The importance of learning to retouch your own images

February 24, 2018


I am already second-guessing the title of this post because of how potentially pretentious it sounds… furthermore when I think about it, probably half of my favorite photographers actually outsource their retouching. Take Annie Leibovitz, the world’s most well-known portrait photographer. She has an entire team of ghost retouchers painstakingly working on all of her images, to the extent that they can hardly even be connected to her apart from her signature. Even in my own, smaller-scale personal experiences, every studio I have worked with thus far has outsourced color-correction and retouching numerous times.

So let me pedal back from the title that I am too stubborn to change, and say that I actually do not necessarily disagree with outsourcing retouching, particularly when a client is involved and in the end, visual branding is on the line. Retouching is not just dragging a couple sliders and slamming a filter on an image and calling it a day; it is an incredibly difficult skill to master, with techniques that are quite frankly on a completely different level of those used in photography. Not everyone has the time to master this skill, and when both you and your team’s reputation are on the line, you can’t mess around, and I get that. 


Not knowing your way around the digital darkroom at all however? Nah, man. I propose a middle ground, a balance that favors being exceptional. I truly believe retouching is an essential skill to any serious photographer, at the very least in his or her particular specialty or discipline. For example, an architecture photographer should know how to correct images for perspective, distortion, keystone, and tone-match exposures. A beauty photographer should know how to manipulate skin tone, remove blemishes, and shape the lighting around the face. A fashion photographer should know how to fix clothing, wrinkles, modify poses, and perform basic skin retouching. A portrait and wedding photographer should be able to remove foreign objects, swap heads for the ideal group photo, and know how to put polishing touches on the most important cover images. A product photographer should be able to stack images for perfect focus, remove dust and hairs, and make sure the entire collection is color-consistent. Why? Because it is part of the photographer’s job; it always has been.


For those of us fortunate enough (or should I say old enough) to have shot film in any serious capacity, it is a given that any serious photographers would always process their own film and produce their own prints. The studio and darkroom were directly connected, usually physically. Nobody just shot their negatives and was done with it. With C41 processing becoming commonplace for color, film processing did become more automated, but dodging, burning, masking, and printing were always in the photographer’s quiver, right alongside their lighting and composition. After all what good is an incredible vision and masterful execution of it, if one can’t produce the final print? And so I have noticed that many photographers who really still remain fully integrated in the entire editing, retouching, and printing process, tend to be those old enough to have the entire workflow already habitually ingrained into their minds. Commercial photographer Erik Almas is a prime example of this. Not all, but many younger photographers these days latch on to the idea of buying presets, filters, and other shortcuts in finishing their images. There is another approach gaining popularity amongst busy professional shooters: Partnering with a dedicated retoucher.


This trend has in-turn provided me an entirely new avenue of work, and quite a lucrative one at that. Why? Because in my career as a photographer, I have shot a particularly diverse and wide variety of genres out of necessity. As a result, I've also processed and retouched all of my own weddings, portraits, architecture, fashion, beauty, product, nature, landscape, etc… So not only does that experience benefit my own images; now I can put them to use helping any number of other artists across almost any discipline of photography. I work with multiple studios in Manhattan and Brooklyn with both their color-correction and retouching for print. One of the more interesting such clients I have the pleasure of working with so far came in the form of No.3 Magazine, an up and coming digital and print publication focusing on art, design, fashion, lifestyle, and interviews. They had recently shot a fashion editorial that was in dire need of finishing touches and a myriad of Photoshop corrections.


This ultimately gave me the perspective from the other side of the photographer-retoucher relationship that before I really just didn't quite understand. I always imagined an impersonal process, common with the type of editing my previous studios would outsource. And so while I was always uncomfortable with the notion of letting someone else working on my images, I have to admit I honestly loved the ability to inject my own aesthetic into someone else’s work. And similar to when someone appreciates my photography, it was really incredible to have my own artistic sensibilities reciprocated from my client in the images I worked on. It has changed my perspective on the entire process, and I can now see that working with a talented retoucher stands to be potentially very fruitful for our creative expansion. While I still think I will want to remain in full control of my own personal work, I can positively see the benefits and unique advantages of incorporating a dedicated retoucher in collaborative projects, where many visions are combining to produce one. In a scenario like this, it is almost too much control to let the photographer be in charge of both capture and post-processing. Food for thought. 







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© 2018 Frank Withers - use of these images without permission is strictly prohibited