On Hiatus!

Hello Loyal Imperfected Readers!

I am so sorry for my lengthy absence. I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that I’ve been on hiatus for quite some time. I regret to say that Imperfected isn’t coming back quite yet, but I hope to return with new articles sometime in early 2017.

I did want to offer some explanation, however.

2016 hit my little family with a number of very unexpected life events, some amazing and some not-so-amazing.

The Good: Early in the year, I got to train with my number 1 retouching industry role model, Pratik Naik, and shortly afterward start retouching for him as part of his studio, Solstice Retouch! (Such an amazing experience and I’m so honored to be working with him!)

A few months later, I was lucky enough to get engaged to the love of my life! (Naturally, a dream come true.)

Engagement Ring


Then, in July, I was given the opportunity to give a retouching talk for Adobe in San Francisco. (Thank you Adobe! This was also one of my life goals.)

Further, throughout 2016, I’ve had more work than I’ve ever had in any year of my career to date…by a staggering amount. (Great news, but it’s been an adjustment with lots of overtime.)

All of these things made 2016 one of the best years of my life!

However, 2016 was also one of the most difficult years of my life.

The Bad: Early in the year, I very badly injured my foot, ankle, and primary retouching hand. I had limited mobility and substantially slowed work capabilities for almost 2 months. Once healed, things were good for a few months, but I was re-balancing work after a noticeable change in booking frequency on top of celebrating the very good things I already mentioned. Then, about a week after we got engaged at the end of May, my fiancé and I found out that our dog had cancer. (We ultimately had to say goodbye to her a few weeks ago after she put up a very brave 6 month fight.) We then had a death in my fiancé’s family mid-summer. We had a brief reprieve before I fell very ill for 2+ more months near the beginning of August, where I was in and out of the ER several times. Of course, after that I had a lot to catch up on with work and the rest of life with really no time to write for quite a while. It was the beginning of October by the time I was well. Then, we got to mid-November with both our dog and the holidays to address. We’d barely gotten through Thanksgiving when we were asked to vacate our house because our landlord wants to sell. So, since then, we’ve been house-hunting…However, we’ve found a new house we love already so there’s some good news finally!

New office

Where the magic will happen starting in 2017

(To bring the year full circle, though this really doesn’t impact whether or not I can write…a few days ago I re-injured my foot from last January because evidently it never healed correctly. This truly completes our cycle of 2016 bad luck, which I think is actually verging on funny. Really 2016?)

So, in any case, it truly was the best of times and worst of times for us this year. As you can see, there has legitimately been very little time for me to write, much as I’ve wanted to. I still have my folder full of articles to edit and ideas to research and write up and I really do hope to be back at it soon! I will be moving to a new house at the very beginning of January (still in the SF Bay Area) and while I will probably still be flooded with work (and that now on top of trying to plan an imminent wedding), my hope is that I will also have time in there somewhere for Imperfected and my wonderful readers.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you all! I wish the best to you and your families for the coming year!

Kitten at Christmas

One final update: Navi is the kitten who came to live with us this year! As we celebrate her first Christmas, we all wish you Happy Holidays from our family to yours!

Making People Skinnier in Photoshop Part 4: Confessional and Exceptions

JenIn parts one, two, and three we talked about how we really don’t want to make people skinnier than they actually are in Photoshop. It leads to poor self image and it simply isn’t necessary because there isn’t anything wrong with a few extra pounds and we never need to fix a problem that isn’t there. Retouches that give the illusion of making people skinnier should primarily be based on camera issues such as distortion and perspective or should account for issues of clothes fit or bad posing.

Confession: Nobody is Perfect

However, after talking about this for 3 articles, I have to come clean. I, myself, am guilty of making people skinnier in Photoshop just for the sake of making them skinnier. I used to do it when I first started out. I’m not above reproach here, so I’m not going to roundly condemn people who have been doing skinny-retouching up until now.

When I was younger, before I had any sort of fully formed retouching philosophy, I was very strongly influenced by what I perceived that everyone else was doing. I thought I needed to precisely match all of my photos to what I saw in magazines and that I needed to emulate what I assumed other retouchers were doing. So, naturally I became guilty of skinny-retouching. I was early in my career so I wasn’t necessarily working with models straight off Paris runways and I thought that it was a given that I needed to morph these models’ bodies away from what was natural for them into faked knockoffs of the unvaryingly slender standards I saw in Vogue. I believed that they all had to fit the status quo fashion model mold at all costs if I was going to be taken seriously as an artist.

Two projects in particular stand out to me in my past. One was where I took a relatively heavy model and made her much thinner. I probably shaved off 50 lbs. or more. From a technical perspective, based on her surroundings, this was very challenging, so I was proud of it at the time. Looking back, this was a terrible thing to do. She in no way resembled herself when I was done. I was conscious only of my technical prowess and had no concept whatsoever of philosophy or cultural impact. I was 21 or 22 at the time and some of you who have been following me for a long time may remember this photo. I’m so ashamed of it.

The second project was debatably worse. I was a little older…ostensibly old enough to know better. It was a model I’d worked with before and she’d gained a little weight since the last time I’d worked with her, though certainly not enough to be called heavy. I booked her for a certain look and she took me by surprise at the shoot, which is no excuse. I loved the final photos, but I wanted them to look like they were straight out of a mainstream fashion magazine like I’d originally envisioned. The original shots were close, but I wanted to nudge them that extra few millimeters toward looking truly “high fashion”. So, I made her skinnier like she’d been before.

I now feel horrible about this because it was completely unnecessary. She looks gorgeous and bombshell in the originals. The worst part about it is that I still love the photos and I use one in my portfolio. She loves them too. (I’ve thought about reversing the retouch, but if I were to do that at this point, it would underscore that I changed her body in the first place and embarrass her that I felt I needed to do it, so I’m leaving it alone. I will never tell her that I did it or point out which photo or model it is.) I will probably always feel guilty about loving those photos.

So, is it Ever Okay to Skinny-Retouch?

My personal confessions aside, I do actually have a gray area where I will still voluntarily do skinny-retouching almost universally: brides and grooms.


Brides very often request to be made skinnier in their photos. When possible, I try to gently talk them out of it, but most of the time I have no first hand contact with the bride, so this isn’t possible. I’m only in contact with the photographer. My next step is to look for possible contour retouches. When someone asks for skinny-retouching on themselves, this is very often what they’re actually asking for. They’re uncomfortable with how their clothes fit and that makes them feel “fat” (what with various rolls or puckers showing where things pinched.) This makes them feel like they need to look slimmer. In these cases, I don’t actually need to make the subject smaller, I just need to smooth their contours or fix pinches. (Corsetted and/or strapless wedding dresses in particular are notorious for fitting poorly.) After that, I look for perspective problems and so on.

However, when it really comes down to it, even if there are no contours to be smoothed, no perspective or distortion problems to be fixed, just a perfect, straight on photo with a bride or groom still requesting to look skinnier…I’ll usually do it. Why? Because frankly, it’s their special day and it will almost never have any greater societal impact. It’s not going in a fashion magazine where it will influence children or teens and it won’t likely be anywhere where it will participate in any overarching social conversation about body image. It’s going in an album or on some wall mostly for the couple and their families to enjoy.

The important thing with a wedding photo is to make the bride, groom, and anyone else in the photo feel good about themselves and you aren’t going to win the war against poor body-image by forcing one single individual to spend years looking at a photo of themselves that makes them uncomfortable. This is not an occasion where you will be able to change someone’s body-image by making a grandiose ethical stand. It’s simply not the time or place.

That doesn’t mean I don’t cringe a little when some bride comes along and asks me to make her skinnier. It makes me sad that it’s necessary. But I will still do it so long as it’s anatomically within reason.

The simple truth is this: Waging the cultural body-image war in fashion magazines and advertisements is all well and good. Even trying to talk people out of skinny-retouching in everyday portraiture can be a productive thing. But when it comes down to someone’s (possibly/probably) once in a lifetime formal event, just make them feel and look the way they want in my opinion. It’s their day. Our politics and social causes can wait for a more productive time with less emotional investment.


Yes, giving in on this reinforces beauty mores for this particular bridal party, but you weren’t going to single-handedly undo years of self-image conditioning on this one day anyway. This sort of thing is the symptom of an unhealthy media environment, not the cause. Your better bet is to apply these kinds of ethical standards in higher stakes and higher profile projects in order to enact change in the industry. Apply your anti-skinny-retouching, ethical retouching stance to photos of media role models and icons so that the self image problems don’t entrench themselves so deeply in the first place. Then the brides and grooms may simply stop asking for this sort of retouch because they’ve seen greater beauty diversity ideals modeled to them from the start.

