it’s framed, the artist’s rendering of the subject. I thought that was mostly achieved through the camera lens – not in Photoshop.

  • I adore retouching – you can make so much with it, but you need to be really accurate to make it realistic. You need to be as good in details as you need to be in seeing ‘big picture’

    About year ago I come across the website of some man who is a professional retoucher and that’s really amazing. His website http://www.iwanexstudio.com/
    It’s built not very good in flash, but the portfolio is amazing.

    Aaron, I agree with you but only if you work for yourself. If you work for a client, you will HAVE TO change a lot to get the result client wants. And this lot you can’t do only with camera.

  • I recently spoke to Katrin Eismann and we came to the conclussion that photo retouching is more akin to illustration that photography, despite both of us being trained photographers.

    Its imperative that we understand that we are not creating portraits but glamour photograph.

  • Great post. The best retouching work is the kind that you can’t even notice.

  • An important thing to note:

    Real professional photographers need less retouch because they do most of the work at the shooting, that means; great lighting, great makeup, the right angle, a model that do not need tons or retouching.

    Other hard fact is:

    This post/article talks about “photographers” and that is a wrong perception, the correct approach is: SOME photographers, more those in fashion and advertising, need to achieve some results in order to sell some services, product or ideas.

    So, is not that digital photographers need or is a must to retouch. Instead there are some not so good amateur photographers that need to repair the lack of talent in the digital darkroom.

    A smart retouch is exactly what you really need.

  • I honestly don’t see the problem with retouching, I can understand some people’s point of view how it’s unnatural, but not everyone needs it to be natural, some people just want perfection, whether it be true or not…

  • @Sean I agree with what you’re saying, I have a philosophy in life that says “do what is good for you” if some people don’t like it they don’t have to retouch, if they do then they can, it’s no big deal really.

    I almost always need to retouch my pictures.

  • @Laura you’re absolutely right. It’s never been about fake plastic skin and slimming waists and making breasts bigger. That’s a whole different kind of retouching, and not even a skilled one.

  • jp

    before photoshop there was airbrushing, actually taking a print and the airbrush artist would ‘retouch’ the skin, the sky, and anything else that needed to be clean-up, enhanced or changed, so photoshop retouching is NOT new, it’s just the current way of enhancing magazine and ad images.

  • As a portrait photographer, I edit each final image and I let my clients know. I edit out what is temporary, what might not be seen on the client in 2-3 wks (blemishes are a prime example), but I make certain to keep features that help distinguish that client from the rest of the world. Even if I never made any color adjustments to an image, I would edit by way of cropping. It seems to be something my clients appreciate, tho some women like to jokingly ask if I remove double chins (I do not).

  • I see a large camp of those who embrace post shoot tweaks and a few who abhor it. Those who do value PJ or are trying to achieve it. This is good. The more diversity in styles, the better. We need photojouralists.
    The trends for poraiture have changed though. Right now my clients want art or magazine covers. They pay. Hence, I tweak. Photoshop is not cheapening my product. We have to learn how to channel our creative talents and vision through software. That takes time. That’s why clients pay us. Couple that with knowledge on how to portray and pose your subjects, proper lighting ratios…I think it widens the gap between weekend warriors and those committed to embracing the next trend.

  • Great info and you are right when you say, and I quote, “Whether you like it or hate it, think it’s necessary or not, retouching is here to stay.”
    It really has become part of our life, and when we look at images, we should just try to understand the message the owner is trying to convey rather than get stuck on how it was done!
    I also think that we are all progressing at different rates, and so some will have a better technique or a greater ability than others……. give them time, their ability will grow!
    Thanks though

  • Like Jochen Braun all professional photographer need to do retouching before sending their photos to the clients. Some photographer do retouching by their-self and some just outsource them.

  • all your shared images are awesome retouching is best technique for making a photo more attractive.