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.