Local Skin Color Correction

Not all photos really need to be fully retouched. Sometimes we only need to deal with the color. Most people know about general overall color correction and are comfortable with that. However, most skin changes color throughout its surface and will look more attractive with the color evened out locally (or in other words: taken care of in small patches). We really don’t tend to notice these color shifts in real life especially since they’re often introduced by lighting and cameras. The exceptions are glaring tan lines and sunburns. (And yes, I deal with both of those as well.)

Hyperpigmentation of certain areas is common and you can end up with strange things like green shadows or glowing red fingers even when you do everything right in camera. Let’s take a look at some of the top ways to fix these. It’s really quick and easy and, better yet, no one really tends to question whether it’s ethical to remove a green shadow from someone’s face when the lighting introduces an aberration. Color correction is about as far as you can get from controversial.

Today, we’re going to improve a set of images without touching the cosmetic portions at all.

I’m going to be working with a shoot where we used no makeup whatsoever so that you can see this more clearly. We were working with nothing that might help to even out the skin tone. Additionally, I haven’t done any other retouching on these images except to remove a few dust spots that appeared because I forgot to clean my lens before shooting. (Oops!) These are not the most severe discolorations I’ve worked with, but they’ll work for demonstration. One thing to note is that very few people are the same color all over their bodies. The most common thing I see is different colored legs than faces. However, I didn’t have any current samples of that I was allowed to show you. The same technical principles apply, however. The only technique I’m not covering is dual RAW conversion which I hope to cover in the future.

So, here’s an image with some issues:

Imperfected Skin Color Correction

Imperfected Skin Color Correction

Here is the corrected image. In this particular image, I used a combination of techniques. I used a simple Hue/Saturation layer to tone down the hands. For the face, I used a layer set to color blending mode and sampled a more pleasing color and painted that onto the problematic areas. I then adjusted the face saturation with a second hue/saturation layer and then applied a curves layer to add some color and tone contrast. This is the only image where I really mixed techniques. You can click on it for an animated before and after.

Imperfected Skin Color Correction

On this next image, we had a lot of smaller problems going on all over the place, so I decided on a global technique that I often use. This is a very unifying technique and is often useful for series of images where you want to keep the skintone very consistent. I selected a gradient map (available in your adjustment layers menu) and created a custom gradient map based on skintones already existing within the image. I picked the ones I liked best. I decided to go warmer here. I usually set the very end highlight to white otherwise I personally feel it gets muddy. I then applied a black mask to the layer, dialed back the opacity, and painted with white in the areas of the skin that I wanted to have that color (most of it.) Note: avoid the eyebrows. You can also click on this one for before and after (The effect is subtle so watch closely.)

Imperfected Skin Color Correction

This last one was a minor adjustment, but I wanted to demonstate it. Strictly speaking, this adjustment wasn’t necessary on this image as it was meant to be contrasty, but it could have gone either way. I particularly use this for legs, though I typically also have to adjust color for legs as well as tone. Here, I simply used a masked curves layer to lighten her back to better match her face tone to give the image a more consistent lighting look. I used a sloppy mask because I wanted a little light on the backdrop behind her as well. I did not address the color issues on her face here. Again, click to see the before and after.

Imperfected Skin Color Correction

My point with this post and my point in doing this with no makeup and no cosmetic retouching is to demonstrate that not all images need lots of retouching. We can make a significant difference with color and tone only. They go a really long way in improving an image. Body positive retouching can be about evening out inconsistencies that have absolutely nothing to do with how a person looks. Saghar, my model, is absolutely gorgeous and is totally confident. She walked into my studio and immediately told me “I want to shoot without makeup.” Me being me, I thought this was great. She was a fabulous model who absolutely rocked the natural look and I love her photos both before and after cosmetic retouching.

You will come across situations where you can’t or shouldn’t cosmetically retouch something. I, personally, do not consider color work true retouching, though it falls under our job heading and is an absolutely crucial part of what we do. I feel that most images can benefit from both global and local color work and sometimes, all I do is color work. I do come across occasions where I insist that the person needs no retouching, but I can almost always find color problems and sometimes fixing the color takes an image from average to outstanding. Local color work seems like a little, subtle thing, but it makes a huge difference.