However, for now, you are not a psychologist. You aren’t qualified to talk someone down from years of self-image problems when it comes to what they may see as the most important photos of them that they may ever have. My opinion is to just leave this one alone. Let them have their special day with their ideal photos.

In Conclusion: Making People Skinnier in Photoshop

In general, it’s a bad standard practice to alter someone’s physical proportions in Photoshop, but the concept isn’t exactly cut and dry. There are techniques that give illusions of changing proportions due to technical and styling concerns and those can and should be addressed. This doesn’t necessarily equate to actually making a person skinnier in a photo or have anything to do with their real appearance whatsoever. Remember: cameras lie and size distortion in a photographic image can come in many forms.

We also have to acknowledge that we should pick our battles. Not every photoshoot can be the time and place to make an ethical stand. High profile shoots that impact the greater media narrative should definitely move away from skinny-retouching. However, retouching personal shoots where people are just suffering the effects of media telling them to look a certain way may be more of a gray area. There’s a self esteem and image satisfaction balancing act to be performed there.

All in all, I hope that we start to see a sharp decline in skinny-retouching that directly affects the body. The time for that is over. Really, it never should have begun.

Thanks for sticking with me through this 4 part series. I hope that you’ve found “Making People Skinnier in Photoshop” interesting and informative! If you have, please consider supporting me on Patreon. I am completely self funded and Patreon helps support what I do here. Thanks!


All photos by Stephanie Maulding

Making People Skinnier in Photoshop Part 3: Contouring for Clothes Fit and Posing

(Before you read this article, you may want to check out Part 1 and Part 2!)

There is a secondary consideration when we’re talking about making people skinnier in Photoshop, but this one is a little less cut and dry than correcting for camera issues. We’ve all agreed now that there’s nothing wrong with being a little larger (Right?) but what about those areas that just aren’t quite smooth no matter how big or small we are? I’m especially talking about those rolls and bumps that appear when we wear clothes that don’t quite fit us correctly or areas that bulge out when we sit on or lean against something in a certain way. These little lumps, bumps, and bulges are almost always temporary issues. Sometimes we see them and sometimes we don’t. They are influenced entirely by external things. However, when looking at someone, we visually interpret these bumps as signs of being heavier, regardless of the actual size of the person. After all, we’re literally talking about excess fat that is made more obvious in some way. (No matter how skinny you are, you have at least some body fat.)

What I want to introduce here is the concept of “the body at rest.” What I mean by this is the body as it looks when it is not pinched by restrictive garments or distorted by environmental things that the model might be leaning against or otherwise pressing a body part against. It can also mean the body when not distorted by wind or motion. The body at rest is the body in its natural state when not influenced by outside factors. In essence, it’s how you really, naturally look.

Making People Skinnier - Body at Rest

We will be looking at this model later on. This is her body at rest in well fitted clothing. Notice no bumps or bulges. These photos have not been retouched besides dust spots and tone/color.

The techniques I’ll be talking about today are mostly contouring or actively changing the shape of the body. This is one of the most controversial practices in retouching and it is very commonly interpreted as making people skinnier. That’s fair. There’s a very fine line. We’re going to discuss that fine line.

Now, contouring varies based on body type. Significantly larger bodies feature more curves that shouldn’t be smoothed out or else it will look anatomically incorrect. A lot of judgment comes into play here. If it’s a naturally occurring curve or bump that is always present when a person is at rest–standing straight and not wearing ill-fitting, restrictive clothing–it should be left alone. We see this a lot in larger arms, legs, and stomachs. However, bulging areas of flesh from bad posing or ill fitting clothing are unflattering and are not necessarily reflections on someone’s natural figure but rather on circumstantial conditions. I believe that these bumps and bulges can be ethically modified.

One thing to keep in mind is that in contouring, you shouldn’t always be making people smaller. You should be moving areas to make body parts wider at least as often as you are making them slimmer. It depends on what makes the most sense for the particular bump. Often with ill fitting clothing, especially jeans, I will bring the pinching part of the jean out and the bulging part of the stomach in to average out the figure, as that’s usually where the figure would be at rest. (see below.) With pinching clothing, that’s how it works. One part is tighter, constricting the body to make it thinner than it normally is. This displaces skin or fat to somewhere else, making another part wider than it normally is. That means the average between the two is where the body actually should be at rest in most cases. Bring one part in, bring one part out.

Making People Skinnier - Contouring Jeans

Other times I will exclusively make a model larger, but the effect is that of making her look slimmer. In the example below, I have made the model at least 1 to 2 jeans sizes larger. However, because her stomach is no longer bulging over her jeans and the jeans look perfectly fitted to her, she looks slimmer. The image is more flattering and our brains, through conditioning, tell us that means she’s skinnier. She’s not. (I urge you to click through to the before/after animation to see how drastic the change really is.)

Making People Skinnier - Contouring Jeans

In this photo, I have made the model at least 1 to 2 jeans sizes larger, but the illusion is that she is slimmer. Click for before/after animation to see more clearly.

The overall effect of contouring is typically slenderizing because bulges are literally comprised of excess skin and body fat. Reducing visibility of these things draws our attention away from thinking about fat which makes us believe a person HAS less fat…even if we are actually making the person larger in the process. It’s an optical illusion of sorts. It’s a disconnect between our eyes and our brains. We equate any kind of bulge or roll with being overweight even though this isn’t truth when we consider the body at rest. A thinner person wearing ill fitting clothing or who is poorly posed can and will have more unflattering bulging areas than a heavier person in perfectly fitting clothing. Bumps and bulges are about restriction and applying pressure, not about body size.

To be perfectly clear about the model I’m retouching above, here are a number of photos where you cannot see any bumps or bulges in her figure. Her default state is without bumps or bulges. The problem is fit and pose and her truer appearance is lacking these problem areas. We are striving toward images that are more honest to her natural appearance at rest. Her contours have not been modified in any way on any of these photos, even to correct for clothes wrinkles. Retouching I have done: light skin retouching, hair cleanup, backdrop smoothing, tone and color. You can click on the images to see larger versions.

Making People Skinnier - Fashion

Making People Skinnier - Fashion

Making People Skinnier - Fashion

A fashion tangent: The real problem with clothing bulges isn’t that someone is “too large” or in any way inherently unattractive, but that most people do not select properly fitting clothes. This isn’t always their fault either. Clothing stores don’t carry enough plus sizes so that people are often forced to buy sizes that are too small for them. We also have confusing and inconsistent vanity sizing and that encourages purchase of the wrong size, particularly in women’s clothing, but also to a certain extent in men’s. If all that isn’t enough, a lot of plus sizes are initially designed and cut for smaller figures and simply scaled up without actually adjusting the pattern for larger figure shapes. Only the scale is adjusted without accounting for the fact that as the body gets larger, proportions and shapes also change. (I sew as my primary hobby and I always custom fit, so lack of fit variation in clothing stores is a pet peeve.) These are all issues that have nothing to do with actual body shape or size. They have to do with clothing fit and cut and how they flatter the body. Mass produced garments are made for an average and rarely flatter a wide variety of body types, so adjustments are commonly needed, if not by a tailor then by a retoucher. For many body types, well fitted, perfectly flattering clothing simply isn’t available.

As a retoucher, I feel that it is a good thing to give people who are not used to seeing themselves in well fitted clothing the opportunity to know what they might look like in perfectly fitting clothes tailored just for them.  In my opinion, there is nothing unethical about this. On the contrary, it can serve to bolster someone’s self esteem.

People generally know when their clothes don’t fit because clothes that don’t fit pinch and are not comfortable to wear. If a garment looks like it is pinching, it looks unflattering, not because it makes someone look fat, but because it makes them look uncomfortable and that, in turn, makes the viewer uncomfortable. It also makes the clothes look less than beautiful in the case of fashion photography where the clothes are supposed to be the star…Really, this is the responsibility of the stylist, but sometimes we retouchers wear many hats and end up responsible for making the clothes look good.

