Making People Skinnier in Photoshop Part 2: Lens Distortion and Perspective

(Missed Part 1? You can find it here.)

In our previous article we discussed making people skinnier in Photoshop and how you really shouldn’t do it…

…Except when you should.

So when IS it okay to make people “skinnier” in Photoshop? The primary instance where it’s acceptable is when you have distortion or perspective problems in your photo. These are not uncommon and can be very unflattering but have very little to do with the physical dimensions of the person who is actually in front of the camera. Because it doesn’t have anything to do with the person’s actual size in real life, I do not consider this actually making someone skinnier. It is merely correcting aberrations introduced by the camera. However, in before and after photographs, people can construe this as making someone skinnier (or sometimes larger!) because body parts will appear to become smaller (or larger.) Let’s look at some examples.

Making People Skinnier in Photoshop Part 2: Perspective

This photo was shot from slightly below plus the model is leaning her head away from the camera. This makes her body appear larger in relationship to her head. This isn’t true to her real-life dimensions. Additionally, this was for a hair ad campaign so the head needed to be the focal point. So, I made her body subtly smaller. I also altered her chin for perspective. Click for before/after animation.


Making People Skinnier in Photoshop Part 2: Lens Distortion and Perspective

This image had some lens distortion plus I was a bit shorter than the model. She is also leaning slightly away from the camera. Again, this amounted to an original photo where her head was not proportional to her body. The correction is so subtle you can’t see it in side by side comparison, but it does make her body proportionally smaller. Click for before/after animation.

In both of these final images, the models’ bodies look smaller than they originally did in the photographs I started with. However, the photos may not have been accurate depictions of the models in the first place. So, how do you know how to correct for things like this? First of all, a good retoucher has at least some knowledge of photography, anatomy, and perspective. You can usually make some educated guesses if you have some background knowledge. When in doubt, a retoucher should draw attention to the face. You can do this by making sure the face is proportional to the body or slightly larger. (Assume a camera position that is slightly above the subject when the photographic composition allows for it and make your changes based on that, following the rules of anatomy. Shooting a photo from a higher angle causes the head to be very slightly larger in proportion to the body. Any changes along these lines should be subtle.) It also helps to compose the limbs and torso into leading lines toward the face when possible. The face is where we most strongly identify personality.

I want to stress the “when possible” part. Never force a change if it isn’t anatomically correct or if it doesn’t stay loyal to the subject’s appearance.

Let’s delve a little deeper into these technical concepts that can lead you to make decisions about altering physical proportions in a photograph.

Leading Lines

I’m only going to touch on this since composition isn’t our main focus here, but “leading lines” are lines that direct your gaze toward something in an image. Our eyes like to follow lines and in images we typically follow lines away from the edges. Leading lines can be things like arms and legs or even fence lines, telephone wires, walls, portions of hair, or any other kind of line that leads toward the face or main image feature that the viewer is supposed to focus on. I will sometimes smooth out a bump in a line or alter a neck contour to make it into a stronger lead toward a face or other focal point. Not because these things make a person look fat, but because it focuses attention where I want it to go. I make a point not to do this because it makes someone look more attractive, but only because I want the viewer to look at, say, a person’s eyes, or their hair, or their face, or their clothes. Whatever is being highlighted.

Making People Skinnier in Photoshop Part 2: Leading Lines

You can see in this image’s composition that most lines point attention up toward the face. Red lines direct attention to the face. Secondary blue lines lead the eye to the stronger direct leading lines.

Lens Distortion

Now let’s venture into the territory where we really might want to start making people “skinnier”: distortion. When a camera distorts a body, we are no longer looking at a photo that is an accurate depiction, so we start to consider changing the dimensions we see in an original photo. Lenses play a big role in how large or small individual body parts appear in a photo. They can introduce all sorts of strange problems, whether the glass is cheap or top of the line. Especially when working with wide angle lenses, distortion is just a fact of being a photographer. Cameras do not see the way the human eye does. Consider the following examples all taken of the same model (my friend, Karen) with different lens focal lengths:

Lens Distortion

I chose to shoot a portrait here because it is a very clear demonstration of lens distortion even though it isn’t as descriptive of instances where you may be changing body dimensions to make someone appear to be “skinnier”.

Karen’s facial proportions look entirely different as we change focal length and the first images are clearly distorted. If I’d done a full body shot, it could easily be her waistline, hips, or legs that showed distortion depending on my angle and her pose. (That’s where we get into controversial retouching when dealing with audiences uneducated about the issues we’re covering today.)

When trying to correct for distortion, it really comes down to training your eye and learning about what focal lengths are most likely to introduce what problems. Wide lenses (smaller numbers) tend to make things at the center of the photo bend toward the edges of the frame and exaggerate the size of anything closer to the camera. Long lenses (larger numbers) tend to make things appear more normal or even compressed. As a retoucher, you’ll usually have less lens correction to do if your photographer shot with a longer lens.

