Retouching – Is Credit Due?
In the world of digital photography, retouching often plays just as much of a role in the final image as taking the photo(s). There seems to be an even split of professional photographers who do it all themselves vs those who hire it out, and lately I’ve been noticing some discussion based around where credit is due when a photo’s final appearance relies more on editing than setting up lights and pressing the shutter.
In the days of film, a professional photographer was usually expected to be an expert of not only his camera and lights, but the dark room as well, and the final photo was the product of this combined knowledge. Nowadays in every part of the industry there are well known and respected photographers who openly hire out their editing, whether it’s with an in-house team or one of the many freelance retouching services around the world, and are often credited as the creator of the final image just as the darkroom photographers of the past. The question is, when manipulation plays such a large role do the retouchers deserve equal credit?
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of photographers out there who are great about promoting their editors whenever they can, and very rarely do they have any say in who’s credited for the images, but there are some cases (especially in the commercial/advertisement world) where the photographer’s images are such a small component of the final images that the editing and element composition is what ultimately tells the story. One popular and controversial example among our readers was Annie Leibovitz’s Disney set where we see the actual photos shot as simple portraits with minimal set/props which is then transformed into a rich and surreal environment.
(example of from-camera shot on original set, by Annie Leibovitz)
(final image with edits, originally shot on the same set)
Try as I might, the most I can find about the retouching in these surreal sets is that it’s done by a team of editors she hires, their names, backgrounds, and past work completely unknown. I don’t want to turn this post into another Annie Leibovitz love/hate debate, these examples were simply chosen because they are so well known, but you can’t tell me that the first photo even remotely creates the mood, impression, and feel of the final product, and this kind of drastic manipulation (which often takes more hours of work than shooting the images themselves) is very common among the commercial industry.
Despite what seems like such an injustice to their craft, there don’t seem to be many retouchers openly complaining about the lack of credit, in fact most of the content I can find surrounding the issue is written by photographers, like this blog post by Jeremy Cowart, coincidentally fueled by the same image set, where retouchers among the comments simply write it off as the unfortunate circumstances surrounding their industry.
Personally, (and this is where this becomes an opinion piece) I’ve always worked by a self-set rule that I couldn’t put an image in my portfolio that I hadn’t imagined, shot, and retouched myself from beginning to end. I feel as though that work is a representation of my own skills and abilities, but at the same time I entirely understand the mindset behind hiring it out, and if I had a client ask me to create something like a complex composite for them that I knew was beyond my editing abilities, that’s absolutely the route I would take… but no way would I be comfortable including that image in my portfolio without noticeable credit to that hired artist and a note in the exif, which takes all of 30 seconds.
Ultimately it seems to me like another case of things being done how they’ve always been done and no one wanting or knowing how to change an entire system, but I want to know from you in the comments at what point do you think a photographer can’t be given sole credit in publications for the final images? Has this issue effected you in your own work, and if so, what was your solution?