Retouching Kids

At various times through history, children have merely been thought of as smaller versions of adults. They’ve been dressed in miniature versions of adults’ clothes and treated cosmetically as if they were just going to continually evolve into larger versions of exactly the same kind of creature from the time they left infancy until the end of their adult lives, complete with the same dimensions, physical traits, and personality. You can see this in classical paintings where children are given the same physical proportions as adults only minimized. Nothing is done to account for differing head, arm, and leg proportions. They just get taller. You can also read about their treatment in classical texts.

Commercial Kid's Portrait

A Commercial Kid’s Portrait. Minimal retouching.

The good news is, most of us don’t think like this anymore. We know that kids are entirely different from us and we let them live out their childhoods as something distinct from adulthood. We don’t expect them to look like small adults or act like small adults or exist as small adults. When it comes to appearance, it’s actually now very unsettling to our eyes when we try to make them look like small adults, styling them up too much. While yes, we give them boundaries, most of us acknowledge a simple truth. Kids should be allowed to be what they are: kids.

This extends into our photographic and retouching treatments as well. Now, I have worked for a talent agency with a massive children’s division where I was in charge of managing photos and portfolios. A huge part of my job was retouching every photo that came through, including the kids’ photos, so I have a lot to say about this. No, I don’t believe that kids’ photos should never be retouched. In fact, there are some very common problems that often need to be addressed in high end kid photography. However, I believe that photos of children should never LOOK retouched and need to be retouched very judiciously.

Child Portrait

I don’t think I retouched these at all beyond color. Kids don’t always need retouching.

Our goal with kids is never to make them look different from themselves and never to make them look like adults. We usually are not smoothing out skin (Ruddiness and uneven skintone are actually just features of childhood if you look at a lot of kids and besides, kid skin is usually inherently smooth to start with…in a different way than adult skin.) We also aren’t removing many shadows because chubby cheeks and undereye features are often trademarks of certain kids. And we certainly aren’t emphasizing features to make them more prominent and provocative.

(I will digress and I will say this once. NEVER EVER are we making photos of children provocative. I have seen a particular magazine which I will not name. It is a fashion magazine for children and I am not talking about Gap ads or other run of the mill kid’s attire photos that we see in magazines. It is high fashion for kids where the children are dressed up, styled, and retouched to look like adults, including sexy and avant garde looks one might see in a fashion magazine like W. I won’t beat around the bush. I think this magazine is horrible and if they ever come knocking on my door I will turn them away. This is not a treatment I find ethical and we are here to talk about ethics at all times. I encourage you to avoid this type of work. End rant.)

Back to the point: in short, we’re keeping things even more natural than usual when working with kids. A lot of photos of children I will pass by with the cosmetic retouching entirely, implementing only color correction and possibly removal of some environmental distractions. Maybe taking care of some stray hairs.

So what ARE we looking for? Well, actually I recommend thinking like a little kid. Look for the gross-out stuff. (Most little kids love the gross-out stuff.)


Eye and nose gook

Flaky skin

Cuts and scabs


Spit up on babies

(I told you it would be gross. Retouching isn’t always glamourous.)

Child Portrait

Sometimes things you’d usually take out only add to the story of the photo. I deliberately left in this little girl’s red, runny nose because I felt it was a perfect kid moment. Remember: pefection is boring

Child Portrait

That same runny nose. A moment before she’d been crying. Dad to the rescue!

Another thing to watch out for is temporary redness or little welts. This usually results from either resting a hand or body part against something for too long before switching poses or if an elastic band (such as a baby’s diaper edge) shifts during the shoot and leaves a minor red line that’s visible. Kids have very sensitive skin and these are temporary uncomfortable looking areas that are akin to injuries. You can safely and ethically remove them for better photos.

You can also do some local color correction like we recently discussed, though I wouldn’t recommend going overboard with it, otherwise the photos might look too highly processed, which we want to avoid with kids. Like I said, be very judicious in your kid retouching. Train your eye to know what looks like too much.

One way to gauge your retouching of kids is if you could look the kid in the eye and explain to them why you retouched something without feeling bad about it. If it’s appearance related, the answer is probably no. “Your eyebrows were too close together”? You’re going to feel bad. “We forgot to take your hairband off your wrist so I did that on the computer”? This has nothing to do with how the kid looks, so you’re in the clear. (Actually, this is a decent rule of thumb for anyone. Just doubly important with kids.)

Fashion Show Party

A friend’s daughter’s fashion show party. All I retouched was the scenery. She still looks fabulous and there’s a fashion flare, but she still looks like a kid.