Luckily for us, software is getting a lot more sophisticated. Sometimes, it can auto-detect the lens used and automatically correct for the distortion most typical of that lens at that focal length, though personally, I find that imperfect. It’s a good start and once in a while it will get you all the way there, but I encourage retouchers to also learn manual lens corrections, whether in ACR, Photoshop’s lens correction filter, or using completely manual transform and liquify adjustments.

A word of caution: You will never make a photo taken with a 24mm lens look like one taken with a 105mm lens. Some things have to be done in camera. You can make improvements, but you can’t totally fake extreme changes. A clear illustration: notice that you can see Karen’s ears in the photo taken with the 105mm but not the 24mm. I cannot make the first image realistically look like the last.

Human Anatomy

So, this composition and distortion info is all well and good, but when it comes down to it, how do you know how someone is “supposed to look”? Sorry, I have no easy answer. You hit the books and study anatomy. The best place to learn anatomy is drawing manuals and I’m sure there are some good online resources as well.

A crash course in anatomy for artists: We usually measure the body in “head’s lengths”. In other words, we take the height of the head, and use it to describe the proportions of the rest of the body. The average proportional height of a human being is 7.5 heads tall. (So, if a head were 1 foot in height, the person would be 7.5 feet tall. The average head is not 1 foot tall. This just describes the proportion.) This varies obviously. Women are often depicted as 6 heads in a drawing and men as 8 heads. In fashion illustration, women are sometimes depicted proportionally taller because this exaggerates long limbs, which we use to create leading lines. (I have included a fashion illustration here because I typically shoot fashion and so do a lot of my readers…also because the fractions are easy.)

The halfway point down the body is typically about groin level. ¼ is mid-chest. The knee is ¾. The arms extend below the groin 1/2 to 1 head depending on height. When we draw the average figure (not a heavier figure) we typically draw a shoulder line that is about 1.5 heads long horizontally. The hips mirror the shoulders. From here, we take the average figure and begin to vary it for body type, widening or narrowing hips, shoulders, waist, etc.

Basic Straight-On Human Anatomy

Basic Straight-On Human Anatomy

So, what doesn’t vary based on weight? What can we use as baseline references for distortion and perspective? First, a person’s height and vertical proportions don’t really change when they gain weight. The distance between chin and groin should always be approximately 3 head lengths, placing the groin about halfway down the body. See above for other vertical proportions. However, what about when you’re working with headshots or other photos that focus only on the upper body? Well, not a ton of padding gets added on the shoulder line when a person gains weight. A few inches off the bone at most. (This, of course, doesn’t account for broad shouldered people—your average linebacker is going to be a lot more than 1.5 heads wide—but you can usually recognize those types of frames visually if a person doesn’t have an average bone structure.) Additionally, the distance between the shoulder and armpit doesn’t vary all that much. This is approximately 1/2 of a head length.

Keep in mind that bodies are definitely not all exactly alike. There are many exceptions to the rules. Statistics apply here and we are talking about the average.


An important thing to be conscious of when dealing with anatomical corrections is that camera angle will shift proportion. Looking down at a sharp angle will make body parts that are farther away appear smaller and closer together. Sometimes it is beneficial to an image to alter body proportions based on perspective, as I did in my initial retouched examples. These changes can be subtle or extreme and may vary based on the individual photographer. I know when I’m photographing people, I usually have to account for slight perspective problems caused by looking up at someone because most of my subjects are taller than me. Looking up at your subject can cause their head to appear proportionally smaller than their body, whereas we typically want the head to be the focal point and therefore either proportional to the body or ever so slightly larger…This is where taller photographers have an advantage over photographers my height.

Understanding perspective is crucial to making believable image adjustments. I highly recommend that along with anatomy, you study foreshortening and perspective. Anatomy books usually at least touch on these and I’ll include some resources below.


Basic Perspective. Note that things that appear closer are larger and as things get smaller, they appear farther away. The pillars are also closer together as they get farther away.

That said, the basic tenets of body proportion can generally be used as reference points especially on relatively straight-on shots or photos where the perspective is only off by a little. Just remember not to force anything into EXACT proportions because they may be influenced both by body type and by perspective. You don’t need to pull out a ruler, but rather train your eye to average anatomical relationships. Know the average baseline and then keep your changes relatively minor to ensure you aren’t veering too far away from a person’s natural appearance or from believable perspective. Always work with the intention of finessing rather than strong-arming proportion when retouching to ensure better realism.

Another note about extreme changes: if you take a photo looking up at someone at a sharp angle, you will never be able to perspective correct it to look like a straight-on shot. If you try, even your best effort will look weird because you’ll be able to see the bottom of their chin. Always use discretion. That said, you can do some pretty extreme perspective corrections on non-human shots. Just don’t try it with people.

Architecture Perspective Correction

Don’t try this on a person.

In Closing

Keep in mind that the goal here is not to actually to make someone look skinnier than they really are. The goal is to make the body proportions look natural and to correct for camera and perspective issues so that your subject looks more like themselves as viewed by the human eye. (Remember that the human eye and brain fill in a lot of information that isn’t really there and can interpret visual information such that things look the way we expect them to rather than as they are. In life, our brains automatically correct for a lot of things that cameras don’t.) Changes made in the name of composition, perspective, and lens distortion may end up looking like someone has been made skinnier because you may have to shrink some body parts to make your corrections. Other times you may have to enlarge body parts, though people are less likely to balk at that.

