Retouching Will Never Go Away

Retouching Will Never Go Away

In a world looking for more honesty and truth, one element of photography has become more and more pervasive. As the list of companies going "retouching free" grows, we are forced to take a step back and take a look at the practice. Is retouching really the problem it is perceived to be? 

Let's play a little memory game. I want you to think of the face of someone close to you. Now, what are you seeing? Their jawline, eye color, nose shape, and maybe their smile. Are you thinking of the open pores on their face? Their poor makeup application? Or the pale white hairs on their cheeks? No? Then why should their photos reflect that?

Retouching, in many cases, is about bringing back what you actually see. Whether it's the lighting or the cameras we use, there are many reasons why retouching is a necessary tool; yet, we're being told that this is the reason why many people are having confidence issues. In this article, I will try to dispel this idea and suggest what might be the bigger issue with advertising.

Cameras Aren't Telling the Truth

Here are two photos. This is what my camera thought was right. Are these photos telling the truth? No. The model on the left isn't this orange, the model on the right wasn't this soft. These were what the camera thought was correct with zero adjustments. Why should we leave it up to cameras to tell us the story we're trying to tell? Even when you shoot JPEG or shoot with your phone, it's basically making automatic adjustments that aren't real. There's nothing natural or perfect with what your camera is doing. Even now with cameraphones, there's artificial sharpening and HDR being included that add to what your eyes don't see.

These ones are specifically poor due to the use of studio lighting, but that doesn't make this point any less true. There are many issues that cameras can't adapt to, like multiple lighting sources with different color temperatures and in some cases, how lighting affects people of varying skin tones.

Camera Sharpness Is Insane Now

This goes along with the last point. We are getting to a place where our cameras are giving us maybe a little too much definition. Back in the film days, nothing was this defined; you weren't seeing pores like we are now. With the way film was processed and the specific tones you'd get, we were seeing moments. It was much easier to look past the photo's little details and see the image for the story it was trying to tell. Snapshots with disposable cameras allowed you to capture a moment, but that's not what we're seeing now. With today's technology, we're capturing visually accurate representations of what is happening.

Unless your family had a really nice SLR, you didn't see or care how sharp a photo was. You just hoped in those 24 frames there was at least one where everyone's eyes were open.

This is why I have no problems with people using filters and softening skin in their photos for Instagram. They're making it less about them and more about the moment. With a photo today, you have so much time to dissect every element of a person. If you want to isolate someone's looks, you can do that, even though you would never do that when you're seeing a person real-time. But in the days of extreme sharpness, you're seeing a new level of definition that's more than we've ever needed for public consumption.

Looking back, a great comparison to this would be the switch to HD in 2008. The television and makeup industries had to change to accommodate the new technology. On-screen personalities had to adapt to the new level of sharpness that their viewers would be seeing. This was especially challenging for middle-aged adults, as outlined by Michael Ventre. Many makeup artists and production teams were very worried about how wrinkles, poorly maintained skin, and bad makeup would look after the transition.

Just remember, this was also 12 years ago. Think about the advancements we've made since then. Skincare and makeup application have only become more important because of 4K.

Studio Lighting Isn't Natural

Compare a photo of yourself taken in your bathroom with those crappy, small bulbs above your head and then one from a cloudy day outside. You'll notice a big difference in how your face and skin texture look in both. This is the same problem with studio lighting compared to natural light photography. 

What you need to understand is skin is very thin; by using very powerful flashes, you're showing everything that's underneath and magnifying every little pore on your face because of the distance and angle of the lights. It's like shining a light through a piece of paper: you're going to see what's printed on the other side. This is great for creating sharp, consistent photos, terrible for giving an accurate representation of what you look like. For most people. your pores aren't what people are looking at or even notice. Why should that be the most defined characteristic on your face when your photo is taken? 

None of these little hairs on the face matter for the final image. Why should they stay?

Outdoor lighting diffused by clouds or even a large scrim will be softer on the skin, and instead of harsh pores, you will get a softer texture. This doesn't mean acne and pores won't show up; they're just not as extreme — a big difference compared to studio lighting, but really dependent on the day and available light you have.

Things like pores, uneven skin, and little hairs might all be a part of you, but they are only magnified and intensified under studio conditions. In any normal situation, those are characteristics that no one knows or cares about, so why should they be in your photos?

Marketing Is About the Product and Not the Person

Here are two photos from an outdoor fashion story. If I were to describe these as portraits, I'd say this is X and she is wearing a Gap top. If these were an advertisement for Gap, I'd say this is a Gap top modeled by X. Do you see the difference in this? The subject in the first description is the model; in the second, it's the top.

