How Far Is Too Far When It Comes to Skin Retouching?

How Far Is Too Far When It Comes to Skin Retouching?

The thought process of skin retouching seems to vary between photographers. Many favor a smooth, glossy effect, some like it natural, and others don’t retouch at all. So, where do we draw the line? There’s no right or wrong answer, but what do most people prefer?

I recently stumbled across the below Neutrogena advertisement. The skincare company promise their new Hydro Boost gel cream will have your skin glowing, and if their commercial is anything to go by, you’ll be glowing so radiantly you’ll barely look human. The video features Actress Kirsten Bell, who of course is all smiles about the way her skin looks. Except, in trying to prove their product smooths your skin, the team responsible for processing the video have taken it a step too far, in my opinion. It got me thinking: how much should we be retouching skin?

We all know images undergo retouching, but articles detailing heavier usage within video have been cropping up aplenty in recent months. Last year, Meghan Trainor demanded her own video be removed from Youtube after realizing it featured a digitally altered version of her waist, making her appear thinner. It’s clear this kind of retouching is becoming accessible to teams working on video projects even without the budgets of a blockbuster film; more often than not, many of the video retouching scandals of late have stemmed from relatively inexpensive pop music videos.

The rule I live by in regards to skin retouching specifically is to only remove non-permanent features of a person’s face, that being spots, bruises, fluff, lipstick stains, etc. Moles, freckles, and dimples all stay. It might seem like rational logic, but I’ve seen plenty of photographers remove all of these, despite the fact they’re a permanent fixture of the model’s face. It all contributes to the notion that somehow having freckles and so on is a flaw. Let’s not even talk about the Match.com campaign featuring a freckled woman with the slogan: "If you don’t like your imperfections, someone else will." I’m not against taming wrinkles or facial creases, but all within reason. There’s a fine line between making someone feel good by tidying up, and rendering them unrecognizable.

A few months ago, I promised myself that in order to evolve as a photographer, I’d continue to experiment in Photoshop and look at other post-processing techniques that would either speed up my current process or improve it. Since then, I’ve discovered a multitude of alternative ways to improve skin, and I have no qualms in admitting it’s easy to get carried away. Often, you can become engrossed in retouching skin within a close-up portrait – I often find the process quite therapeutic – only to zoom out and realize that you went too far, and your subject looks a tad on the plastic side.

One rule I like to live by when it comes to my work is that I want to be able to look at an image and not be able to pick out what has been altered or enhanced. If I can determine what exactly someone has had Photoshopped (their eyes have been saturated to an unnatural degree, their cheeks blur into their chin, etc), it ruins any impact the photo could have had on me. Instead, I’m distracted by the over-the-top post-processing. There’s a lot to be said for the skills required to alter and enhance a person’s features in a photo, and for many photographers, it is their signature style. But for me, more often than not, less can really be more.

I’m interested to know what your stance is on skin. Do you tend to like images with high-end retouching or that favor a natural approach? What rules do you enforce on yourself when editing skin?

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23 Comments

Alex Dylikowski's picture

Obvious - the best is the truth.

Jack, I'm in full agreement with your position. I've had many subjects wanting me to "erase" what made them unique and always fought to keep a reasonable balance in the process. Part of our job is to make our subjects comfortable to the point where they agree to be themselves. I think our society went too far in what it calls correcting features. Nothing looks better than the true personality coming out of the image, including what makes the subject unique, be it moles, scars, or anything permanent. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

Anonymous's picture

I try to make a subject look like they would on their best day. The only permanent features I "fix" are those the individual would want (i.e. scars, lazy eyes, ...)
I think it really depends on the purpose of the portrait as defined by the intended audience. I do corporate portraiture and these people, literally, represent the face of the company.

The truth is that more and more cosmetic surgeries are done and the cosmetic industry is very profitable and this shows that most people want to be more "beautiful" ...
People go to a photographer to look beautiful ... To be the same they do not go to any photographer, because today everyone has at least one camera.

Anonymous's picture

If it's not permanent, like a zit, I'll remove it. If it's a part of the person, it stays.

Anonymous's picture

This is a very reasonable standard. I aim for a "good likeness", always. This means that you _should_ remove the spot, because the spot isn't an essential part of the likeness, it's part of a bad week. It's a bit more awkward with photos of teenagers I guess.

Anonymous's picture

Generally speaking, if you can tell there's been some editing, it's too far. But portraits have always been retouched to make a fair likeness, and a fair likeness is an image that represents someone through time. So temporary flaws should go.

Personally I aim to solve as much as possible in lighting, and then I edit to remove short term imperfections; I will gently help with tired eyes, acne, temporary scarring.

The absolute truth is a fine standard, but that also leads people to overdo with makeup what can be more kindly done with the airbrush.

