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Photo Retouching Myths

Retouching MythsPIN

Let’s face it, digital retouching has the general population entirely polarized. Not a week goes by that the national media doesn’t bemoan the latest “Photoshop disaster” or accusation of being “airbrushed” on the latest round of celebrity photos. However, photography clients—99% of them to be honest—are expecting to have their photos finalized and retouched by a professional.

These are of course totally conflicting points of view. But I will argue that almost everyone who supports or condemns retouching believe it is a modern day practice, stemming from the advent of this new computer program called “Photoshop CS or whatever”. And, frankly, they are misinformed, as are most of your clients. So let’s just get right to it, shall we, and clarify a few key points in the world of photo retouching.

Myth: “Celebrities and models had to actually be attractive and perfect back in the day, they couldn’t be fixed in Photoshop.”

First off, celebrities and models from 10, 20, 50+ years ago were by and large attractive, and the same can be said for today. That said, almost every photograph you have ever seen of a legendary film star or model since (at least) the 1940’s has been edited. Yes, retouched. The modification of photographs to “clean them up” and “make them perfect” is not only older than Photoshop is, but likely older than you or any of your clients. An excerpt from the Focal Encyclopedia Of Photography, Edition 4:

“Before computers, photo manipulation was achieved by retouching with ink, paint, double-exposure, piecing photos or negatives together in the darkroom, or scratching Polaroids. Airbrushes were also used, whence the term “airbrushing” for manipulation. Darkroom manipulations are sometimes regarded as traditional art rather than job related skill. In the early days of photography, the use of technology was not as advanced and efficient as it is now. Results are similar to digital manipulation but they are harder to create.”

Don’t believe the hype. Being a well-informed photographer not only helps your clients understand what your service is about, but gives you yourself a more accurate perspective of the industry you work in. When you get that client who is ready to hire you but is naively critical about retouching, citing it as some “high tech corruption” in some way, a little history lesson will likely assuage their criticisms and remove the bad reputation that retouching has had thrust on it in recent years.

Remember, everything about a photograph is “fake,” in a sense. The lens captures a focal length that your eye does not have, nor do your eyes have the depth of field of your wide aperture images. Often, the lighting is “faked” as well. How about the location? Sure, the location is very much tangibly real, but it is often set up in a fantastical manner intentionally for purposes of styling and artistry. And heck, your photographs are in 2D, and your brain perceives things in 3D.

Everything about your client’s images are different than what the eye and brain perceive, so why is retouching the “wrong” element in this mix, and everything else is perfectly acceptable? Ignorance, perception and popular opinion / stigma, that’s what.

Myth: “Everyone wants retouching just because it is new and popular.”

Adobe Photoshop was released in 1990, some 24 years ago as of this writing. In the world of computer applications, that’s ancient. The general population became aware of Photoshop mostly in the last decade, which is why some believe that Photoshop CS was v1.0, and CS2 was v2.0, and so on, when in fact CS was actually v8.0, released 13 years after v1.0.

The actual Photoshop 1.0 was more a novelty than anything, but it was the first program available to (some) consumers for digital photo manipulation. Before that, proprietary commercial grade digital retouching was available at very high costs during the mid-to-late 1980s. Your clients likely have this misconception, partly because of the media, and partly because they (most likely) simply aren’t in the digital imaging creative industry themselves. I would wager that your clients that went to high school in the 1990s had their yearbook photos digitally manipulated in some way, and they don’t even realize it.

Myth: “Being Photoshopped makes you look fake.”

This is like saying that cars will kill you because you can crash one. The key here is that while you can be killed in a car, with responsible driving and a reasonable approach, driving can be quite safe and, of course, extremely useful.

The same can be said for “being Photoshopped”. Every program you use on your computer is a tool, and Photoshop is one of the most useful and diversified tools available in the digital media world. In and of itself, Photoshop does literally nothing. It’s how you use it that can make or break your images and whether people say they look “fake” or “airbrushed” in your work.

As mentioned above, retouching is old. Really old. But that doesn’t mean that modern retouching is a 30-second process. There is no “Make It Perfect” button in Photoshop, or in any plugins or actions. Decades ago, retouching a head shot for a film poster took hours, perhaps even days in some instances. The 21st century is about efficiency and technology, but art cannot—and should not—be rushed. And make no mistake, retouching is an art form.

You can wield retouching properly, and you can cause an utter train wreck with it as well. Your clients need to be educated on your services so they know what they are paying for, plain and simple. Retouching is not an arbitrary afterthought, it is an integral part of photography that has been around for a very, very long time.

Myth: “I don’t do much retouching on my photos” or “I like to leave my photos natural” or “I maybe spend 30 seconds on each shot in Photoshop.”

If you don’t retouch your photos, you should, and if you don’t, you likely aren’t seeing much business. Exposure adjustment, color correction, color grading, sharpening, etc are considered retouching.

Don’t tell your clients you don’t edit their photos, or that you “don’t do much retouching” unless you literally open the files, add your watermark, and deliver them as is. When you do this, you set the expectation with your pro-retouching clients that you won’t be editing them (cause for panic in some), and your anti-retouching clients could very well come back and cite your shots as being “airbrushed” just because its stylized a bit and sharpened. There are better ways to instill confidence in your clients that every aspect of your photography service is vital, and professional executed.

And finally, next time you tell yourself you spend 30 seconds on a boudoir image in Photoshop, time yourself. Efficiency is a huge, enormous, massively important part of retouching, but no one (I know) spends 30 seconds per image and delivers world-class photos.

Nino Batista

Glamour, portrait and exotic automobile commercial photographer and retoucher, based in Houston, TX and serving anywhere in the world. I teach photography and retouching around the country as well.

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  • October 6, 2014 - 9:21 AM

    Danea - Great article, Nino!

    I like the last point best. I get a little tired of photographers making the remark of “How much time do you spend editing, because if you are spending more than a minute in PS you’re not getting it right in camera.” Which is total bullshit! I don’t have a per image time as each client is totally and completely different. Some images take a minute while others take 10(and that could be the same client). Some have flawless skin, some have special requests. I explain my editing process to every client so they know what to expect. I have yet had a boudoir client tell me it’s too much or too little, so I think I have found my sweet spot and that is all that matters. 🙂ReplyCancel

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