The final effect may technically be making someone skinnier than they are in the original PHOTOGRAPH, but our intent is not to make them appear skinnier than they are in REAL LIFE. That’s the distinction. True to life, not to the photograph. Remember that photographs lie and sometimes we, as retouchers, are not trying to make them into bigger lies, but rather bring them back closer to reality.

Coming up: Parts three and four in “Making People Skinnier in Photoshop”

Recommended Resources

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All photos and illustrations by Stephanie Maulding

…please forgive my drawing skills…

“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.

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.

How To Talk To Your Photographer About Retouching

Jenny by Stephanie MauldingOne problem I often run into in my job is that people are quite hesitant to talk to their photographers about retouching. I don’t know if people assume retouching is out of their control, or if people don’t know what to ask, or if people are just afraid to come across as vain. However, when it comes down to the retouching phase, it can really be a guessing game if the person being photographed hasn’t made their desires clear. Whether your photographer is doing their post work themselves or working with a dedicated retoucher, you’ll get the best results if you ask questions and let your photographer know what you want.

Question 1: The most basic question. Do you want your photographs to be retouched? Some people have really strong feelings about this. Whether you’re someone who is strongly opposed to retouching or someone who really wants retouching, you need to bring that up with your prospective photographer right off the bat. Find out what their policy on retouching is. Some photographers retouch every photograph they release. Some photographers refuse to retouch their work. Make sure you’re on the same page.

Question 2: How much retouching do you want? Do you want nearly invisible retouching or do you want to look like a fashion model? This is probably really going to come up in your photographer selection stage. Decide what you want and select a photographer whose style works with that. Find out before you book them whether their vision for the retouching matches with yours.

Question 3: What physical features are you self conscious about? Tell your photographer! They can address this in how they shoot AND they can address it in the retouching. I’m all for body positivity, but at the same time, it’s not fair or realistic of me to tell everyone that they’re never allowed to have any insecurities.Jenny by Stephanie Maulding We definitely don’t all see ourselves objectively and I feel it’s an image maker’s job to make their subject feel beautiful. Let me tell you a story about how we don’t all see ourselves the way the world sees us. One of my college professors was once photographing a woman who she thought was absolutely gorgeous. She had extremely high cheekbones, which are generally considered very attractive in women, so my professor lit the woman’s portraits to really dramatically emphasize what she saw as stunning bone structure. The woman HATED the portraits. It turned out she was really self-conscious about her cheekbones (which the people around her thought were lovely.) Once the woman told my professor about this, they were able to re-shoot the portraits in a way the woman liked, with less dramatic lighting. In the end, both sets of images were beautiful, but the woman only liked how she looked in one of them. The point is, we don’t always see ourselves the way others do, and your photographer and retoucher won’t know what you’re sensitive about unless you tell them. It’s our job to make you feel great. Help us do our job. (Oh and trust me, those of us who have been doing this a while have heard everything, so whatever it is, don’t worry about it. Just tell us. We won’t judge!)

Question 4: Do you have a blemish, cut, bruise, or other temporary problem today? It may seem really obvious to you, but you’d be surprised how often lighting or camera angle make it really hard to distinguish a blemish from a mole or scar or a bruise from a shadow and your photographer may not notice an issue at the time of the shoot. (Photographers have a lot to worry about while shooting!) Point it out if you get a chance.

Question 5: Speaking of moles and scars, do us a favor and let us know whether you want them to go or stay. Moles I typically leave in, but scars are a big question mark. They’re a character trait, so I often think they should stay. However, I very often get requests to take them out. People have very mixed feelings on this one. Heavy acne scars are doubly controversial.

Jenny by Stephanie MauldingQuestion 6: This one can be sensitive depending on your photographer, but you want to make sure you get back the style of retouching that you expect. Ask your photographer first if they do their own retouching and if not, whether they consistently use the same retoucher. If they don’t, ask if you can be guaranteed the same standard of retouching shown in their portfolio. Retouching styles can vary substantially from retoucher to retoucher, especially at different price points. If you aren’t happy with the answer you get about the retouching, but really like the photographer, you might have an option: It is a shot in the dark whether a photographer will let you suggest your own retoucher, but it doesn’t hurt to ask if they are not already working with a consistent retoucher to begin with. They should be passing on any price differences to you anyhow. However, don’t say I didn’t warn you if the answer isn’t a “yes.” Most photographers are good about maintaining retouching consistency, but I have encountered a few who aren’t, even at the high end, so I think that it is a good policy to check on this.

Long story short, remember that communication about retouching is key to getting the results that you want. It’s not uncommon for photos to be sent back to me for revisions because someone didn’t tell the photographer what they wanted. This usually results in more expensive retouching. I’d rather charge you less and make you happier.

Retouching is something that you as a photographic subject have control over. They’re your photos and we want you to love the results!



All photography by Stephanie Maulding

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.