Really, in the end, you just want to make sure that children still look like children and keep it simple. Kids do not need a lot of retouching, even though sometimes you will find yourself taking a lot of time with their images to be really careful. (Attractively reconstructing eyelashes around baby eye-gook takes longer than you might think.) Realism is the name of the game here. Keep them looking like themselves and keep them looking raw and natural.

Kids are not pristine, perfect creatures. Don’t try to force them into that visual mold, even when working with models. In the end, it’s not going to look right. If you MUST have a really clean and produced look to your photo of a child, it almost has to be done entirely on set and in camera. Doing it on the retouch end of things beyond the stuff I’ve listed is a fast track to getting kids who look like miniature adults or porcelain dolls and that’s not our end goal.

All Photography by Stephanie Maulding

A Comment on “50 Shapes of Brows”

It’s pretty common that I disagree with people in my field, but I often hesitate to comment. Most of these retouchers are hard working and well intentioned. None of them mean harm. However, it is the goal of Imperfected to start a dialog about the techniques commonly touted as industry standard, so I really need to stop this hesitation as much as I respect the people expressing their views and spreading these techniques.

Yesterday an article was published on Retouching Academy about eyebrows. The results produced by the techniques discussed are stunning in a technical sense. However, they cater to a standard of beauty that is pre-prescribed and do not necessarily respect a subject’s natural looks. Respecting a subject’s natural beauty is, of course, a tenet Imperfected likes to at least discuss if not always enforce as law.

50 Shapes of Brows: How to Treat Eyebrows in Post-Production



The tutorial at the end is a relatively minor change and I very much respect that. The retouching really is high end. However, the beginning of the article cites reshaping eyebrows entirely to suit face shapes. (“whether you are following an already clear image and just ‘cleaning and filling up’, or reshaping and restyling eyebrows completely, there are a number of thing to keep in mind.”) I’m not so sure that stops to ask the question “Is this ethical?” Rather, it jumps straight to a formulaic standard of beauty and suggests that we institute it in our photos even if that means drastic change to our subjects’ appearances.

I will not say that this is a flat out bad article. That would be throwing the baby out with the bath water and I respect the retoucher who wrote this a great deal. What I will say is that we should always be looking at these things with a critical eye and be asking questions about ethics rather than focusing solely on technique. Take a look at the article for yourself and draw your own conclusions.

There are many ways to treat eyebrows in retouching and lots of the advice in this article is solid. I recommend taking a look at it. I just recommend taking a look at it while asking the question “How can I best use these techniques while still ethically preserving my subject’s own natural beauty?”

Image used under Fair Use Doctrine: Editorial Criticism.

Full image credits can be found in the original article.

Copyright belongs to Marcus Turner.

Crimes of Retouching and the Importance of Community

This week, I want to touch on a major current event. It’s a story that has been circulating through many major news outlets and I don’t feel that I can let it pass without comment as a blogger who focuses on retouching ethics.

As we all know, this past Friday, Paris was the scene of several horrific terrorist attacks. I deeply mourn all of the victims and my heart goes out to all of their loved ones.

However, that is not specifically what I want to discuss today. In the aftermath of the attacks, the media has been scrambling to piece together details, as it does when any major world event occurs. Something very problematic happened during that scramble and we can’t close our eyes to it, especially as it falls under the purview of this blog’s focus. Today, we’re here to talk about a victim of the media who also happens to be the victim of the most unethical retouching I’ve ever seen.

Veerender Jubbal

Over the weekend following the attacks, Veerender Jubbal, a Canadian Sikh man, found that a mirror selfie he’d posted online had been retouched to make him look like one of the Paris terrorists. While the original photo shows him in an ordinary button-down shirt, holding an iPad, the manipulated image shows him wearing a suicide bomber vest and holding a Quran. The retouched image went viral and was picked up by several news outlets internationally. It was published online and in newspapers identifying him as someone who had helped perpetrate the attacks.

Upon learning of the manipulated image, Jubbal tweeted his original photo to prove his innocence. However, the retouched version had spread like wildfire and millions of people around the world saw it plastered across the media. One man’s Twitter account is hard pressed to compete with the inertia of worldwide media.

To the educated eye, there are multiple indications that the “terrorist” version of the photo isn’t authentic, even in the absence of the original. To start, Jubbal is Sikh, not Muslim. He is wearing a Sikh turban. The power outlets visible in the photo are also North American outlets. (Fact checking: something that gets lost when you’re desperate to be the first to break a story.)

