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How far should retouching go?

Follow me and Alise in the rabbit hole and let's see how deep it goes :)

Gotcha!!! There is no Alice and you are stuck with me in a rabbit hole. Alright, that didn't sound right…

Disclaimer to my purist friends, I regret to inform you - I use photoshop! And not just for color/exposure corrections, but also skin retouching, some landscaping in landscape photos and some cheating in product photography to make the product how the client imagined it to be :) Have you ever seen the retouching that goes into jewelry photography? If not, check it out, it is insane. Also watches are touched beyond belief. Now, obviously, this kind of retouching comes at a cost, because that ain't cheap and people make a living doing just that.

I want to go over some things regarding portrait retouching and the do's and don'ts in my book.

The first thing I do is look for some random hairs that can't seem to land anywhere and sometimes a hair lands over the face and you notice it only afterwards. Crap. Usually it's not a big deal and that is one of those things that I think should be retouched.

In this crazy world people are working more and more to get by, therefore more and more people, even younger people are prone to having those darker shades of skin underneath the eyes. Good for Halloween, not so good for a job photo on a website. I take great care with this, because I think that one cannot remove those darker shades completely, because they are a crucial part of the face and a tool, If I may say so, of expression. I will try to minimize them as much as possible, without loosing the general expression of the person. Some people have them so distinct, that you can't actually retouch them that much, because it is a big feature of their face. Here is an example of no retouch, retouched and overtouched.


In the example above, on the left you see the JPEG conversion from RAW without any edits. The second one is what I would normally do, but the third is an example of what I would not do - remove the circles beneath the eyes. Unless you live in a fantasy world where unicorns rule all of land - go right ahead :) At the end of the day, it's pretty much what the client says, at the same time, I believe it's my duty to explain the consequences of such retouching.


For the rest of the skin I'll airbrush things out. If you want to be really lazy, then check out these tools. I have not tried them, but seen in action and it is pretty amazing. Photoshop with its neural filters pales in comparison.

There are other features of the face or skin in general, like pimples, scars and birthmarks. I will remove pimples, because that is not a permanent feature of the person, however, birthmarks and scars I will leave un….almost untouched. I will remove something if the person wants me to, but I will still usually lighten the birthmarks and scars up just ever so slightly. This ever-so-slightly technique may vary from person to person, but I will not go crazy on it at any point. Most people are conscious about these things and even the ones that have come to terms with some unfortunate scar or birthmark, most of them would prefer to have it another way and so I try to help mother nature just a bit. I don't recall ever getting a complaint about this, but like I said, I do it so subtle that only if you would see the before and after, you would know.

The eyes - the gateway to a persons soul….or so they say. On occasion someone will have very deep eyes and I might need to lighten them up a smidge. And a lot of the time I will make the iris of the eyes pop just a tad bit, but again, no Halloween, and to avoid true heebee-jeebees I stay away from the whites of the eyes, except when there are some very obvious blood vessels. As you can see, there is a lot of I don't do this, but…. Yet again, the end of the day, it all depends of what kind of look you are going for.


There is another factor that one should consider and that is, who is this person that you are shooting. Is it a celebrity, a model or one of us, a mere mortal? In my opinion different retouching goes into models, because it's almost never the model, but about the product he/she is showcasing. Models are like clay and they are shaped and molded to fit the need of the creator. Damn, that sounded divine. The point is that one is unlikely to recognize this person if they were standing next to them at a news stand during their off hours. You won't see the same retouch approach to celebrities because they are the product and they have to be recognizable. The only time you will see celebrities transformed into a Madam Tussauds wax figure, is on a movie poster. Go ahead and check some of those out. I know that on occasion I even don't recognize the actors, but for some reason in that industry that's OK. For the rest of us it is even more important to look as natural as possible, yet the best of our natural :) That is what I try to do when I take portraits, try to bring the best out of that person and sure, with some it's easier, and with some it takes more work, but I consider that part of the deal when I agree to take photos of this person.


A delicate topic and I hope I made my thoughts clear on this one.

Should I even get into the debate about retouching landscapes? That kinda frightens me. How about you let me know if yes. I need to be mentally prepared for that :)

See ya!

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