Moving on, lets take a moment to talk about posing. Bad posing also looks uncomfortable. If you are leaning on something in a way that makes your arm, face, or other body part look squished, creating painful looking bulges or indentations, the viewer of the photograph is going to feel uncomfortable on your behalf. It’s unflattering and it’s not how you normally look at rest. Even when working with thin models, photographers who are good at posing usually do not have the model put their full weight on their hands or limbs. This prevents painful looking posing. Correcting for problems created by bad posing is resetting to what someone looks like in reality at rest, but again, can trick our brains into thinking we’re making someone skinnier for the same reasons as outlined above.

Making People Skinnier - Contouring

Here, we’re dealing with both a posing indentation and a clothing wrinkle (not a stomach bulge, just a clothing pucker.) I took care of both for a more flattering look. Click for before/after animation.

Now, what I am not encouraging is changing contours and body dimensions that aren’t being pinched or distorted. I still don’t think we should be bringing in waistlines just for the sake of making someone slimmer in order to conform to arbitrary beauty ideals. All I’m talking about here is returning a body to its natural state at rest: bringing in clothing wrinkles, correcting pinches, smoothing out bumps from posing, that sort of thing. Our goal is not to make a person look skinnier than they really are. We are correcting the photograph, not the person. Photographs lie and sometimes we also get distorted by our garments, accessories, and surroundings. Our goal is to make a person look like themselves by educating ourselves as retouchers and photographers about factors that distort their true appearance in final photographs. This may result in a photo that has the illusion of a skinnier model, but that is not our end goal and may, in fact, not be the truth of the retouching we’ve ultimately done.

Up next: The Fourth and Final Installment in “Making People Skinnier in Photoshop”!



If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting me on Patreon!


All photos by Stephanie Maulding

Upper Model: Amber for CYA Denim; Various Designers

Lower Model: Alexis

Making People Skinnier in Photoshop Part 2: Lens Distortion and Perspective

(Missed Part 1? You can find it here.)

In our previous article we discussed making people skinnier in Photoshop and how you really shouldn’t do it…

…Except when you should.

So when IS it okay to make people “skinnier” in Photoshop? The primary instance where it’s acceptable is when you have distortion or perspective problems in your photo. These are not uncommon and can be very unflattering but have very little to do with the physical dimensions of the person who is actually in front of the camera. Because it doesn’t have anything to do with the person’s actual size in real life, I do not consider this actually making someone skinnier. It is merely correcting aberrations introduced by the camera. However, in before and after photographs, people can construe this as making someone skinnier (or sometimes larger!) because body parts will appear to become smaller (or larger.) Let’s look at some examples.

Making People Skinnier in Photoshop Part 2: Perspective

This photo was shot from slightly below plus the model is leaning her head away from the camera. This makes her body appear larger in relationship to her head. This isn’t true to her real-life dimensions. Additionally, this was for a hair ad campaign so the head needed to be the focal point. So, I made her body subtly smaller. I also altered her chin for perspective. Click for before/after animation.


Making People Skinnier in Photoshop Part 2: Lens Distortion and Perspective

This image had some lens distortion plus I was a bit shorter than the model. She is also leaning slightly away from the camera. Again, this amounted to an original photo where her head was not proportional to her body. The correction is so subtle you can’t see it in side by side comparison, but it does make her body proportionally smaller. Click for before/after animation.

In both of these final images, the models’ bodies look smaller than they originally did in the photographs I started with. However, the photos may not have been accurate depictions of the models in the first place. So, how do you know how to correct for things like this? First of all, a good retoucher has at least some knowledge of photography, anatomy, and perspective. You can usually make some educated guesses if you have some background knowledge. When in doubt, a retoucher should draw attention to the face. You can do this by making sure the face is proportional to the body or slightly larger. (Assume a camera position that is slightly above the subject when the photographic composition allows for it and make your changes based on that, following the rules of anatomy. Shooting a photo from a higher angle causes the head to be very slightly larger in proportion to the body. Any changes along these lines should be subtle.) It also helps to compose the limbs and torso into leading lines toward the face when possible. The face is where we most strongly identify personality.

I want to stress the “when possible” part. Never force a change if it isn’t anatomically correct or if it doesn’t stay loyal to the subject’s appearance.

Let’s delve a little deeper into these technical concepts that can lead you to make decisions about altering physical proportions in a photograph.

Leading Lines

I’m only going to touch on this since composition isn’t our main focus here, but “leading lines” are lines that direct your gaze toward something in an image. Our eyes like to follow lines and in images we typically follow lines away from the edges. Leading lines can be things like arms and legs or even fence lines, telephone wires, walls, portions of hair, or any other kind of line that leads toward the face or main image feature that the viewer is supposed to focus on. I will sometimes smooth out a bump in a line or alter a neck contour to make it into a stronger lead toward a face or other focal point. Not because these things make a person look fat, but because it focuses attention where I want it to go. I make a point not to do this because it makes someone look more attractive, but only because I want the viewer to look at, say, a person’s eyes, or their hair, or their face, or their clothes. Whatever is being highlighted.

Making People Skinnier in Photoshop Part 2: Leading Lines

You can see in this image’s composition that most lines point attention up toward the face. Red lines direct attention to the face. Secondary blue lines lead the eye to the stronger direct leading lines.

Lens Distortion

Now let’s venture into the territory where we really might want to start making people “skinnier”: distortion. When a camera distorts a body, we are no longer looking at a photo that is an accurate depiction, so we start to consider changing the dimensions we see in an original photo. Lenses play a big role in how large or small individual body parts appear in a photo. They can introduce all sorts of strange problems, whether the glass is cheap or top of the line. Especially when working with wide angle lenses, distortion is just a fact of being a photographer. Cameras do not see the way the human eye does. Consider the following examples all taken of the same model (my friend, Karen) with different lens focal lengths:

Lens Distortion

I chose to shoot a portrait here because it is a very clear demonstration of lens distortion even though it isn’t as descriptive of instances where you may be changing body dimensions to make someone appear to be “skinnier”.

Karen’s facial proportions look entirely different as we change focal length and the first images are clearly distorted. If I’d done a full body shot, it could easily be her waistline, hips, or legs that showed distortion depending on my angle and her pose. (That’s where we get into controversial retouching when dealing with audiences uneducated about the issues we’re covering today.)

When trying to correct for distortion, it really comes down to training your eye and learning about what focal lengths are most likely to introduce what problems. Wide lenses (smaller numbers) tend to make things at the center of the photo bend toward the edges of the frame and exaggerate the size of anything closer to the camera. Long lenses (larger numbers) tend to make things appear more normal or even compressed. As a retoucher, you’ll usually have less lens correction to do if your photographer shot with a longer lens.

Luckily for us, software is getting a lot more sophisticated. Sometimes, it can auto-detect the lens used and automatically correct for the distortion most typical of that lens at that focal length, though personally, I find that imperfect. It’s a good start and once in a while it will get you all the way there, but I encourage retouchers to also learn manual lens corrections, whether in ACR, Photoshop’s lens correction filter, or using completely manual transform and liquify adjustments.

A word of caution: You will never make a photo taken with a 24mm lens look like one taken with a 105mm lens. Some things have to be done in camera. You can make improvements, but you can’t totally fake extreme changes. A clear illustration: notice that you can see Karen’s ears in the photo taken with the 105mm but not the 24mm. I cannot make the first image realistically look like the last.

Human Anatomy

So, this composition and distortion info is all well and good, but when it comes down to it, how do you know how someone is “supposed to look”? Sorry, I have no easy answer. You hit the books and study anatomy. The best place to learn anatomy is drawing manuals and I’m sure there are some good online resources as well.

A crash course in anatomy for artists: We usually measure the body in “head’s lengths”. In other words, we take the height of the head, and use it to describe the proportions of the rest of the body. The average proportional height of a human being is 7.5 heads tall. (So, if a head were 1 foot in height, the person would be 7.5 feet tall. The average head is not 1 foot tall. This just describes the proportion.) This varies obviously. Women are often depicted as 6 heads in a drawing and men as 8 heads. In fashion illustration, women are sometimes depicted proportionally taller because this exaggerates long limbs, which we use to create leading lines. (I have included a fashion illustration here because I typically shoot fashion and so do a lot of my readers…also because the fractions are easy.)

The halfway point down the body is typically about groin level. ¼ is mid-chest. The knee is ¾. The arms extend below the groin 1/2 to 1 head depending on height. When we draw the average figure (not a heavier figure) we typically draw a shoulder line that is about 1.5 heads long horizontally. The hips mirror the shoulders. From here, we take the average figure and begin to vary it for body type, widening or narrowing hips, shoulders, waist, etc.