In advertising, the subject is almost always the product being sold. Everything else surrounding the product is there to complement it. You want the model to be the demographic for the top, and you want the location (or background color) to complement the top. Anything there that doesn't emphasize the top is a distraction. This can be anything from removing a scar to replacing a face that doesn't match the mood of the rest of the faces in the group.

So, why is this important? If this was a beauty campaign for a hair product, how do stray hairs help emphasize the product? How do nose hairs and acne help emphasize the real subject, the hair? They don't. This is why they are removed. If this was a portrait, I would care less about imperfections.

I also shoot headshots, and when I do, I don't retouch them anywhere near my beauty work. Most of the time, I just have to remove stray beard hairs, nose hairs, redness, and acne, as they aren't permanent to the subject and only distract from the final photos. I try to make it a realistic interpretation of the person and remove anything that takes away from that.

In my beauty work, I try to make it the best interpretation for the product. I understand the problem people have with this idea; I'm making what many see as unattainable skin for people. I just don't see it that way. Going back to what I said previously, I'm making the people look like they would if you saw them any other time in public. Those little white hairs under the lip, you will never notice those on anybody unless you're inspecting them with a magnifying glass. You'll never be inspecting the texture of someone's skin by looking at their pores. So, why should you see that in the photos? When people see you wearing the product or you're looking at someone with the product, you'd never see those small details. 

Good Retouching Isn't That Noticeable

Normal people don't know what retouching is. For many, the practice of retouching still means airbrushed skin and overbrightened eyes. I wrote about how not everyone looks at photos like a photographer; what I mean is we all have our own perspective and toolbox of knowledge that change how we see a photo. When it comes to the end consumer, they're not seeing the dodge and burn work or what was actually removed. All they see is a beautiful woman on the cover of a magazine, and they compare that to what they saw in the mirror with the terrible lighting that morning.

The reality is a lot less grim: most retouchers these days are trained in retaining skin texture. Look at Julia Kuzmenko's work. You'll see the texture of the pores and skin still intact. The days of blurry skin and too much frequency separation are coming to an end. Some people are still learning from rogue YouTube educators, but most retouchers these days doing actual work are keeping the texture.

You can see the skin texture in the highlights come through and the skin isn't blurred into oblivion.

Unfortunately, just like influencers, you only hear about retouching when it's linked to something bad. Anytime someone tries out a retoucher from Fiverr, it becomes a story that reflects on the entire industry, even though those retouchers would never be anywhere near any actual commercial work. This goes for any viral retouching story; they don't reflect the actual industry.

The Dark Side of Retouching

So, here's the part where we talk about body modifications. Things like shaving off pounds with the Warp tool are obviously a different story than what I've been talking about. When you retouch a normal-sized model into a toothpick, you're setting terrible standards that do negatively affect many women in society. At that point, you're no longer enhancing the look the model already has; you're now pushing the boundaries of reality.

Are there any times when body modifications are okay? Some. I do it fairly frequently to fix a hunched back or shoulders that are too high in a photo. This isn't me lying to the general public about the model, just making the photo look more natural with something I didn't achieve in-camera from a posing mistake.

Models Will Always Be the Best Versions of Us

To be a successful model, you need to have great skin and confidence in front of a camera. It doesn't matter if they're a toothpick or a curve model, they all have some type of extensive health and wellness routine that keeps them fresh and ready for whatever the shoot entails.

Great skin means continuity and less time in post-production. So, even if you don't edit the photos, they will still most likely be much less attainable than a retouched photo. Do models still get acne? Of course, but they are doing everything they can to reduce the chance of it, because that's their job. What's great about Instagram and IG Stories is you're now getting a much more detailed look behind the scenes than ever before. Many models will talk about their skincare routine and daily workouts.

As for confidence, they need to be able to do the job, whatever that means that day. Sometimes, that means having a great fake smile or being able to give the exact face and pose a photographer is asking for. When it comes to beauty, every little movement matters, so a model needs to be able to make those slight adjustments and dissociate from the idea that what they're doing is unnatural.

When I shoot headshots and portraits with nonprofessionals, you can sometimes see the gears turning in their head on how they think they look. They don't trust me or the camera at first. They are already thinking of how terrible it's going to be, and that shows in their face. It takes time to gain that trust, and sometimes, it never happens. With a model, it's basically instant.

