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Make Me Beautiful: How much Photoshop is too much?

One of the most common things I hear from clients is “Now you’re going to get rid of my wrinkles and slim my face, right?” My policy was very strict: I only photoshop those things that are temporary. I left alone wrinkles, moles, scars, and body fat. I felt like my posing and lighting was strong enough to mitigate these things that make people cringe when they look at photos of themselves. I would reassure them by saying “Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing and I’ll take good care of you.” That held true 99 percent of the time. People, women especially, had enough of magazines making them feel less than beautiful because of some unwritten and impossible standard of beauty that even the celebrities with all their money couldn’t live up to.


From The retouched version of Mariah Carey with photographer Terry Richardson.

Just recently, unretouched photos of Mariah Carey taken by Terry Richardson (my opinion of his photography aside) were leaked to They showed the REAL Mariah—with a few extra pounds, stretch marks and a torn outfit—in a gif alternating with the retouched photos and labels of the changes made in editing. Even when confronted with this evidence that the beauty standard dictated by today’s advertising is a sham, women still hate their REAL selves in photos. Some of you great photographers have made them less hateful of themselves by showing what good lighting, hair and make up can do for them, but secretly they may still find something they don’t like.

Is retouching evil and wrong?

I’ve been taught that by giving in to client retouching requests, I am enabling a self-deprecating attitude. So I held firmly to my mantra that I only Photoshop those things that are temporary. As I worked more on my styled and conceptual portraits, however, I found myself using retouching software (skin softening, hair and eye enhancing, and even face shaping!) to fine tune areas I know how to do step by step but loved the automation to speed up my workflow. Seriously, if you were so inclined, you could completely transform a person’s makeup, skin, hair and facial features. It’s truly powerful stuff. Ethically, though, I just couldn’t completely transform a person. It was one thing to smooth some skin or liquify an armpit, but totally another thing to make them look like a different person.

Or is retouching the digital equivalent of our lifehacks?

I found my happiness somewhere in the middle. I began to look at retouching as “leveling the playing field.” These women know what they look like in the mirror. They also know what celebrities really look like without retouching. Asking to receive the “celebrity treatment” in their photos doesn’t necessarily mean my clients don’t accept who they are. Because let’s get real: if we REALLY wanted women to start accepting what they look like normally, we’d say stop wearing makeup, stop doing your hair with products, stop shaving your legs and pits, stop waxing your mustaches, and let’s just…..BE. The reality is we ALL do things to “tweak” reality. I shave my face almost daily, I wear some damn fine smelling cologne, I work out at the gym three or four times a week to make my chest look good through a shirt, and I curb my diet so I don’t get that post-40 year old belly. Photoshop and retouching software is the digital equivalent of our lifehacks. To further contribute to my change of heart, the technical side of my brain also realized that these super expensive cameras and lenses see things our naked eye does not. They see further distances, additional light spectra and detail not possible with our eyes. In essence, our cameras set people back a few notches, so it’s up to us to level the playing field. And don’t get me started on how posing can unintentionally fatten arms, fatten faces and create rolls on someone’s side. Sometimes we simply have to fix our own mistakes.

lance-photoshopMy version of the ‘celebrity treatment’

I don’t drastically change a person’s recognizabilty, but I have no problems giving just a tiiiiny bit of plump to a lip, oomph to a booty, open up a droopy lid or hide bags under the eyes. Heck, I might even bring in a jawline if I feel that lens perspective has unfavorably tipped the scales against the client, and I’m feeling particularly sassy. Don’t get me wrong: I try to get as much as possible done in camera and with good posing, but I’m not perfect (yet ;-)). Sometimes I find it necessary to give the client the celebrity treatment, and I haven’t had anyone tell me they didn’t look like themselves. Don’t they deserve to say to Beyonce, “I can look fine too! Check this out!”? I know at least a few of you will completely disagree with me, so let’s hear from you! What’s your take?

Lance Taylor

A former Korean translator and cyber warrior (yes, that's a real term) for the Air Force, Lance took up photography in 2002. Lover of meat, hater of cilantro, and owner of two tri-pawd dogs, he spends his time photographing clients, friends, and models. Occasionally, he writes things on Facebook, and by occasionally, he means regularly, loquaciously, and prodigiously. He attempts to have more happy days than unhappy and surrounds himself with positivity.

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  • July 16, 2014 - 12:08 PM

    Leslie - I think you’re spot on with your happy medium. I know that the photos taken of me may have been tweaked (I would never ever dare ask how much), but I still look at them and feel better about my real self. We are hard enough on ourselves in the mirror, shouldn’t we be allowed the pleasure of just enjoying a pretty picture?ReplyCancel

    • July 17, 2014 - 11:09 AM

      Lance Taylor - You know what’s funny, Leslie? When I have photos taken of myself, I actually appreciate “the celebrity treatment” (within reason, of course). I know I have sun damage on my face because I rarely use sunscreen. Sometimes I have a double chin. The eyes can get lost in shade or contrast, so I appreciate when a photographer can bring my eyes back into view. I have a much healthier self-image than years ago, so if *I’m* feeling these things, then I KNOW my clients are.ReplyCancel

  • July 16, 2014 - 2:32 PM

    Jennifer Williams - I agree with you Lance, I use photoshop to enhance the image but also fix issues that happen with posing. The last thing I would want is to have a client say “I look fat” because she has a bit of a double chin when laughing and smiling genuinely. I fix that and what doe she see? The beautiful soul that she is and doesn’t get down on herself because of something silly.ReplyCancel

    • July 17, 2014 - 11:11 AM

      Lance Taylor - Exactly, Jennifer! Although we strive to be great photographers, sometimes we miss things and don’t see them until editing. I don’t want my client feeling bad about his or herself because I didn’t catch something during the shot or because the lens I used magnified the size of something like a nose or jawline.ReplyCancel

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