Basic Straight-On Human Anatomy

Basic Straight-On Human Anatomy

So, what doesn’t vary based on weight? What can we use as baseline references for distortion and perspective? First, a person’s height and vertical proportions don’t really change when they gain weight. The distance between chin and groin should always be approximately 3 head lengths, placing the groin about halfway down the body. See above for other vertical proportions. However, what about when you’re working with headshots or other photos that focus only on the upper body? Well, not a ton of padding gets added on the shoulder line when a person gains weight. A few inches off the bone at most. (This, of course, doesn’t account for broad shouldered people—your average linebacker is going to be a lot more than 1.5 heads wide—but you can usually recognize those types of frames visually if a person doesn’t have an average bone structure.) Additionally, the distance between the shoulder and armpit doesn’t vary all that much. This is approximately 1/2 of a head length.

Keep in mind that bodies are definitely not all exactly alike. There are many exceptions to the rules. Statistics apply here and we are talking about the average.


An important thing to be conscious of when dealing with anatomical corrections is that camera angle will shift proportion. Looking down at a sharp angle will make body parts that are farther away appear smaller and closer together. Sometimes it is beneficial to an image to alter body proportions based on perspective, as I did in my initial retouched examples. These changes can be subtle or extreme and may vary based on the individual photographer. I know when I’m photographing people, I usually have to account for slight perspective problems caused by looking up at someone because most of my subjects are taller than me. Looking up at your subject can cause their head to appear proportionally smaller than their body, whereas we typically want the head to be the focal point and therefore either proportional to the body or ever so slightly larger…This is where taller photographers have an advantage over photographers my height.

Understanding perspective is crucial to making believable image adjustments. I highly recommend that along with anatomy, you study foreshortening and perspective. Anatomy books usually at least touch on these and I’ll include some resources below.


Basic Perspective. Note that things that appear closer are larger and as things get smaller, they appear farther away. The pillars are also closer together as they get farther away.

That said, the basic tenets of body proportion can generally be used as reference points especially on relatively straight-on shots or photos where the perspective is only off by a little. Just remember not to force anything into EXACT proportions because they may be influenced both by body type and by perspective. You don’t need to pull out a ruler, but rather train your eye to average anatomical relationships. Know the average baseline and then keep your changes relatively minor to ensure you aren’t veering too far away from a person’s natural appearance or from believable perspective. Always work with the intention of finessing rather than strong-arming proportion when retouching to ensure better realism.

Another note about extreme changes: if you take a photo looking up at someone at a sharp angle, you will never be able to perspective correct it to look like a straight-on shot. If you try, even your best effort will look weird because you’ll be able to see the bottom of their chin. Always use discretion. That said, you can do some pretty extreme perspective corrections on non-human shots. Just don’t try it with people.

Architecture Perspective Correction

Don’t try this on a person.

In Closing

Keep in mind that the goal here is not to actually to make someone look skinnier than they really are. The goal is to make the body proportions look natural and to correct for camera and perspective issues so that your subject looks more like themselves as viewed by the human eye. (Remember that the human eye and brain fill in a lot of information that isn’t really there and can interpret visual information such that things look the way we expect them to rather than as they are. In life, our brains automatically correct for a lot of things that cameras don’t.) Changes made in the name of composition, perspective, and lens distortion may end up looking like someone has been made skinnier because you may have to shrink some body parts to make your corrections. Other times you may have to enlarge body parts, though people are less likely to balk at that.

The final effect may technically be making someone skinnier than they are in the original PHOTOGRAPH, but our intent is not to make them appear skinnier than they are in REAL LIFE. That’s the distinction. True to life, not to the photograph. Remember that photographs lie and sometimes we, as retouchers, are not trying to make them into bigger lies, but rather bring them back closer to reality.

Coming up: Parts three and four in “Making People Skinnier in Photoshop”

Recommended Resources

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All photos and illustrations by Stephanie Maulding

…please forgive my drawing skills…

Making People Skinnier in Photoshop Part 1: Don’t

Michelle Dione - Making Models Skinnier in Photoshop Part 1When it comes to retouching people to be skinnier, my advice really boils down to this: Don’t. It’s that simple. There is nothing wrong with people who aren’t stick thin. Larger bodies are just as beautiful as smaller ones. (There’s also nothing wrong with people who are stick thin. They’re beautiful too.) Extra inches are not a problem to be fixed and there’s never a need to “fix” a problem that isn’t there. Remember my rules of retouching: It is not your job to “make someone beautiful.” They already are.

Everyone knows where I stand on body acceptance. I believe that every body is a beautiful body and I’m a Health at Every Size advocate.

That said, if I start with that, you doubters aren’t going to read past my ideological rant on beauty and ethics. I know that. So, here’s the bottom line for those of you retouchers and photographers still resisting the body positivity movement: even if you don’t believe what I believe, the paradigm of “skinny = beautiful” is shifting and the market is speaking. This equates to dollars in your bank account. You may personally only find skinny to be attractive, but you will be left behind in the dust if you don’t get on board with the new trend of universal body acceptance. That is a simple fact.

Michelle Dione - Making Models Skinnier in Photoshop Part 1Look at the current backlash against retouching. Look at how well no-retouching campaigns are doing (regardless of how I feel about them.) Look at how many women are speaking out about the way skinny-retouching makes them feel about themselves. Look at the rise of superstar plus size models. Look at the celebrities balking at having their own photos retouched…particularly their waistlines. Look at actual laws being passed because of this type of retouching in particular. The market is speaking and you’re ignoring it. You will be on the wrong side of history on this one. If you stubbornly refuse to expand your definition of beauty, your business will ultimately fail over time as clients seek out ethical retouchers who are in line with market trend and market demand.

The first thing media consumers think of when they think of retouching is some dastardly “Photoshopper” making women skinnier, conspiring to deliberately make them feel bad about themselves. When we get down to it, retouching people to be skinnier does nothing but hurt the reputation of the entire retouching industry. Not only that, but the ability of the retouching industry to exist at all as companies start to do away with retouching to bow to consumer pressure and countries start to pass laws against us.

Once we factor in ethics on top of objective market factors, there’s really nothing else to consider.

The ethics behind this are straight forward. When retouchers insist on making people skinnier for purely cosmetic reasons, it sends a clear message to image consumers that being slimmer is the only way to be beautiful. That is a hugely damaging falsehood. Big is beautiful too. If you can’t make a larger person look just as good as a smaller person without resorting to making them skinnier, you may want to re-examine your photographic and retouching skills, because there is a lot of beauty there in front of you to work with. I talk a lot on this blog about the interplay between retouching and self image, and this is one of the few issues I will really come down on and outright state that there is a direct link between what retouchers are doing and a serious societal problem.

Michelle Dione - Making Models Skinnier in Photoshop Part 1It’s bad enough that publications won’t diversify and use a wider range of body types, but even if only small bodies are being booked for photoshoots, at least if we don’t retouch those bodies to be skinnier, those bodies are still technically representative of real dimensions that exist somewhere out there in the world. They may all be skinny to begin with, but they’re body types that haven’t been manipulated to be anatomical falsehoods that reside only in someone’s imagination. (The representation issue is real, but it’s not one that we, as retouchers, can remedy. We can only take responsibility for our own actions…but we should be doing at least that. Personally, I hope to see greater size representation in fashion in the coming years as well. Photographers and designers, I’m looking at you.)

Michelle Dione - Making Models Skinnier in Photoshop Part 1I talk about retouching being intended to make someone look like themselves on their best day. I’ve also talked about making them look the way they might appear in memory: a little more polished, but still themselves. A model’s skin can look clearer and smoother under different lighting or on a different day. Her hair can look neater and sleeker with a different stylist and with different products. She can shave her legs more carefully or use inexpensive soothing balms to avoid razor burn and bumps. She can apply her makeup differently. Etc. These are all minor things and also things that it’s easy for the brain to gloss over in a quick glance.

Body shape is different. When we go out of our way to make a body skinnier in post production, we’re not just neatening or removing distractions. We’re not cleaning up temporary or accidental issues. We are changing something that is not a variable, circumstantial thing. We are explicitly stating that smaller is better and more attractive than a body’s actual dimensions and changing something that is not changeable except over a large amount of time with a large amount of (often dangerous, often medical) intervention and effort. Body shape has substance. The brain registers it both in person and in memory. It’s not a trivial change when we make someone skinnier and there’s nothing ambiguous about the message it sends.