You can see more photos of Saghar (most of which have cosmetic retouching) if you poke around the blog and my various portfolio and social media sites. I loved working with her and have used a number of her photos.

“No Retouching” Campaigns

Today I’d like to talk about the popular media phenomenon of the “no retouching campaign”. As far as my audience is concerned, I’m probably a wild card when it comes to these campaigns. On the one hand: I’m all for anything concerning body positivity. On the other hand, I’m a retoucher. So where do I fall on the issue?

Let’s talk about the pros and cons of these campaigns.

On the surface, they seem like a good idea: let’s show the public what celebrities and models really look like without digital intervention. Great idea! I’m all for reality checks when it comes to the appearance of our media icons. There’s a lot that goes on in getting them from how they look every day to how they look in a magazine or on the big screen.

Bongo Unretouched

Vanessa Hudgens unretouched for Bongo, shot by Marley Kate. Is this reality?

…However, there’s a saying in retouching: “Retouching starts in the makeup chair.”

What does this mean? Getting a model or actor from point A to point B in terms of media representation is not all retouching. Retouching is the icing on the cake if everything else has been done properly (which it usually has been at the high end which is what we’re talking about here.) The manipulation has already begun the moment a media personality steps into the production setting. There are pro hair and makeup artists who sometimes do massive transformations. There is lighting that is highly tailored to be the most flattering it can be. There is wardrobe that is custom fitted to be absolutely complementary to the person’s figure for whatever impression is meant to be made. There are directors and coaches (or just very well trained photographers) manipulating the subjects into their very best angles even after the talent is likely already well versed in how to pose themselves to dazzling effect.

In most cases, the images delivered to retouchers are fantastic even before they hit post production when they are at the high end.

To take this further, when a campaign is being shot specifically with the intention of being unretouched upon publication, even more attention is paid to all of these elements. No hair is out of place. The makeup is touched up before nearly every shot. Every pose is spot on. No incorrect crop is utilized. The wardrobe is ironed, steamed, tucked, and pinned within an inch of its life so no ripple is out of place. The light is flawlessly flattering and the photographer will not use any frame that isn’t at the perfect angle for the model’s face and figure.

Let’s be clear: this is still not reality by a long shot. Retouching may have been removed from the equation, but it still isn’t going to give that reality check that I do think is to be applauded. The image that is ultimately presented is incredibly manipulated.

In fact, counter to what we’d intuitively like to think (and what the brands’ marketing teams would like for us to think), I’m of the opinion that some of these “no retouching” campaigns can be extremely harmful to women and young girls, possibly even moreso than retouched campaigns. They give the impression that this is actual reality whereas if someone is explicitly told “this is manipulated with a computer” she can more consciously comfort herself with the knowledge that “this is at least partially fake.”

Most “no retouching” campaigns I’ve seen flaunt all sorts of labels and promises of being “all natural” and “totally real” as if this model or actor has just rolled out of bed looking like this. That is the furthest thing from the truth and that’s not good for self esteem if girls think this is what they’re supposed to look like on a day to day basis. THAT is true self image danger.

Because the fact is, on these images you will still never see a zit or undereye circle, the angles de-emphasize waistlines and emphasize long legs, unsightly marks are hidden, the hair is perfect, the makeup is flawless, the models always look happy and sassy (or pouty and sultry depending on the mood), the clothes always flatter, and to boot, the models or personalities are always hand picked to be conventionally pretty from the get go.

Wasn’t our goal to show you something real? Something that demonstrated that models and actors look just like us?

Aerie Unretouched

Aerie’s Unretouched “Real” campaign …I don’t know about you, but my butt doesn’t look like this.

So what’s the alternative? Well, there’s always the possibility that we can do some more campaigns that are truly without much or any production value, but that’s probably going to be a rarity and even a difficulty because we are psychologically inclined as artists to try to make our subjects look their best according to the beauty conventions of our time. Even beyond that, consumers do often and generally agree that they enjoy some glitz and fantasy in their lives. The majority at least enjoys polished imagery that looks put together. And let’s be honest: the pro photographers out there know that a lot of production value is needed when working with certain types of lighting and whatnot. Even consumers know that photos don’t always come out when you’re using the wrong combinations of lights and makeups and things like that. (You know it from all those “oopses” on your phone selfies.)

