Start to Finish Retouch

Today I want to give you a look at what goes into retouching a fashion or beauty photo start to finish. This is a video of me retouching one of my own photos, sped up 10x. The whole retouch took me about an hour. I do sometimes spend a lot longer on photos, but this one was in really good shape to start with. Lindsay, a friend of mine who was very gracious to let me use her photo, has nearly perfect skin for beauty plus we had our fantastic makeup artist, Audrey.  I knew this image wouldn’t take me too long and would be a perfect introduction to what kinds of things retouchers are looking at when we approach photos and how far we might take a typical professionally shot photo from its original state. While I did smooth out her skin and features a little, notice that my biggest concerns are color, misplaced hair, imperfect nail polish, and lighting. (Just saying: Audrey didn’t do the nails. Otherwise, they’d be perfect!)


Confession time: I actually retouched this image twice because the video recorder crashed on me during the first retouch. I liked the crash version better, however, so I’m posting it as my final. The major differences are a little bit of work on the eyebrows plus I decided to leave the neck creases in for the sake of realism.

Lindsay "After" by Stephanie Maulding

Lindsay "Before" by Stephanie Maulding

Fitness Instructor’s Powerful Video About Retouching and Body Image

Cassey Ho is a personal trainer with a popular YouTube series. She recently produced a poignant video in response to negative, body shaming comments she was receiving. In the video, she retouches herself in real time to give herself the “perfect” body based on what her commenters have to say about her appearance.

“When you look in the mirror, are you happy with what you see? Or do you stare at yourself, pinching your fat away, lifting up your butt, pushing in your boobs, wishing you looked like a VS supermodel? It’s hard to be content with the shape of your body when people are constantly telling you how fat you are. The backhanded compliments, the mean comments, the cyber bullying – all of this messes with us…and it hurts. What if getting flat abs and bigger boobs was as easy as a click. What if you could stop all the hate and just photoshop yourself right now, in real life? What would you change?”

This video has really resonated with people and I’m both glad and sad about that. On the one hand, it’s certainly not a good thing that so many people can relate to feeling this kind of pressure about body image. On the other, the fact that Cassey’s message is receiving so much support marks progress in the body positivity movement.

Regarding the retouching: It’s quite extreme, but unfortunately not yet uncommon. The retouching in this video is exactly the type that I don’t endorse; the type that I find harmful. Distortion retouching is, indeed, quite damaging and I encourage our industry to move away from it. In fact, I think that it already is moving away from it, if slowly.

“Photoshopping and body image – all of that – is such a big problem that a lot of girls deal with because magazine covers are Photoshopped, and even people on Instagram Photoshop their photos,” Cassey tells People. “You really don’t know what’s real and what’s not anymore.”

You’re right, Cassey. There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors in retouching. Let’s talk about that.

My Retouching Philosophy

Why do we retouch? When do we retouch? What do we retouch?

These are all far more important to answer than “How do we retouch.” You can find a million How to’s out there. I may even do a few here, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about today. We’re here to talk about philosophy. Or my philosophy anyhow.

Stephanie Maulding Retouching

What is the best compliment I can get as a retoucher in one word? “Invisible.” I don’t want people to notice my work. If I’m doing my job correctly, no one will notice I’ve done it. Our goal as retouchers is to make things look as realistic as possible at all times. (Unless you’re doing some sort of fantasy digital art piece, but that’s a slightly different topic.) No one wants someone to look at their photo and say “You look retouched.” or “This looks fake.” They want someone to look at their photo and think it’s natural but beautiful. Our job is to make things look just a little bit better than the original photo.

Notice I didn’t say “better than reality” because that’s not always the case. In fact, it’s often not the case. Very often, we are correcting camera problems and lighting problems or retouching out temporary issues such as blemishes, misplaced hair, or background distractions. Things like this simply bring things back to a reality baseline. Other times, we aren’t necessarily improving on reality, but making things different from reality. I have had jobs where I just alter, but not improve, such as removing trademarked logos from commercial images where unauthorized brands can’t be visible, hiding tattoos or jewelry, or changing the color of a certain image element. Not better, but different.

Then there are “improvements.” Improvements on products and architecture aren’t especially controversial, so I’m not going to discuss them. Whether or not something is ethical there is pretty black and white. When it comes to people, however, I have a specific mindset that I always use when I am approaching an image for “improvements”. First of all, I try to never approach an image thinking that someone needs to be “fixed.” As soon as you start thinking that way, you’re in trouble.