Michelle Dione - Making Models Skinnier in Photoshop Part 1When we do this to well known models and celebrities, it’s even worse. We’re taking someone whose appearance is already well known, who is already looked up to as a role model; someone people aspire to be and we are telling people that even they are not good enough. They need to be skinnier even when their appearances are already often unrealistic standards to begin with with their designer products and many-thousand dollar styling teams and personal trainers. We are creating a completely impossible and often dangerous ideal.

Yes, eating disorders DO come out of this ideal. Granted, there are many other variables that lead to eating disorders and erradicating skinny-retouching will not eliminate eating disorders by any stretch of the imagination, but we shouldn’t be contributing. Our responsibility is to do what we can do and remain blameless where we can. We can be advocates in other areas as well, but we have concrete and direct control over this particular thing. And so is it really a question whether we should act ethically? Of course we should.

So, there’s the long and short of it: It’s really never okay to make people skinnier in retouching just for the sake of making them “more attractive”. Bigger bodies are beautiful the way they are. Let’s just start phasing this practice out right now.

…That said that there are times when making people skinnier isn’t actually making people skinnier and we’re going to discuss these exceptions, how to recognize them, and when they are and aren’t okay.

Stay tuned for parts two, three, and four of “Making People Skinnier in Photoshop”!



A closing note: I encourage retouchers and non-retouchers alike to read this series. Retouchers because we all need to be having this conversation on ethics and technique within our industry. Non-retouchers because I urge you to learn to recognize when “making someone skinnier” (or rather making a body part smaller or larger) isn’t actually making a judgment call on weight for your own peace of mind and your own self esteem. As I’ve stated many times, I believe in retouching education and public awareness as the answer to a lot of self image problems that arise from people encountering contemporary media in general and retouching in particular.


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Photography by Stephanie Maulding // Model: Michelle Dione

Michelle is wearing ELOQUII, Torrid, and Aldo Shoes

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France’s Folly: Banning Skinny Models and Mandating Retouching Warnings

On December 18th, a twofold French law was passed requiring a minimum weight for all French models and also requiring that all retouching that affects body size be labeled. Those who employ models who are underweight could face six months in jail and fines of €75,000 (~$82,000). Those breaking the retouching law face fines of up to €37,500 (~$41,000) or up to 30% of expenses relating to the advertisement. Those are some harsh penalties. This law is ostensibly to address the epidemic of eating disorders in France.

Fashion Show

I have mixed feelings on this. Very mixed feelings. I support the intentions behind this law, but I am incredibly opposed to its implementation.

I am an advocate of education and of industry reform in the name of creating a healthier media environment that doesn’t contribute to social ills like eating disorders and poor body image. However, I don’t support brute force, criminalizing, discriminatory legislation. That’s my short and to the point version of this article.

On Model Size and Health

While the standards for weight and health have not yet been outlined to the best of my knowledge (from what I’ve read models will need a clean bill of health from a doctor, but the requirements have not yet been specified), most countries who have already legislated have based their laws on BMI, which is not a reliable scale. Furthermore, my own personal view is that we should be advocating for greater diversity in size representation. That means all sizes, not just larger sizes.

Keep in mind that in various times during history, skinny women have been the ones mocked for their size. Size ideals have fluctuated. I do not believe in simply reversing our current size paradigm so that large is good and skinny is bad. We’ve held that standard in the past and going back is only exchanging one social ill for another. Better to move into a new era of true universal body acceptance rather than continuing a cycle that has been going for centuries if not millenia.

I believe in pushing for true diversity and the path to that is rewarding designers and agencies who are inclusive of larger models alongside the smaller models, not instead of them. Instead, the French government wants to directly penalize and discriminate against models who happen to have smaller body types who are just trying to make a living.

That said, yes, agencies reported for encouraging eating disorders should be penalized and I have mixed feelings on continuing to employ models known to have eating disorders. I know of agencies who will make severely malnourished models stop working until they get help and I think that’s a reasonable course of action. On the other hand, I don’t believe in blacklisting models permanently if they’re sick because eating disorders are an illness and I don’t believe in stigmatizing and punishing mental health issues. That’s discrimination.

Indeed, there are serious health concerns here and they shouldn’t be ignored. However, as I believe with overweight people, I believe with underweight people. Health is between a person and their doctor and it is not a straightforward thing to determine. It’s certainly not a number on a scale or chart. There is more to it than that.

Larger people get up in arms when people pull out the “but your size is bad for your health” argument. Well then don’t pull it out against smaller people. Health is not determined by size. When it comes down to it, health is a highly individualized private matter that is between each person and their health care provider. It’s not between an individual and the government, it’s not between an individual and their employer, and it’s certainly not between an individual and the public. End of story. Law makers have no business here. If it were the U.S. this law would be an outright HIPAA violation and it’s not okay.

On Labeling Retouching

On the surface, I’m okay with discouraging size retouching. In fact, my next 4 articles are about size retouching. However, the law requires that the text on retouched photos read “photograph edited” or “photograph retouched” equating size retouching to all retouching, which is simply misrepresentative of the field, generalizing all retouching to mean acts that distort body types. We do more than make people skinnier. If, and only if, we are going to label size retouching, label it correctly and precisely. “This model has been retouched to be skinnier.”

That said, this is a case where I don’t believe legislation is the answer at all. We’re talking about art here and we’re talking about treating an art form like a drug akin to alcohol or cigarettes complete with something that is basically a surgeon general’s warning. If we weren’t lazy about teaching children about art, we wouldn’t have this systemic problem of misunderstanding imagery. On the flipside, if we as a community were actually having a conversation about ethics and establishing codes of conduct within the photo and retouching industries, we wouldn’t have as many abuses of our craft. Education and reform are what I believe in. Not criminalization of an art form. Not fines and legal disclaimers.

Never in the history of art has imagery been a direct mirror on reality. Even in photojournalism, cameras do not see the way the human eye sees. Photojournalists try their best to reflect what was actually visible on the scene, but it still isn’t reality. And when we venture away from the documentary arts, we’re completely into the realm of fabrication and fantasy, no matter what art form we’re talking about. If we look back in history, painters have never put fine print on their canvases saying “I conveniently forgot to paint in that pimple Queen Elizabeth had on Tuesday.” or “King Henry had me shave off a few pounds.” Yet we simply don’t have the expectation that what we see is exactly what we get when looking at non-photographic art forms. We’re never going to ask painters or sculptors or designers for the same fidelity to reality that we ask of photographic illustrators.

Portrait_of_Catherine,_Duchess_of_CambridgeIn fact, there was a huge uproar when a painter was TOO true to reality in a very recent high profile situation. The first official portrait of Kate Middleton, painted by Paul Elmsley, was met with outrage when it was unveiled. People criticized it for making her look bad. They said it made her look old and dour, washed out, even “vampiric” and “malevolent”. Elmsley is a realistic painter and painted the Duchess from photographic reference. It is likely that it is a true-to-life depiction. In fact, one criticism, verbatim, was that Elmsley was operating like a “photocopier”. (American theologian/aesthetic specialist Joseph McKenzie.) In truth, when compared side by side to photographs of Kate Middleton in similar light, and specifically when compared to the exact photographic reference that Elmsley was working from, the painting is a fairly accurate likeness. The fact is, people were outraged that Elmsley didn’t go out of his way to flatter Kate Middleton according to socially agreed upon beauty norms, but rather painted her as she was. He painted exactly what he saw in front of him and faced terrible backlash for what was essentially a painter’s version of an un-retouched photograph.

This case of Kate Middleton’s portrait unambiguously speaks to a double standard between painted portraits and photographic ones. We are not only accepting of painted portraits embellishing beauty and downplaying flaws, but we are outraged when they fail to do so. On the other hand, we not only grow angry when artists working in the photographic field operate with the same aesthetics in mind, we are beginning to penalize them through the legal system.