What I believe more sincerely is that there is a breakdown in visual education in young people (especially girls). Art education in general is undervalued and often ignored in favor of other subjects, especially in the United States. This extends to mass media arts. I think we have a responsibility to be educating young people about the tools used to create high end images and we should be driving home the fact that mass media is largely fantasy. We have no problem telling our kids that video games and movies aren’t entirely real. Why not talk to them about commercial and editorial photos as well?

I also think we should continue democratizing these photographic and retouching tools so that a lot more people have the opportunity to see themselves in this idealized light and know that they too can look as glamourous as these people they idolize. I don’t believe in setting celebrities apart from non-media people and I do believe in photography and retouching as a source of self image empowerment.

MUFE Unretouched

Makeup Forever did do a better job at showing us what “real” looks like. I wanted to give credit where credit was due. There is still a lot of production value here, however, and we should bear that in mind.

The concept of showing images of media personalities as they truly are is intriguing and possibly empowering in that it removes some of their superhuman status. You know from past articles of mine that this is something I support. When we view media figures as towering above us, that’s not good for either us or them. Knowing that media figures aren’t inherently more beautiful than we are is a good thing. They aren’t necessarily. However, so called “no retouching” campaigns are often misleading because there’s still so much behind the scenes production involved. The images might as well be retouched for how much they reflect an average person on an average day.

In closing, I’d like to encourage media figures to maybe post more selfies and candids that aren’t highly produced rather than participating in these “no retouching” campaigns that can cause more self image trouble than they negate. Social media is great for this. On the flipside, I’d like to encourage people not related to the media to educate themselves and their children about the fantasy that exists in the media. Maybe even embrace it as something that’s just fun and pretty even if it is sometimes a little frivolous. It’s okay to enjoy things that are just visually appealing for the sake of being visually appealing.

Ultimately, if you take away nothing else from this article, take away this: Most “no retouching” campaigns are still their own type of fantasy. They’re often just as fake as retouched campaigns. Don’t just take media at it’s word, even if it’s making appealing promises to you. Media empowerment comes from education, not buzzwords or fads.

**Some “no retouching” campaigns are worse than others and I will freely admit that. Some are actually pretty good and don’t do much production. I’m fine with those. Others, though…


All Photos used under Fair Use Doctrine: Editorial Criticism.

Imperfected: A New Beginning!

You may have noticed a few changes around here this morning. No longer is the blog named after me and my business. Rather, it’s spread it’s wings and taken on it’s own identity.

Imperfected Blog Debut

Why the change? This blog is about more than just me and my work. I talk about topics that range from retouching technique and ethics to body positivity and beauty standards. Simply having the blog named for my company doesn’t seem to cover all of that. It deserves to be its own entity with its own unique name.

Why Imperfected? The tension between the perfect and the imperfect is something I explore a lot in both my retouching and my writing. I wanted something that reflected that. I also often express the belief that imperfect people can be and are perfect. We can find perfection in all of our flaws. Even in my own retouching work, I often deliberately leave in “imperfections” for the sake of realism and also to maintain the integrity of my subjects. I find my subjects beautiful before I even start retouching them, so I don’t believe in smoothing out every little bump and ripple. I believe in finding that perfect balance. That imperfect balance. We’re here to talk about imperfection in a field that revels in perfection…It’s a considerable undertaking to reconcile the two concepts but they can live together in harmony. I want to explore that.

I, myself, am a perfectionist and I often find myself having to fight that…both in work and in life. It’s something a lot of us have to contend with. Something it’s taken me a long time to learn is that life is not a place for perfection. It’s a place for compromise. It’s a place for tension between concepts and ideas—the primary one being that between expectation and reality. That brings us right back to beauty and its related industries. We want perfection, but we need to learn to find our perfection in unexpected ways: in imperfection.

