The Power of Retouching


There is something to be said for striving to get the best possible results in camera. It is the ultimate goal of a photographer to have a shot properly exposed and looking great straight-out-of-camera (SOOC). Not only is there a lot of satisfaction in having an image come out so well SOOC, but there will be a lot less time spent at the computer in post-production retouching.

Most photographers I know would rather spend their time behind the camera taking pictures, rather than at their computer editing.

I have heard the nay-sayers criticize any amount of retouching on an image. And I agree that some take it to extremes that do not resemble reality. I've seen famous celebrities completely altered in magazines that go well beyond just helping them look better. Even Meghan Trainor in her popular song "All About That Bass" says:

I see the magazines working that Photoshop We know that [stuff] ain't real Come on now, make it stop

But retouching in portraiture has its place when used well, by someone with skill, and a good eye for when enough is enough. Of course, you can argue that what could be considered 'enough' to one person might be 'way-over-done' to someone else. So how do you know where to draw the line? When is it too much?

Truth is, it's subjective.

Editing software like Photoshop is today's digital-darkroom, and is one of the best resources photographers can use to help bring our creative vision into sharper focus (pun intended ;-) ). You may not realize this, but back in film camera days (long before digital) there was a lot of retouching going on in those darkrooms. Yes, they were limited to the technology of their day - but changes to light and shadows, cropping and altering of features were sometimes used as often as they are today.

Granted, programs like Photoshop have taken our ability to alter images to a whole new level by manipulating individual pixels - and it can certainly be mis-used. But when used well it can be one of a photographer's best tools in their toolbox.

You can see by my own before and after shot (pictured above) what a difference some good retouching can make in an image. This was a not-so-great snapshot taken of me. I liked the pose and angle, but the color was off and the light wasn't so flattering. The camera, unlike the human eye, has a tendency to over-exaggerate light and shadow, and can therefore emphasize imperfections.

So I took the image into my editing software program and applied my Basic Retouch. This included correcting the color where necessary, lightening shadows to create a more natural appearance, removing temporary blemishes, and a minimal smoothing of skin tone.

But I knew I wanted to 'glam' this image up and give it more polish overall, so I also added my Signature Beauty Edit (called Signature Grooming Edit for the guys). This is a much more extensive retouch and goes well beyond the Basic Retouch to include things like softening fine lines and wrinkles, digitally touching up makeup, thickening and adding volume to hair, taming distracting flyaways, adding dimension to hair with color, smoothing and shaping the lines of the body, and finishing the image with a stylized overlay for a more fashionable, magazine-type look.

This additional Retouching service can also include adding eyelashes, reducing gray hair, correcting root growth, cleaning up a 5 o'clock shadow and/or grooming the lines and appearance of a beard, and even reduce excessive wrinkling in clothes.

This much additional retouching is not always needed, nor wanted. For example actors and models usually want their headshots to look as much like their natural selves as possible, in which case my Basic Retouch is plenty. However, people in other industries might like to go a little further with editing.

Everyone has their own threshold with photo editing - a line where it becomes too much. But it really comes down to what industry you're in, your own personal preferences and taste, and ultimately how the images will be used.

I personally feel like your headshot should be a reflection of who you are on your best day. A day when your hair is looking amazing, when your makeup is flawless, when your skin is clear, smooth, and bright... You know, those days when you walk out of the house feeling really confident about how you look which makes you feel like you could conquer the world? You at your absolute best! A great headshot should capture all that, and if editing programs like Photoshop can help put that little bit of magic into an image then, why not?

No matter how much a photo is edited the most important thing is that the client is happy with the end result. We all see ourselves a certain way in the mirror, and we all have our own personal likes and dislikes about how we look. So in the end, who is to say how much 'Photoshopping' is too much? Beauty is always in the eye of the beholder. ;-)