Kate Middleton Portrait Comparison

The problem here isn’t the retouching. The problem here is second rate art education. The problem is a bias against a particular art form due to misunderstanding of the new, refusal to learn or to teach or to attempt to understand a new craft or set of tools. It’s a fear of change and it’s frankly a witch hunt. People see a social ill—and I won’t argue that there is a social problem here—and they want a scapegoat. But the aesthetics haven’t changed with the rise of retouching. The problematic beauty standards stand apart. They are entirely divorced from retouching. You can easily observe that painters and sculptors adhere to the same set of problematic beauty standards that tell us there’s only one way to be beautiful and if you read a book, you will see the same kind of beauty described time and again. Beauty standards are a societal problem, not a retouching problem.

Retouching isn’t like alcohol and cigarettes. Consuming retouched media is not going to give you anorexia the way that ingested adult substances give you lung cancer or liver disease. There’s no inherent bodily effect. What retouching does to a person is what any art does to a person: it causes you to think. The same way that encountering any experience in life causes you to think. It is no different than any sensory experience. We have just failed, as a society, to provide any context for how to intellectually process visual arts. This is a breakdown in education; a failure to fund the arts in schools or to fund museums and cultural educational programs. To be fair, it’s also a failure in the existing art establishment’s willingness or ability to keep up with a changing art landscape and teach new art forms. So, even where art education IS available, little to no information is available about digital art forms or commercial/mass media.

In Closing

Now, I will admit that I have a bias here as one of my entire goals in life is to educate and reform when it comes to retouching, photography, and fashion media. I believe wholeheartedly that this is the path to a healthier media landscape. I believe in photography and digital imaging taking their places in the greater narrative of art history. However, I concede that photography and digital imaging are still in their infancy and practitioners need to continue engaging in a dialog about issues surrounding our craft. That’s an internal affair. Simultaneously, we should be doing outreach about what it is we’re creating and doing our part to help with that art education I’m advocating.

What I don’t believe is that legislation changes any minds. Government force doesn’t change things on an emotional or intellectual level, so it isn’t useful. All it does is penalize, cause resentment, shift media centers away from legislated areas, damage the art economy, and set back creative expression and free speech. Consider the very simplistic example of dog training: almost every dog trainer knows that negative, disciplinary training simply doesn’t work. What does work is positive reinforcement. Teach and reward good behavior. Don’t punish bad behavior. Elevate what you see as positive role models. Promote and fund inspiring and inclusive art that affirms diverse beauty. Send positive messages and support the people whose work promotes ideas you like. It will get you further. Personal agenda aside, this law is going to be counter-productive. It may be well intentioned, having high hopes of reducing the incidence of eating disorders, but it simply misses its target.

Yes, eating disorders and body image problems are at epidemic levels. Something needs to be done. However, legislating body types and retouching will not address any of our deeply held social prejudices. These laws do nothing but discriminate against a group of people and an art form without thought to what actually causes beauty norms or how we can change those paradigms. These laws are an empty gesture at best: a desperate and broad-brush effort to affect change by attacking mere symptoms of the real problem. Maybe if we looked deeper and really studied these problems, looked at history, psychology, media, art–took a truly interdisciplinary approach–we could figure out the real root of all of this rather than making arbitrary laws that penalize and discriminate against blameless entities.

Legislation and criminalization solve nothing.


Sources: CNN, Fstoppers, Women’s Wear DailyNew York Times, PetaPixel
If you can read French, here you go: AMENDEMENT N°2310

The photo at the top of this article is a stock image for illustrative purposes only

Images of Kate Middleton are believed to be Fair Use under editorial commentary

Skin Lightening in Photos

Raven Skin Lightening

This model was photographed under studio lighting. She has a relatively dark skintone in this photo.

One of the most controversial topics in contemporary photographic post-production is that of skin lightening in non-white models and personalities. There have been several major uproars, particularly in celebrity fashion about this. Personally, I’m big on celebrating ethnic diversity and I endeavor to maintain natural skintones in the photos I work on. However, there are a lot of variables to deal with when working on any skin tone from very pale to very dark.

Truly embracing ethnic diversity is something I ultimately want to see the entire photographic community do–from the portrait world to the high fashion world. On the other hand, I would urge the public to become more educated about the multitude of variables that go into creating a true reproduction of accurate skintone in a final print or digital image before getting whipped into an uproar about a photographer or retoucher’s alleged ill intent.

Yes, some image creators are out there deliberately lightening skin to fit Western beauty ideals. This is incredibly problematic and racist and I won’t excuse it.

That being said, skintones do change under differing lighting conditions and are also influenced by a number of image processing factors.

You can observe how lighting changes skintones for yourself using only your cellphone camera or any basic camera. Take a picture under your household lights and then go outside and take another picture. Chances are, your skin will look different. It may be darker or lighter or it may be a different color. If it doesn’t look different, it’s likely good luck.

Our eyes are very sophisticated and naturally adjust for lighting and color so we are less likely to observe the same skintone differently under different conditions. We think it always looks the same, though it actually doesn’t. As our brains process visual information (in this case the color and tone of someone’s skin), we interpret it to be the same as we last saw it. Basically, we mentally average it out. If we’re looking at something under yellow lights, our brains ignore the yellow. Green, we ignore the green. Brighter or darker, we adjust. Machines are generally not this smart. I’m talking about cameras.

It isn’t so much a phenomenon now, so if you are younger you won’t remember it, but in the film days, if you didn’t switch the type of film you were using, you would get completely yellow photos if you shot daylight film under household lighting conditions (or green under office lighting). This is because the color of different lights are completely different.  And of course if you don’t adjust your exposure with any camera, new or old, your photos come out lighter or darker than they should be.  (You know how you sometimes have to tap a different part of your cell phone screen to tell your camera which part to make brighter?) Our eyes just automatically compensate for these things.

Digital cameras nowadays do a decent job of adjusting for color and brightness automatically, but they can’t do it perfectly in all situations. Cameras are indeed getting smarter, but they still aren’t as smart as the human eye and brain. They likely never will be. (But never say never, right?)

Ok, so what are some things that might contribute to making skintones lighter in a photo aside from bad intentions?

First, let’s assume we’re working on a studio portrait or fashion set. We’re probably working with extremely bright lights. This tends to gravitate toward lighter skin tones. Not as a rule, but as a trend. It creates hotspots with a majority of setups. There’s one variable that makes darker skintones a bit lighter.

Then we get the photo to the processing stage. This may not always be done by someone who actually saw the person in front of the lens, but rather by an independent retoucher, so it’s a guessing game in some situations. Another variable.

Raven Skin Lightening

This is the same model, photographed on the same day, under different lighting, with slightly different but similar processing. I honestly do not remember which photo is closer to her true skintone, but I did nothing to lighten her skin in post-production.

Their inclination is going to be to bring out every detail so you can see all the person’s features really clearly. This sometimes means a little bit brighter. Another variable.

When working with small details in Photoshop, I also find that my instinct (and many retouchers’ instincts) is to lighten darker spots rather than darken lighter spots because there are fewer dark spots than there are light spots on the skin in most images. However, this also has a slight lightening effect on the skin. There’s yet another variable. (For retouchers: this would be your dodge and burn step.)

Some retouchers also do something called contouring. I will do it occasionally depending on the lighting. This brightens the highlights and darkens the shadows to add drama and definition. However, the overall effect is that part of the skin gets lighter. Again, more variables added to make the skin even lighter in some areas.

There can be even more things that affect the photo that inadvertantly contribute to a skin lightening effect, but I’ll stop there. As you can see, it can be a slow creep toward lighter skintone. Tiny incremental steps. Most of these things are innocent, but they contribute to something that is systemically problematic. That doesn’t necessarily point to malicious intent where we need to whistleblow and point accusatory fingers. On the other hand, I would urge photographers and retouchers to be conscious of all the little things I’ve listed above that might accidentally contribute to unrealistic skintones.

I try really hard when working with darker skin to keep it dark, even if I haven’t seen the subject for myself. Honestly, I usually have no way of knowing what the person actually looked like in a lot of my work. I just know that I don’t want to be accused of skin lightening because I find that practice to be, quite frankly, Eurocentric and racist. That’s not me as an artist or a person, though mistakes do happen because I just don’t know.

On the other hand, I do have a much loved client who is black who often sends me photos of black subjects who are slightly over-exposed.* He specifies that he doesn’t want tonal or color work. I respect that and who am I to tell him what skintones are appropriate for his photos? I am a Caucasian woman and frankly, given that, he is much more qualified to make those calls about his skintones. I only dial them down when they need it for technical reasons or when he specifies. His photos are gorgeous by the way and his lighting style works for him.