If it isn’t clear to you yet, I enjoy conceptual tension. Imperfected is a word that invokes that for me, especially when we’re talking about beauty and retouching, but it goes beyond that. Something or someone can also be perfectly imperfect in non-appearance based ways: intellectually, spiritually, emotionally… We can embrace those imperfections as well. None of us is perfect in every way and we all have to eventually come to terms with that, but if we have the courage to acknowledge it, we can be secure that no matter how many “flaws” we have, someone finds us perfect just as we are.

“Imperfected” is simply a word that holds so many meanings and nuances for me in conjunction to what I do. That’s why I chose it to represent me and what I write.

Ultimately, I hope that you enjoy the new look and feel of the blog. I’m very excited to debut Imperfected, but never fear! I still plan to write about the same topics with the same passion. I’ll be writing a lot about body positivity and self esteem, but I’m still going to include the business and technical retouching articles and tutorials that I included before the transition. It’s not all going to flip over to philosophy and rhetoric.

This blog is about all things related to beauty, body positivity, and ethical retouching. My goal is still to create a media environment where people of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and abilities can be proud of who they are, what they look like, and what they can do. I want to bridge the gap between the retouching community and the public and explore how body positive retouching can be a tool for empowerment rather than a destructive force encouraging negative self esteem. That’s been my goal all along, but I believe Imperfected will allow me to pursue this goal in a less constrained way than I was previously able to when I was writing exclusively under my business name.

Again, welcome to Imperfected and I hope you enjoy!

The Problem with “Real Women”

Jenna by Stephanie Maulding

This is Jenna. I have worked with Jenna as a model since I was in college. Jenna is more than my colleague. She is my friend and I love her.

Some people wonder why I don’t use the terms “real people” or “regular people” when talking about photo subjects. I always use “models” or “non-models”. I actually strongly dislike terms like “real woman” or “regular person” and here’s why: I find them damaging to both models and non-models alike.

These terms are disrespectful to models because they imply that models (and sometimes actors) are somehow not real or normal. I know a lot of models and most of them are super down to earth, regular people when you get to know them. There’s nothing “fake” about them. They’re no different than you or me. They’re living, breathing people with real emotions, dreams, and motivations. They just have a certain job and they show up and do that job as well as they can.

Referring to people as either real or fake is also damaging to non-models because these terms imply that media figures are somehow superhuman and different from us.That’s not good for our views about media and media figures. It distorts how we view ourselves in relation to mass media imagery. When we view models and actors as towering above us, unattainable ideals that we should constantly strive to impossibly model, we set ourselves up for self image problems that are by their very nature insurmountable. That’s unhealthy.

Jenna by Stephanie Maulding

I have also worked with Jenna as a non-model, shooting her engagement photos with her charming fiancé, Joe.

When we acknowledge that people are just people with different roles in life, we are comparing people on more level footing. I consider that a healthier way of relating with media figures—both for the media figures and for consumers of media.

That’s why you won’t hear me say “real person” when what I really mean is “someone who doesn’t hold a specific media related profession” (e.g. “non-model” or “non-actor”) I refer to the profession or role in the photo rather than using a term that carries with it some judgement or perception.

Note: (These terms grow even more problematic when we start applying them to a specific body type. That goes beyond  beyond the scope of this article, but I’m sure you can imagine my views on implying that only a specific body type is a “real woman” or “real man”.)

What do you think? Do you have other terms that you use?

Jenna by Stephanie Maulding

Jenna’s role changes depending on what she’s doing in front of the camera, so do we define her as “real” in one photo and “fake” in the other? Of course not. We define her by her role. Besides, Jenna is one of the most real people I know. You’d agree if you met her.


All Photos by Stephanie Maulding.