Now, none of you will be surprised that I roundly condemn this horrifically unethical use of retouching. In fact, I posted about it to all of my social media accounts as soon as I heard about it, so many of you have already seen me comment on it. However, there’s a deeper point to be made here about the retouching community (and about communities of any kind.)

As I write this article, to the best of my knowledge we do not know who retouched this photo. We suspect it was not a professional retoucher, though I will say that the retouch was executed with a decent amount of skill—at least enough to fool the media at large. (Also note that this person had at least a little bit of knowledge of our psychology regarding facial anatomy. He changed Jubbal’s facial structure and eyebrows slightly to make him look more sinister.) I’ve had people comment to me privately after my own comments on social media that “this wasn’t a professional retoucher so this doesn’t reflect on the professional community.” Wrong. Even if this was a hobbyist, it does reflect on the community. The public makes very little distinction between those who practice a craft as a job and those who practice a craft for fun. You need look no further than the various hobbyist Photoshop projects that go viral to know this. We are all judged by the same standard. The public does not stop to ask about someone’s certifications or awards or income earned when it comes to Photoshop. They look at the results and they look at the method used to create those results. Then they draw conclusions.

So yes, this reflects poorly on us as a retouching community. I felt rage when I first read this story over on PetaPixel. I was angry because I felt for Jubbal but I was also angry as a retoucher, that my craft had been used for evil.

I write Imperfected in hopes of spreading the philosophy of ethical retouching, but that doesn’t just apply to professionals. I urge professionals to consider hobbyists as an extension of what we do. I want amateur retouchers to take what I say to heart just as much as professionals because in the end, there isn’t some clear cut boundary between the two. It’s more like a gradient. And what hobbyists do, the public sees as just part of the same craft. Professionals should encourage and mentor hobbyists or those who are less skilled in retouching and pass along the tenets of ethical retouching. I personally hope that my blog reaches both professionals and amatuers alike. Good ethics apply whether you are working on projects for Vogue or just starting on your first forays into Photoshop.

To the professionals: don’t disregard or ignore the hobbyists. What they do, the public and the media will project onto you.

To the hobbyists: is is never too early to study and practice good ethics. They will serve you well for your entire Photoshop journey and you can rest easy knowing that you are not contributing negatively to the world.

This blog typically focuses on ethics around beauty standards, but this situation is even more important. This was a truly evil use of Photoshop and I hope that we don’t witness more of this type of thing in the future. This particular retoucher was probably beyond reason in terms of mentoring or being willing to listen to a blog like mine, but I still want to make the point that we have a responsibility to foster ethics as a community and realize that what one of us does, the rest of us bear. For myself, all I can do is continue my own crusade for ethical retouching both in the realm of beauty and in the world at large.

As for Jubbal, I wish him peace and reprieve from the terrible media tempest he’s been subjected to. My greatest hope is that this retoucher is brought to justice—whatever form that may take—and that Jubbal’s name is fully cleared in the eyes of the world.

Local Skin Color Correction Video Tutorial

After my article on local color correction a few weeks ago, I received a few requests for a video version of the tutorial. Well, ask and you shall receive!

This is my first video tutorial, but I hope to do more in the future. (I’m open to requests!) And of course, if you have any questions on this one, please feel free to ask. I’m available here, on social media, or via e-mail. I hope you enjoy!

Time Lapse Retouch: Christina

Today I have a new time-lapse retouch video for you. I would consider this a relatively extreme retouch; one that walks that line of good ethics. These are important retouches to talk about. I feel more comfortable doing extreme retouches on my own images, honestly, because I can compare them to my own memory of the model. To me, this “after” image more closely resembles my mental memory of Christina, my lovely model. We had her under very harsh lights that caused some problems with her skin in the final images that I felt should be addressed in retouching. A lot of the things visible in the “before” image were not prominent to me under softer lights.

I am not going to answer the question for you of whether this falls under the category of “too far” or not. I’m going to present it and let you be the judge. I’m putting it out there for discussion. I plan to do another post in the future entirely on extreme retouches for further discussion of the topic.

For me, this is subjective. A retouch like this could be too far, but it could be right on target. It depends on a lot of variables specific to the shoot and the model. As we’ve talked about before, it’s important for retouchers to educate themselves so they can make good judgements on images like this. We need to constantly be thinking both about social issues and about technical issues that influence how an image looks vs. how a person may look under different conditions. These are the elements that go into making an informed decision about extreme retouching.