Please Support Imperfected on Patreon


You can now support Imperfected on Patreon! You can donate at the following URL or by clicking the button on the sidebar any time.

Patreon is a website that connects artists with art patrons. It allows you to pledge a small amount of money to me every time I release an article or video. You can offer any amount starting from $1 and you can set a monthly maximum budget. Your support helps me to produce more content with higher quality. Any amount helps. Even $1/month.

Whether or not you can donate, thank you so much for reading and supporting Imperfected!

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!

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.