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