Skin lightening in photography and post production is and should be a hot button issue. Those doing it deliberately in order to mimic European beauty ideals need to stop. I consider these photographers and retouchers a black mark on our industry. However, there can also be innocent pitfalls that lead to lighter skintones or just simply differences in lighting from what you’re accustomed to viewing your skin under. It’s not always malicious.

This is one of those situations where I ask for something from both sides:

Photographers and Retouchers: be careful about your exposure and retouching when working on medium to dark complexions. Try to stay on the darker side even if you don’t know the true skin tone unless you have solid stylistic or lighting justification.

Photo Subjects and Media Consumers: try to take a breath and consider that skin lightening may not have been malicious before jumping to conclusions and declaring scandal. Perhaps talk to the people who worked on the image first if you can to find out what happened during the processing. They may correct it if possible if something hasn’t yet gone to press. If it has gone to press, it still may be innocent. At least consider accepting an apology as sincere if a mistake has been made.

*I know many of you prefer the more PC “African-American”. However, this client and the majority of his subjects are neither African nor American, so I will not be using that term as it is inaccurate.

Photography and Retouching: Stephanie Maulding

Hair and Makeup: Amy Lawson

Model: Raven Hera

The Tactful Retoucher

In a perfect world, as retouchers, we would just spend all of our time in a Photoshop vacuum: nothing but us, some photos, and a Wacom tablet. Maybe some coffee or tea. For me, I’d have my cat by my side and some good music too. However, it’s not a perfect world and retouchers have to venture out of their Photoshop bubbles from time to time to deal with other concerns as well. More important concerns even. Namely: clients. We have to interact with them constantly and we have to keep them happy. Knowing how to navigate a client relationship successfully, in my opinion, is far more important than your actual retouching skills (as vital as those are.)


However, as retouchers, when talking to clients, it is essentially our job to tell people what’s bad about their images. That’s tough. How do you maintain a good relationship when you’re consistently delivering negative messages? Well, just like you hone your retouching to an art, you’ve got to hone tact to an art.


There are times when a client will deliver an image to me completely marked up with what they want done. However, just as often, I will receive images with few to no instructions. It’s up to me to determine our retouching strategy. For my own business, I almost always give my clients a rundown of my vision for the image and what that’s going to cost them before I get started. This, unfortunately, basically amounts to a critique. It’s telling them everything I see as a flaw in the image. That’s the bottom line and there’s no way around that no matter how much I sugar coat it. But it must be done.


So if it’s a critique, let’s start there. Do you know how to give a proper critique? The most basic formula for a good critique is compliment-critique-compliment. Great. We can work with that.


First, tell your client something you like about their photo or project. BE SINCERE. Remember that I’ve said if you can’t find beauty in something you’re retouching you never will no matter how much you work on it. Find that beauty in your project and let your client know what you appreciate. You don’t need to be wordy or flowery. Even a simple “Hey, these are great photos!” can suffice.


Then you can move on. “I have a few notes and questions.” Questions are a great way to critique gently and without making assumptions or judgments about a photographer’s intentions. Remember that you are not the end client whose vision needs to be realized, as much as your artistry is key to the process. Some things that you may see as flaws could be intentional and you may be able to finesse them to work with the image even if they wouldn’t be your first creative choice.


Once you’ve delivered and requested all the information necessary, end on a positive note. Perhaps tell them again that you like the images or that you’re looking forward to working on the photos or even that you’re just looking forward to hearing back from them.


There you go. Basic critique translated into a client e-mail consultation. You can do it over the phone or in person too.


Let me give you a working example from a recent job of mine. It was an ad campaign with a number of images. I was given pretty much no instructions upon image delivery, so this is an example where I’m working off of no info on a pretty critical job. I am going to change the wording slightly for client privacy and this is not quite as specific as the email I ultimately sent.


Hi there,


Wow! The photos came out great! I’m excited to finally see them. I like what you did with the light and the styling is fantastic. Even with other top stylists I’ve worked with, I usually have a lot to do on this part. I think the retouching will be pretty minimal on our main component. Shot XXXXXX is especially impressive. I’ve never seen a photo like that needing so little work.


Here are some initial thoughts and questions:


1. The skin on the models could use a decent amount of work on some of the shots. It varies from model to model. The makeup is a little spotty in places as well. This is the first thing I’ll deal with.


3. For the backdrop: how do you envision the tone? I like it as is, but my taste tends toward softer tones rather than starker ones. We can take it bright white if you prefer. Alternatively, we can keep it off-white (how it is now) but remove the color cast so it’s a true light gray.


4. Are we doing any other color work besides the basic subtle skin smoothing stuff I always do in fashion? It looks really good now, but I want to make sure you want to stick with the tones you’ve sent me. What I would ask to do is to make sure they all have the same color balance using the average as a baseline. A few of them are a little off of the others and could match a little better to look like they go together perfectly.


5. The skin is pretty shiny in some of the photos. I want to at least make them all similar in how shiny the skin is, but do you want me to tone down the shine in general or was there an intentional dewy skin look for the campaign?


Those are all my questions. In general, these are gorgeous and are going to be fun to work on.


Best Regards,
Stephanie Maulding


Notice that I use a lot of questions to find out my client’s intentions. I may want to make certain changes, but I have no way of knowing what my client has in mind and I don’t want to judge the images without knowing. That said, I personally think that because I’m an artist as well (whose aesthetic I’ve been hired for) I can voice an opinion on certain things like I did on the backdrop. I can also make firm statements and assert that certain basics need to be taken care if I know that they are essentials (skin, color correction, improving cohesion, etc.) This is especially true if you’ve been working with someone for a while and know them and their style well. Don’t be afraid to let your client know if you strongly think one course of action is the best, especially if you’re dealing with budget constraints and one technique will keep you in budget and another will not.


Also take note of the tone that I maintain throughout my e-mail. I try to remain assertive, yet not any more judgmental of the photos than I need to be. I try to keep everything on a positive note or to adopt a neutral attitude when an upbeat one isn’t called for. Some negative statements are unavoidable where there are obvious problems. For instance, this set had some skin and makeup issues. I tried not to dwell on that and simply stated it and moved on to points that were more neutral.


You do need to be assertive about what needs to be changed in the images you’re sent. You can’t be timid. If you’re timid, you’re either not making the necessary changes for fear of insulting your client and your photos won’t get the retouching they need or you run the risk of making changes your client won’t approve of because you’re just guessing without asking or discussing first.


For instance, my client came back and told me to keep the backdrop off-white, but remove the color cast. If I’d been timid and not asked and either left it alone or just assumed it should be bright white, my client wouldn’t have been happy with the results. That’s a very specific instruction that had no correct or incorrect aesthetic answer. Having seen the photos, I can tell you that all 3 options would have looked good. Don’t be shy and don’t assume.


Similar story with the shiny/dewy skin. That’s the sort of change that can go either way and people have strong aesthetic opinions on it.


That said, some assumptions are okay, especially with long term clients. This same client often sends me less critical jobs and just tells me to do my thing and I ask him few to no questions. You can get a feel for this on a client to client basis and an image to image basis.


Side note: I highly recommend using bullet points or numbered lists in your e-mails. I have gotten far too many responses where it’s clear that my client has lost track of what I’m telling them or asking them and missed things so I have to repeat myself. Lists, especially numbered lists, make it easy for them to respond point by point by just glancing back at your original message. I’ve found this just streamlines my communications. It’s a very small thing, but helpful.


Because I’ve figured out how to be gentle and tactful, I generally find that I have very few communication problems with my clients and in fact I consider many of them friends. When I first started out, this wasn’t necessarily the case. I, personally, tended to come down on the side of being too timid. Timidity and tactlessness are both equally dangerous traps for retouchers. You can grow your confidence by remembering that people are coming to you for a reason: they value your opinions and your expertise. You can hone your tact by considering some of the suggestions above and thinking about how you’d like people to talk to you about your own work.


Client relationships are probably the most important aspect of being a professional of any kind. When you’re a professional who has to navigate delivering potentially negative messages to your clients, that can become touchy, but there is a way to do it while not only avoiding hurt feelings, but even cultivating positive ones.


When it comes down to it, your retouching clients want you to look at their images and identify problems. They’re already semi-prepared to hear about them. Just the same, it can sting and hurt your relationships if you present image problems in a tactless and unkind way. Becoming more tactful can take practice, and growing your relationships can take time, but in the end the payoff is huge. Happy clients will always come back to you and as a professional of any kind, there is nothing better than a lasting client relationship with someone you really get along with. Over time, you can build a real rapport with people and even build friendships. Yes, your retouching skills are vital to your business, but in the end the people are even more important.