Value Based Freelance Hiring and Pricing

Why hire a retoucher in the age when so many photographers know how to do it themselves? Well, here’s the honest truth: even if we’re talking about completely equal skill levels, full time retouchers are usually faster and therefore bring a lot of value to the table. We retouch all day, know all the shortcuts and have finely honed our art down to a process where every second counts. This is just like photographers finely hone their skills or graphic designers hone their skills or any professional service provider hones their skills. I’ll tell you: I get hired to do graphic design once in a blue moon (usually just by friends) and the first thing I tell anyone who tries to hire me is that they’d be better off hiring someone who’s actually a designer because while I technically know how to do it, a full time designer will do it faster, better, and ultimately cheaper even if I’m charging a lower rate. Hiring a qualified specialist is always a value based investment whether that be a retoucher, a photographer, a designer, a mechanic, a plumber, or any other specialized professional. You may know how to do something, but it may ultimately save you a lot of time and money to hire someone else to do it for you.

Wedding by Stephanie Maulding


My rate is on the high side and I won’t lie about that. In fact, I recently raised my rates. Why? Because I realized I’d more than doubled my productivity and that halved my profits. But in the long run, am I really that expensive? Let’s take a closer look at what goes into a service provider’s value and pricing. And this applies to all freelance service providers. Really, I’m using retouchers as a case study.


If you’re a photographer, even if you’re amazing at retouching, think about how much time you spend in front of the computer doing post production. That translates to time you’re not spending shooting. Time you’re not booking clients. Time you’re not improving your photography: honing new techniques, getting faster, testing new gear. Time you’re not physically out on jobs. On top of that, think about how long it takes you to do a single image or a batch of images. Chances are, you aren’t trained primarily as a retoucher and therefore aren’t going to be working at lightning speed. (There are obviously some really prominent exceptions to this rule who are wildly talented. I won’t try to name them all because I’ll miss some, but hats off to them!)


Wedding by Stephanie MauldingOn the other hand, someone who retouches for a living is likely to be FAST simply from practice. Whenever I want to work on speeding up my process, I literally retouch with a stopwatch next to my computer and when it comes to really basic stuff like color and tone correction and spot removal, I got my trial by fire shortly after college working as a retoucher for a scanning bureau where my rate was based on an expectation of manually processing 125 photos per hour. I simply didn’t get paid for going any slower than that so I made myself learn to do it. I don’t go quite that fast anymore because it’s not absolute top quality, but it gives you an idea of the training some of us go through. I’m still pretty fast with my basic processing. It depends how crucial the image is. I’ll be really meticulous on—say—a magazine cover image, but I can do a full high end retouch on a basic wedding photo in a matter of minutes. (When I say high end, I mean heal and clone plus dodge and burn like I’d do on a fashion image with a few extra techniques thrown in.)


I don’t know about you, but I know wedding photographers who spend upwards of 60-90 hours retouching a wedding. If you can outsource that to a retoucher, you can


A) shoot more weddings because you’ll have more time

B) pass the cost on to your client anyway

C) probably not pay nearly as much as you fear because the retoucher is not going to take 60-90 hours to retouch those photos. On weddings I do anywhere from 5-20 photos per hour depending on the work needed. If it’s only tone and color, I do more than that. Some wedding photos don’t need cosmetic retouching, but generally photographers only send me the cosmetic retouching images and often only the more difficult ones.


My clients run the gamut from almost completely Photoshop illiterate to very talented in Photoshop. My value comes in the form of both expertise and time saving. I’m hired either because the photographer doesn’t know how to do it, the photographer needs to be out doing something else, or because I do it faster than the photographer can and that adds value. Even if my hourly rate is equal to the photographer’s hourly rate (and I’ll tell you that it’s lower than most photographers I work with) if I can retouch 10-12 photos an hour where they can retouch 1 or 2, that’s a huge savings. (Or, on fashion, if I can retouch a photo in an hour where it may take them 3-5 hours or more…)


Photographers have other stuff they need to be doing. Shooting for one, but besides that: marketing, booking jobs, meeting with clients, maintaining gear, bookkeeping, traveling, and of course having a personal life. I’ve worked as a photographer. It’s busy and hectic. I also used to be a slow retoucher before I switched to retouching full time and I wasted a huge amount of my time in post production. I had photography jobs where I would literally be in post for 40 hours and felt I couldn’t bill my clients for the full amount because it would take me an hour per image and they simply didn’t have the budget and I’d lose the job. I finally had a job where I sent out a particularly large batch of retouching to someone else and it was incredibly liberating. The total cost of the retouching was low enough I could have passed it on to my client and they would have hardly flinched. The retoucher was just faster than me. (I think it was $200 on a $1400 job.) Of course, a few years later, I switched career paths and here we are now.