If you want to succeed as a people retoucher, I believe you need to be able to see the beauty in everyone. At the very least you need to be able to see the beauty in everyone in your demographic. If you think someone is ugly, there is no way you will start to find them beautiful no matter what you do to their image. If you do get it to where you like it, it won’t be natural enough to pass muster. It is not your job as a retoucher to create beauty. It is your job to underscore the beauty that is already there. Changes extreme enough to try to impart beauty where you don’t see it in the first place venture into the realm of fake looking images on the one hand and unethical images on the other.

Sarah by Stephanie MauldingHere’s how I mentally approach my images: I try to imagine how someone might look in a loved one’s memory. Loved ones usually don’t include things like small blemishes, blotchy skin, or stray hairs when they think of us. They remember us in our best light. I always start there. In fact, my favorite aspect of being a retoucher is offering someone a glimpse of how they might be seen by others. Granted, I will vary how far I take an image depending on its final intent; whether it is a portrait or fashion, which is meant to be pushed further into the realm of fantasy. However, this mindset typically keeps me on track, no matter the genre of image.

An alternative mindset that I entertain simultaneously is that of painting in reverse. I think to myself “if I were creating this image as a painting, what would I have left out?” I slowly start taking those things away.

With both of these mindsets, one thing is key: restraint. I believe that is the retoucher’s greatest asset. Too little retouching is always better than too much. Again, no one wants someone to look at their photo and think immediately that it’s unnatural looking. (Even if that person knows intellectually that it is because they are educated about retouching. Remember, we do want people becoming more retouching savvy.)

All of this is well and good, but how do we keep ourselves from going too far? Well, part of it is experience and education. Another part of it is using the appropriate techniques (I know, I know, I said it wasn’t about the “how”. It’s secondary, but it still matters.) The most important thing, however, is having a plan. A retoucher should usually start an image with a good idea of what needs to be done. If there are other people involved in the project (photographer, art director, client, etc.) talk to them about it if possible. It’s easy to finish an image and then fall into one of two traps. The first is one common to most artists: “I hate my own work and need to keep going until I like it.” This is a problem of self doubt. I can’t solve this for you. You just have to get to a point where you trust yourself enough to stick to your plan. The second is the game of telephone. Every person involved in the project wants to contribute and have some input into the image, so even if it’s finished and you submit it, they may find a “problem” and ask you to take it further, which means making it less realistic. This is one of the ways you end up with severe retouching fails. Get them on board at the beginning and let them have their say before you start rather than at the revision stage. This doesn’t guarantee they won’t chime in with revisions, but it can help. We’ll talk about saying “no” to clients later on.

Working in retouching, it’s easy to lose sight of reality and image ethics. We read a lot about how the media is irresponsible and contributing to skewed ideas about beauty and poor self image. Retouching doesn’t have to. We can approach our art with realism and natural beauty at the forefront of our minds.


 Rules of Retouching

All photography by Stephanie Maulding


How I Got Started In Retouching

I’ll be honest: retouching and I were not always fast friends. When I was younger, I had a very mixed relationship with retouching. I loved the finished product of fashion images, but I had an animosity toward the production and retouching needed to make them. Like many people, I bought into the narrative that retouching and fashion imagery inherently caused self image problems and were psychologically damaging in some way.

Then, as a photo major in college, I took a course about the ethics of retouching that also covered some of the basics of technique. (Ultimately, I am mostly self taught, but I got the basics in college.) Starting with this class, I began to really delve into a lot of the psychology of self image, optics, visual perception, etc. What I found is that my research didn’t really support my former ideas. At the same time, I loved the control the techniques gave me over my final images. Suddenly, I had the technical skills I needed to make my final images match the ideas I had in my imagination. I could make my photos look like the photos in magazines. I admit, I struggled with this at first.

Comp Card Samples

Comp cards with photos I worked on at my first retouching job out of college. 2006-2007

Through the end of college, I slowly began to develop my craft, initially exploring it through self portraiture and portraits of friends as a tool for empowerment while researching a lot of feminist theory, perceptual science, and history of beauty ideals. Some of my first projects were not even really retouched final photos, but digital art pieces that utilized retouching techniques as a means to critically explore the idea of retouching.