“Have You Lost Weight?”

This is a common and usually well intentioned question. However, we rarely stop to think of the fact that it’s kind of a loaded compliment. Weight is a complicated issue in our culture. We attach all sorts of value judgments to it, whether conscious or unconscious. Whether you’re attached to the bias that you can’t be healthy large or you’re a subscriber to the new Fat Acceptance Movement, weight is a fraught issue and weight compliments can’t be divorced from that. There are so many other compliments we can pay each other, but we almost compulsively focus on each other’s waistlines even when we mean to be kind.

Weight Loss Mannequin

A very good friend of mine recently lost quite a bit of weight due to a health issue. He’s been posting a lot of selfies to let people know how he looks now and people are understandably surprised at his new appearance. I, myself, haven’t seen him in person in far too long and am also surprised, so I get this. The loss was rapid and he now looks different than I’ve ever seen him before. He’s currently getting a ton of compliments on his weight loss. “You look great!” people are telling him. However, he didn’t lose weight for the sake of his appearance. He lost weight because of his health and as a HAES (Health At Every Size) advocate, he feels uncomfortable with the compliments. A few days ago, he put up a post requesting that everyone stop complimenting him. I have a huge amount of respect for this and it prompted me to write this post.

What do weight compliments tell people who have lost weight? Well first and foremost, the message is “You looked worse before and better now.” That’s, at best, a backhanded compliment. Second, they send the message that if someone backslides, they will be less attractive again. This applies a lot of pressure. Many to most people who lose weight re-gain weight at some point. In fact, in cases of obesity, it is incredibly difficult not to re-gain weight. Do you want your compliments to make people feel pressure or would you prefer your compliments be 100% kind with no strings attached? Weight compliments are based on a temporary and highly changeable appearance variable. Our weight commonly fluctuates at least 5 lbs. throughout a single day. Attaching our sense of attractiveness to that number can become dangerous and obsessive and I think we all know that. Weight compliments when we lose weight can make gaining that weight back feel even more hopeless and tragic because it makes us assign an even higher value to being skinnier.

And what of heavier people observing or overhearing these compliments? What does this say to them? It tells them that they aren’t as attractive or valuable or triumphant as others because they aren’t as slim or they haven’t made any weight progress (an ever moving target). These people may be perfectly healthy and attractive the way they are, but their self worth and happiness take a hit when someone smaller than them is told they are more attractive for becoming even smaller. Why resort to compliments that can potentially be hurtful when there are such a wide variety at our disposal?

As someone who’s struggled with eating disorders, I’ve also faced a different kind of weight compliment discomfort. You’ve probably so far been imagining that I’m talking mostly about overweight people. I’m not. It’s also important to realize that you never know when a weight change is dangerous either due to a medical condition or a psychological problem. In the case of eating disorders, it’s very awkward when you’re putting yourself through something you shouldn’t or you’re in treatment and someone raves about how good you look skinny. At my smallest I would get comments on my figure all the time. “You’re so tiny and beautiful. Are you a model or a ballerina?” (Not even looking at my face.) I’ve often thought at my smaller sizes “Actually I need help/am in treatment and this is terrible for me and I can’t tell you that you’re just enabling.” Weight compliments enable people with eating disorders. It affirms for them that what they’re doing is right and important and that they’ll be less worthy if they stop what they’re doing. It tells them to fight treatment and keep on their current trajectory. People need to be aware of this and realize that they never know what’s going on in someone’s head. In the case of people losing weight because they’re sick, well…you’re basically saying you’re glad about an aspect of their illness. That’s an unhealthy attitude that tells someone that superficial cultural biases are more important than their physical wellbeing.

We know that focusing on someone’s weight as the cornerstone of their attractiveness, health, or worth as a person is not the best thing for self esteem. And yet even people who know this and preach it persist in counting weight compliments among the best compliments to give or receive. I urge people to at least think about this and consider their intentions before commenting on someone’s weight. I’m not saying never do it. I’m not perfect and I’ll certainly occasionally say something about someone’s weight, especially if I know them well and know they have specific weight or health goals. However, at least be conscious of what you’re saying and who you’re saying it to.

I have commented on my friend’s weight to him. I’m very proud of the health changes he’s had to make for himself due to his individual medical needs. However, I’m proud of him due to insider knowledge I have as his friend. I’m not proud because he looks different; I’m proud because I know he is healthier and is doing right by himself. At the same time, his weight loss and medical issues haven’t changed my belief that you can be healthy at any size. I know that his situation is specific to him.

Consider this when confronted by a friend’s changed appearance: First, we CAN separate health from size in our minds. Our culture has instilled in us the bias that weight and health are directly and universally correlated, but medical science is finding that this isn’t always true. Size does not always indicate health. It does in some circumstances. It doesn’t in others. Given that, we should leave those judgment calls to the doctors assigned to an individual and trust that if there’s an issue, it’s the doctor’s concern and not ours unless we have insider info as friends and family. Second, we can express surprise without assigning a value judgment—either good or bad. “You look so different!” is not the same as “You look so good!” or “Congratulations on your weight loss!” Not commenting at all is also an option that some people don’t even consider. We feel compelled to comment when confronted with change. We don’t have to. We can simply leave it alone or issue a compliment on something else altogether.

So if weight compliments aren’t our best bet, what are some alternatives? Here are some great appearance neutral compliments that I love (obviously re-phrase these as appropriate for more natural conversation)

  • You’re fun to be around/I love spending time with you
  • You’re so funny
  • Congratulations on your big accomplishment!
  • I like your strong opinions
  • You have a nice laugh
  • You’re really good at _______
  • You’re so kind to people
  • You’re a really capable person
  • That was well said!
  • I like that project you’ve been working on. Keep it up!
  • You always work so hard
  • I’ve missed you
  • I can always rely on you
  • Did you make this? It’s great!
  • I like your outfit/jewelry/shoes/hairstyle/makeup (This is my favorite way to make an appearance based compliment. It is and yet it isn’t. These are things someone puts effort into styling or selecting, so they’re great to appreciate as an expression of their taste, skill, or creativity. You can comment on how they look while still complimenting their mind as well.)

If you really want to make a truly appearance based compliment, realize that not everyone likes them so sometimes you can’t win there. Some people just don’t like having their appearance commented on and there’s no way around that. Remember that compliments aren’t about the giver. They’re about the receiver. So, you just have to deal. However, if you really want to compliment someone’s physical appearance I suggest picking things that don’t really change over time the way that weight changes. Eyes are great. Everyone has beautiful eyes in my opinion.

Another suggestion: Be specific and creative. You’ll stand out and really make the person’s day because they’ll feel like you really gave the compliment some thought and tailored it to them. I have to give a shoutout to my friend and her “regal scarf”, which was the most creative and fun compliment I heard while working on this blog post. (Compliment given by her co-worker.)

I know that weight is hard to get past when it comes to compliments. When someone’s weight changes drastically, it’s very in-your-face and difficult not to comment on. Our culture also heavily biases us toward valuing thinness over everything else, though this has not always been the case and extreme thinness is also frowned upon depending on where you come from. There seems to be a perfect target when it comes to weight and it’s hard to hit. It can feel like you can’t win. That feeling that we can’t win when it comes to weight is why weight compliments may not be the best thing for us as our go-to first choice. There are just simply better options that don’t carry so much cultural baggage behind them.

In the end, you don’t have to agree with me 100%, but I ask that you give it some thought and maybe see what other creative compliments you can come up with to brighten someone’s day.


A Compliment Disclaimer: My compliment suggestions are mostly for people you know or have some relationship to. I’m not encouraging anyone to shout compliments at random passerby or corner people on the bus. Catcalling and harassment are bad. Don’t be that person. Use some discretion. That’s not to say I’ve never told a barista she has a cool hairclip, but scale your compliments and be appropriate and always give people an out. Don’t force them to stand there talking to you just because you’ve said something you consider nice. Compliments aren’t always welcome and compliments are not currency. I shouldn’t have to say this, but experience tells me I do need to say it.



*A special thanks to some friends of mine who contributed to this list. I don’t think most of you want to be named, but you know who you are and I appreciate your help and suggestions!