Dave McDermott's picture

It's all the rage now. Take a look at the most popular portraits on this site. They're almost always heavily retouched with every imperfection removed. I think this is fine for beauty and commercial work, but its just not necessary for the majority of portraiture. To me its excessive but its what a lot of people seem to like. The only skin retouching I do is removing the odd spot or blemish.

Nick Viton's picture

My thoughts exactly. These pictures will eventually all look dated. One day we'll look back at all these pictures, roll our eyes and say "... where did their pores go?!!"

Chris Knight's picture

To be fair, it's been all the rage for hundreds of years. 😉. Our visual sensibilities are pretty entrenched in history, and everyone's taste comes from their own experience.

Dave McDermott's picture

I was referring to heavily retouched images in portrait photography though, which has become a lot more popular in the last few years. It's like high end beauty retouching is used in all genre's now. I think its better when its subtle and tailored to the intent of the image.

Kim Ginnerup's picture

I have followed a lot of Photoshop/Lightroom tutorials paid and free. I have always felt they've gone to far.
People wants to look their best. That is understandable but the wrinkles you have is part of who you are and the life you have lived. I find the new Pirelly calendar refreshing to bad I cannot buy one. :-)

Geoffrey Badner's picture

The irony here is that all of the "featured photos" at the bottom of this screen with people in them are over retouched; most horrible so.

Yep. Most of them look like high quality computer graphics, not photographs.

Kirk Darling's picture

As has been said, it depends on the purpose and the client. A portrait artist starts with a blank canvas and puts onto it that which expresses the essential character of the subject as he experienced it.

A photographer starts with a mechanical replication of a particular visual dimension and is left to subtract that which does not express the essential character of the subject as he experienced it. It's like Michelangelo's description of how he sculpted the statue of David from a block of marble: "I removed everything that did not look like 'David.'"

The camera distorts the reality we experience when face-to-face with a person. It's major distortion is that it often makes prominent elements that we never noticed face-to-face, things that are not part of our experience of that person. If it is not what we experienced, is that really "truth" as a portrait?

Anonymous's picture

I wish I could vote you up twice! :-) Your last paragraph really hit the nail on the head.

Jonathan Brady's picture

Pretty simple, if it doesn't look real, the end result is not a photograph. It may cross into digital art or into trash once it doesn't look real. Which one depends on the processing, intent, and audience.

My method (for beauty retouching) is to retouch the skin to that of Julia Kuzmenko's level and then fade back in the original by about 15% on average. To my eye this appears realistic and believable yet meeting the viewable/printable likeness of the photographer's vision.

John Gaylord's picture

A little powder applied with a brush softens the highlights without looking obvious.

Robert Redford's picture

Most of the Portrait photographers strive to accomplish beautiful skin in their images. Getting attractive skin that is also true and preserves natural skin texture is a portrait photographer’s. Expertly applied makeup and good lighting are the foundation for beautiful skin, but retouching is the polish.

Bruce Stenman's picture

I never want a mannequin look which is what one got with the early DSLR cameras that provided excessive noise reduction in the camera. Beyond that it depends on the person. With a bride I know that she will be quite fatigued on her wedding day and so may have circles under her eyes and I will touch them up if she did not get a good makeup job and less than 5% of the brides get that regardless of who did the work.

With the mothers of the B&G I will add a layer and soften wrinkles and then adjust the layer until the wrinkles and laugh lines just start to show. This provides a real look without the exaggeration that can happen with the location lighting which is going to be terrible 99% of the time at a church or reception venue.

I only use noise reduction and I periodically will test various products against each other. For the most part CS6 NR provides the most control and produces the best results though it takes longer than something like Topaz deNoise. Using a portrait application to automate the process is not something I will ever do though I can see its value for those doing seniors portraits for those suffering from teen year blemishes and such.

I see the PORCELAIN DOLL skin effect everywhere from photographers who will someday look at their shots and think, "I guess I went a little too far.". All you had to do in the first place is back way off on the opacity of what you applied.

Matthias Dengler's picture

I work full-time as a retoucher.
This question is very controversial but in the end, if you have to edit other peoples' work, you sadly just have to do what they want. If it were to me, I would have left more natural features in my face than the company. I take it usually like that: I would to smoothen the skin, because the camera captures more details than your human eye focusses on in daily life. So those features that i even recognize in real life definitely stay, e.g. moles in unusual positions.
Normally, I remove or at least subdue wrinkles, dodge & burn to get the face nicely lit and enhance the eyes a little bit. But more than that is for me personal too much. I don't want to go into ethic topics. I guess, it's a question of taste for your own pictures, but still we should not exaggerate it. I do not work with make-up artists, so I'm compensating for that with my post-production. Sometimes, I also go overboard.

And the most important thing is: If the photographed person likes herself in the picture, you succeed, if not, it was either too much or too less retouching.