Wedding by Stephanie Maulding


Tips for hiring a retoucher:


1. Pick someone whose specialty is within the scope of your project. They will be faster and therefore cheaper even if their rate seems higher than some of their competition. (More on that in a sec.) A reputable retoucher will turn away work that doesn’t fit their specialty. I turn away work all the time. For example, I rarely do composite work. I can, but I’m slow at it and I’m not as good as people who specialize in it. I will generally only do composite work for friends or extremely well established clients asking for favors.


2. Don’t be fooled into thinking the lowest rate will be your cheapest option. Most retouchers only raise their rates once they have the confidence that they can deliver high quality quickly. Going with a lower rate MAY work out, but more likely you’ll end up having to have the work redone or it will be done slowly and ultimately result in a higher bill. (Basic math: 1 hour x $125 is less than 10 hours x $15) Note: Neither of these is my rate. They’re rates I’ve heard from other retouchers. And trust me, neither is an exaggeration.


3. I would personally caution people to be wary of retouchers who price by the image, especially very low per piece prices like $10 per image. These retouchers will rush complex images because the retoucher can’t recoup what they are charging on a complicated photo. I believe a reputable retoucher will either offer an hourly rate or review a photo or set before offering a project or image rate. Additionally, if you go with a reputable retoucher, you may end up paying less than $10 per image depending on your image/set, the retoucher’s rate, and the retoucher’s speed. I routinely charge significantly less than $10 per image on basic wedding photos even though my rate seems high. Expertise = speed = savings. Note: I know there is the issue of retouchers working in certain countries where $10/image is a lot of money. I stand by my caution. There is also the issue of undercutting the industry. Photographers in particular should be familiar with and sympathetic to this one.


4. Remember that every photo is different. You may pay a slightly different per image rate each time unless you have a specific arrangement with a retoucher you’ve already established a working relationship with. Even if you have an established relationship with a retoucher, don’t expect that you will always pay the same price for every photo.


Wedding by Stephanie Maulding5. That said, having an established relationship with a specific retoucher can be great! They can block off time for you, you know each other’s routines and styles, and you generally build trust and rapport. I have one client that I’ve been working with for 8 years. I know what she likes and she trusts me to deliver what she wants. If you have an established retoucher, you generally don’t have to deal with surprises and most importantly, your photographic style will remain consistent for your clients. Try out retouchers until you find one that you like, but if you find one you get along with who can generally accommodate your needs consistently, try to establish an ongoing relationship. It’s mutually beneficial and I’ll be frank: I do better work for clients I’ve known for a long time because I know what they like. First time clients are tougher because there’s guesswork involved and I have to trade a lot of e-mails and revisions to get their style down. With established clients, sometimes I barely communicate with them on jobs. I exchange more pleasantries than instructions. They send me images and often give me no more than one or two sentences to the effect of “Basic cleanup please.” These relationships are golden for both parties involved.


In short: There is value in working with varied service providers rather than trying to do everything yourself. We all want to believe we can do everything, (I want to believe that!) but we can only stretch ourselves so thin and we can sometimes make things easier if we hand off a portion of what we need done to someone else so we can focus on what we really need to be doing. This is what makes retouchers great for photographers. Value can also be deceptive when shopping around for a retoucher. The lowest price is not always ultimately the lowest price. Consider your options and try out a few retouchers before hopefully establishing a long term relationship. You may even surprise yourself and be able to afford a higher end retoucher than you thought you could. Consider price and consider value. A very small price increase with any service provider can sometimes be a huge value increase. And sometimes it’s not a price increase at all. Rates can be deceptive. This goes for any service provider really, from photographers to retouchers to mechanics to plumbers.


In the end, it’s all about relationships and weighing cost and value.


An end note: Throughout this article I talk about photographers hiring retouchers. Just to clarify, people who aren’t photographers can hire retouchers as well! It just happens that most of my clients are photographers.