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8 Things I Never Imagined I'd Retouch Regularly

Some people think a photographer's job is glamorous. And perhaps it is, at times. At other times, though, photographers find themselves retouching some really annoying and frankly quite gross details. 

Baby Acne 

As a family photographer, I often take close-up portraits of babies' skin. It amazes many people (mostly those who've never looked closely at a baby's face) that newborn skin might ever need retouching. Many newborns suffer from baby acne, which can absolutely ravage their face. Faced with the toxins outside the womb, newborn skin can react by getting dry and scaly. Plus, babies can have astonishingly sharp nails and can scratch their own faces quite deeply. All of this means that I'm often airbrushing spots, bumps, rashes from babies. Baby-soft skin is a misnomer! I run a subtle edit over skin so it still looks natural, but without the blemishes. 

Baby Bogies 

I always keep an eye on a baby's nostrils, in case a runny nose needs a wipe. Sometimes, though, it's not worth spoiling a moment by irritating a baby with a nose wipe. It can be better to grab the photograph and deal with the nose afterwards. Still, retouching snot from a baby's nostrils never makes my heart sing! 

Spotty Bottom 

True fact, at a Scottish wedding, it's traditional for the groomsmen to moon the photographer for a group shot. I didn't know that, and it caught me by surprise! So too did the spots on display when I came to edit the photographs. I just couldn't hand over the photograph with red-raw acne, so I took a deep breath and smoothed it out. 

Bird Poop 

So many street signs and railings are festooned with a little dollop. It's beyond the call of duty really, but retouching bird poop away leaves a building looking pristine and your photograph looking polished. 

Litter on the Street 

I always scan the scene before getting started with a photograph to see if there's any errant litter. Picking up a bottle, packet, or strip of paper might feel gross, but it will save your photograph. There are some things I always suggest we simply move away from, though — a dead rat, in one instance. Really. 

So far, so icky. But there are also a few things I find myself retouching again and again, which I also can't believe.

Gaps in Foliage or Brickwork

Tidying up the trees in the background of a shot can really bring the photograph together. It feels crazy retouching a tree, but sometimes, the gaps in bokeh can be distracting rather than pretty. 

Likewise, the clutter that can build up on brickwork and walls: 

Studs in Jeans 

Those pesky little metal studs on the sides of jeans drive me bananas. They reflect the light so strongly and really pull your eye towards them. Removing them completely is fiddly and can make jeans look odd. I solve this by cloning in an area of denim at medium opacity, so you can still see there's a stud, but it's much less eye-catching. 

Light Switches and Sockets 

Smartphone lighting can't come soon enough for me. Cloning out light switches and power sockets is the bane of my life! Sadly, it makes such a difference to a photograph that it's a must-do for me. 

What do you find are the details you're retouching again and again? Or do you opt for a documentary approach with no editing of these annoyances? 

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Dominic Deacon's picture

Self harm scars. It's a worry how often I find myself painting these out. I don't see them a lot in the real world but then I've got bad eyesight. Maybe I'm just missing them. But it's something I do day in, day out and it's not something I enjoy.

Kirk Darling's picture

I consider "I don't see them in the real world" a key to my retouching for portraits. I'm trying to convey my experience with that person through the image. I spend time getting to know my subjects, getting a rich experience of them. My basic philosophy for retouching their portrait is, "If I didn't experience it, it doesn't need to be there."

This rather draws from my beginnings as a painter: I never painted anything I didn't see (experience). In photography, when I've given myself plenty of time to experience the essence of my subject, I remove what I didn't "see," what wasn't part of that experience.

This also means I must strive to depict what I experienced that isn't necessarily visual and make it visual, such as an impish wit.

Ian Spencer's picture

I think one of the fundamentals is that in the real world our brain is a con man, it makes up most of what you see. (At arm's length the amount you see in detail is the size of a large coin yet we imagine we see a whole landscape in detail).

On a photograph, you view it differently, you have time to scan and investigate, so it is legitimate to remove detail that most people would say, "I never noticed that." whether that is light switches, zits or street furniture.

The other question is, are you making art or a documentary record. It may be impossible to take a shot of a church without a powerline running across it. Is it wrong to remove an intrusive and thoughtless intervention that interrupts our appreciation of something? Oddly, the brain can be quite good at filtering out irrelevances in real life, yet seems attracted to them in a picture (after all, how often have you taken a photo and only spotted the irritation after examining it?).

Michelle Maani's picture

Wow, I've never thought about that. My daughter went through a really dark period where she was cutting herself often. Now she doesn't seem to have any compunction about showing her arms as they are, scars and all. No one dares to ask her about them, so maybe she's not really aware how visible they are. Every time I see them I feel a vise on my heart. I don't know how she'd feel about having them erased. I'll have to look at the pictures she did while modeling for a professional photographer to see if the pose hid them, or if they were erased. If I were to pay for portraits of her, I'd probably be glad they were erased. But maybe she's proud she overcame her problems.

Dominic Deacon's picture

My usual rule with retouching is that if its permanent (eg a birthmark) it stays and if its temporary (eg a pimple) it goes. I make an exception for these kind of scars. Not sure if that's the wrong thing to do but I've never had a client request that I put them back.