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Fstoppers Interviews Retoucher & Photographer Ashlee Gray

Fstoppers Interviews Retoucher & Photographer Ashlee Gray

Finding a great retoucher (if you use one) can be a pretty daunting task. Most photographers end up doing their own - picking up techniques and tricks along the way. Ashlee Gray is a beauty and fashion photographer and [primarily a] retoucher based in New York whose clients include Tresemme, Starbucks, Rebecca Minkoff and Gatorade. As a photographer, her images are beautiful, feminine and even delicate. It's that same underlying aesthetic that she applies to her retouching- yet still managing to retain the unique style of the individual photographers she works with.


Can you tell us about yourself and your background?
My name is Ashlee Gray. I'm a photographer turned retoucher specializing in beauty, fashion and lifestyle. I'm 24 years old living in Brooklyn, NY.

What got you started in photography and retouching?
I grew up in a small town in central Pennsylvania. My family had donkeys, horses and even a pet deer that slept in front of the fireplace at night. My mother gave me her Canon AE-1 when I was 13 and I began shooting film. I carried a tote bag to school everyday large enough to fit my camera, flash and a couple of lenses. My father contributed by giving me his purple velvet Crown Royal bags to keep my lenses in.

When I went to college for photography I realized I had a particular interest in retouching. One of my professors once paid me in Starbucks gift cards to teach her how to use a couple tools in Photoshop (Sure?). Although, my final portfolio was in photography I knew that building my retouching book was what I wanted to focus on as soon as I graduated.


What kind of things would we find at your desk?
A cup of black coffee and a water bottle. Pretty standard things like my Intous4 Wacom tablet (don't know what I would do without it). A lot of portable hard drives that travel back and forth to clients. An iPad so when I get bored with music I can put on tv shows to listen to as I work. The most comfortable leather chair $200 could buy.


At what point are you brought in on the process?
Sometimes as early as the bidding on a job begins, it just really depends on the client or project. Often I'm contacted a couple weeks in advance asking if I'm available to retouch on set as the images are being shot. On the other hand, being contacted last minute for a rush turnaround isn't out of the ordinary.

What kind of information do you usually like to know when someone contacts you to retouch?
Pretty basic things- first comes the most important question, what will the deadline be? Will there be any heavy comping of images, will the images be for print and/or web, etc. If the shoot is already finished, I usually request to see some high res jpgs of the images to estimate how much time will be needed and that sort of thing. It's also really helpful to have them for reference when they clients are discussing what kind of direction they would like for the images.


Do you like when clients supply retouching notes with any revisions they would like?
Yes, absolutely- it's nice to have a starting point, especially when clients already have a specific direction in mind. Along with saving time it's just another tool that allows us to communicate better visually.

Do you have a hard time stepping away from your desk when you are in the middle of a job?
The answer used to be yes. After time I found it's imperative to take breaks to get some fresh air, stretch and relax my eyes no matter what the deadline is. It helps to step away from the images for a bit and come back with fresh eyes. Luckily having a dog gets me out of the house first thing in the morning and throughout the day.


What do you do differently when you work on images for yourself versus a job?
I spend more time experimenting with things. Since jobs usually have a quick deadline there usually isn't any extra time to play around with new techniques.

What do you do on your down time?
When I'm not at my desk editing images zoomed in at 200%, I'm usually outdoors. I have a little greenhouse on my patio full of succulents and cacti. Plants and green things really make me feel like I'm at home in the country. I also really like to cook.


What has been your most memorable moment in your career so far?
The first time I saw the Vikingjford Vodka ad I retouched on the back cover of Maxim magazine. It was the first time I retouched on set and the final shot ended up being 15 or so different shots comped together. I was also being asked questions for an interview while being filmed (AHHH!!). There was a lot going on the day and it was really rewarding to see a stranger just holding the magazine on the street.

What is your favorite part of the whole process?
Clicking the before and after is the most satisfying part for sure. Sometimes I'll forget what all has been done and at the end I'll even surprise myself. Seeing things in print is also a great feeling, who doesn't love that!





View Ashlee's photography portfolio here and her retouching portfolio here.

Chris Knight's picture

Residing in New York City, Chris is an internationally published photographer whose work has appeared in Vogue, People, MSNBC, ABC, Ocean Drive, GQ and others. He is an instructor of Photography and Imaging at Pratt Institute and the New York Film Academy.

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retoucher = creator of plastic simulacrums, far too often

...and you clearly know exactly zero about professional retouching.

Do you have to be a professional retoucher to be able to express your opinion on what looks plastic and what does not? I've seen enough people in my life to be able to tell whether Donatella Versace had plastic surgery or not, I did not have to be a professional plastic surgeon to do so. People use and trust their eyes. Some people prefer plastic, others don't. Deal with it.

Sorry, but that skin...eww. Or is it plastic?

Thank you for the interview, Ashlee sounds like such a wonderful person! Thanks for taking the time.

Interesting story. It would be good to see some 'before' and 'after' images when reading articles about retouching. I find it very interesting, and while some of the finished images are not to my own taste, it is fascinating nonetheless.

Good article...you guys are on the right track to providing quality stories again. Some of the comments are a bit harsh though. This is extreme retouching for the beauty/fashion world. More along the lines of art expression. I doubt she retouches regular portraits in this manner. Nobobody seemed to notice the great work she did on the clothing...

these photos are great

Nice read! Of course I can see the onslaught of the millions of "omg its soooo plastic" comments coming on. You sound like an awesome down to earth person & with superb quality work. Thats what matters. Rock on.

Plastic or not, it looks good to me. I think plastic has its place in the industry, especially in fashion photography where the main focus of the photograph is usually not the person of the model itself. No bitching here....

Personal tastes aside, fashion photography isn't really about a picture of a person (that has flaws, pores, etc). Rather, it's a stylized design that simply includes the human form, which is only there to serve the larger aesthetic desired. I think people mistakenly (pros and lay people) intermingle the principles of fashion photography (more accurately, conceptual design), with those of headshots or commercial portraits (among others).

I would have liked to see before/after shots as well.
This is fairly normal makeup/beauty retouch for the closeups. For folks screaming "plastic", go into your department store's makeup section and have a hard look at the photos on the wall. Then scream "plasticccccccc!!!" while in the store and see how many weird looks you get :-)

A lot of times the photographers/clients never want the unretouched images to be released. As a retoucher, it's great to see before/after shots, but I totally understand the reasoning behind not showing them.

Ashlee's retouching is beautiful and she does a great job maintaining skin texture while perfecting her images. Bravo!

No questions about technique???? What???

I'm wondering how she gets it done like this...
Great work!!