As I developed my technical skills, I thought a lot about why I felt the way I did about fashion images and retouching. A lot of my opinions were very emotionally driven because self image problems have touched my life deeply, affecting both myself and the people around me. However, when I got myself to analyze these art forms objectively, I found them very much subject to the intentions of the people practicing them. Retouching and fashion photography weren’t inherently bad or damaging, but they could be in the wrong hands. In the right hands, they could be used to make very empowering images. They were simply tools. Like any medium, the power lay with the individual artist.

By the time I graduated and got my first job as a retoucher, I had developed at least a partial philosophy about what I was doing, even if I was still a little bit shaky on a full ethical code. (I had just turned 21 at the time, so I was still really figuring myself out.) I went to work for a talent agency, running their graphics department, which meant handling all the retouching, portfolios, and comp cards for models, actors, and voice talent. Working directly in entertainment helped me to more fully develop a perspective in a way that you can’t always do in the isolated environment of college. Real world experience goes a long way to augment academics. The abstract ethical questions were no longer abstract and I had to establish a point of view and style that stayed true to my beliefs while still delivering on expectations. It was a process, and I wasn’t perfect to start out with–I’m still not perfect–but I loved the work and over time I grew into what I was doing. Eventually, after working for a few companies, I went full time freelance.

The subjects of self image and beauty standards are very dear to me, so I did continue in my course of academic study long after I left school. I’ve continued to practice retouching because it’s the art form that most directly relates to the psychological, historical, and philosophical concepts I’m interested in. My studies and my craft are synergistic. I now find that retouching allows me to more richly explore my academic interests in a hands on way. I can explore how people see themselves, how our era defines beauty, and how humans universally define beauty. It also gives me an opportunity to participate in and influence the cultural narrative on beauty.

Not everyone comes to retouching as academically as I did, but after establishing such a strong perspective on what I do, I really feel that it’s important for retouchers to have at least some academic, philosophical, and ethical grounding. It’s also important for consumers of images to have an understanding of what goes into the thought process of retouching. Arts education in general and retouching education in specific are key to more ethical retouching and to having healthier body image in the face of all media.

I could talk at great length about exactly how each of the academic subjects I’ve mentioned has influenced my stance on retouching, but honestly we would be here all day. However, I do plan to talk about all of them and more in this blog, so stay tuned!

It’s Nice To Meet You!

Stephanie MauldingMy name is Stephanie and I’m a retoucher based out of the San Francisco Bay Area. As a retoucher, I work in a very controversial field with a lot of outsiders looking in. Starting with this blog, I want to be a part of the conversation about retouching as an insider reaching out.

I retouch all sorts of images, though I focus heavily on images of people. I’ve also concentrated on architecture and historical restoration at different points in my career. I’ve been a retoucher in various capacities for almost 10 years now, working primarily freelance, but also running two graphics departments and working on a contract basis for a few other companies.

I’m also a photographer, though I don’t shoot often anymore, particularly in a professional capacity. I actually went to school to become a photographer, but I started focusing on retouching partway through when I realized that I enjoyed digital imaging far more than I enjoyed actually being behind the camera. I do still enjoy working with photographic subjects and working on my own photos, but today I primarily work with photographers around the world to realize their post production goals instead of my own.

Antique Kodak Cameras

A selection of my antique cameras

I’m very passionate about my profession and I believe that critical thinking and ethics should never be absent from the art of retouching. When those go missing, things go awry. I’m sympathetic to a lot of the critiques our industry receives and I would like to see the field become more responsible and conscientious. I enjoy researching topics adjacent to retouching and have a lot to say about ethics.

I’m also a big history geek in both my professional and personal life. Professionally, I study the history of beauty standards, cosmetic practice, art, and retouching. Personally, I study historical fashion and style, I sew vintage clothing, I practice historical hand crafts, I collect antique cameras and Victorian magazines, and I do vintage ballroom dance. I look to history a lot in forming my opinions. You’ll see me reference art history frequently.

I do truly believe that retouching has a solid place in the progression of art and I stand by what I do. What I don’t stand by is lack of transparency in the industry. I hope that you’ll let me shed some light on the how and why of what I do.


My cat, Hazel

…Also I’d really be remiss if I didn’t introduce you to Hazel, my fuzzy office assistant.