This is why there will always be a difference between professional photos and selfies. Models have great skin, great lighting, and all the confidence. Unless you plan on starting a four-step skincare routine every night, having a rigorous gym schedule, and you enjoy being in front of a camera, you won't be like a model. And this isn't even getting into the intangibles like defining genetic characteristics that make you stand out.

Should we be removing these things so people feel equal? Of course not. Advertising is all about creating a moment and idea that catches your eye. They want you to feel something. They want you to look at the photo and see yourself in the model laughing and smiling while eating Ben & Jerry's. They want you to use their volume-enhancing mascara, so you can have eyelashes as defined as the model who was specifically picked for their already-incredible eyelashes.

What Should We Do?

I want to acknowledge that I don't think the way we advertise is perfect by any means; I just don't think the issue to focus on is retouching. Look at who is on the cover of every magazine. It's thin, beautiful women, and they are usually only white or black. I truly believe more inclusion of all races and sizes is more important than seeing mustache hairs in a photo. We want to see ourselves in these photos, and for many, that's just not always the case.

I do think it's getting better, especially on the commercial end. We're seeing more of everyone when we go to large retail markets and in subway cars, but it can still get better. As we create more opportunities for everyone, we create an image for young people that lets them know they don't have to look exactly one certain way to be beautiful. There are people that look just like them that are able to be in magazines and star as leading roles in movies.

At the End of the Day, People Just Want to Be Seen

When you hear people talk about what they don't like in advertising, it's always: "I'll never look like that." When a large portion of advertising uses models who all look exactly the same, you're going to create self-conscious people, especially in the digital age when we have access to hundreds of photos and advertisements a day. By showing a more diverse group of models in all areas, you'll find people will start seeing themselves more in the ads they see.

For many, this just isn't the case currently. As a white male, I don't know what it's like to just not have a place in media, but as we see actors like Pedro Pascal and Awkwafina get more prominent roles, we see how that affects people with similar backgrounds. So many stories have been written about people finally seeing themselves in places like Star Wars or in these box office hits like Crazy Rich Asians. When I see these stories, I'm able to sort of understand what it must be like to not see that in everyday life. 

Final Thoughts

Retouching is a practice that means many things to many different people. My definition might not be the same for you or someone else. But for me, it's about keeping what matters in a given context and removing all unnecessary distractions. It's also an incredibly complicated process that is tough to keep to one definition, especially for the general population. This is why it is bound to be misunderstood and distorted, because there's no proper meaning.

The purpose of this was to give reasoning for the practice to be around. This doesn't mean we can't do better. There are always opportunities for growth and change in all aspects of life; just because I think something is right doesn't mean what I'm doing is perfect or justified. I will be interested in seeing where the industry goes from here; I'm just hoping we don't make reactionary changes that drastically affect the work released today.

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LA M's picture

"In a world looking for more honesty and truth"

You're kidding right?

Where did you get that anybody is looking for honesty/truth except when and where it serves a personal benefit?

Jeff Walsh's picture

100% correct. We are straying as far from seeking truth as any generation before. The denial of truth in our world is at an all time high, and for many, they prefer it that way. Everything is up for interpretation. Everything can be whatever you feel it is. My perspective, thoughts, feelings, wants, whims, and in the moment reactions are all justified based on my version of my truth. It's honestly a pretty horrible time when you consider the long term effects this mindset is going to have.

Also, when you consider the idea posed in this article, "that retouching isn't going away," the underlined subtext is that "reality" is whatever an individual claims it to be. Skin isn't that smooth, so showing to be is a lie. Zits and blemishes exists, so taking them out is another lie. The lips don't quite look like that, so it's a lie. The color isn't as punchy as it's shown, just another lie. On and on is just a demonstration that no one is interested in seeing the truth or telling the truth.

David Pavlich's picture

Not to worry...computational photography done with phones will take care of anything you need for a model shoot. :-) Want the model to look tall? There's an algorithm for that. Want the model to be Klingon? There's an algorithm for that.

Seriously, retouching, at least commercially, is driven by client expectations. We can have our prejudices, but if you want that paycheck, you produce what the client wants.

Michael Comeau's picture

I disagree with this statement:

"Back in the film days, nothing was this defined; you weren't seeing pores like we are now."

I think the real difference is how we view images. Magazines and newspapers offer very poor resolution compared to a computer or smartphone screen.

I've seen large prints from photographers like Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, and Albert Watson, and they could be astoundingly sharp. But like digital images, their film images were heavily retouched.

David Justice's picture

I'm speaking more on the personal level. "Unless your family had a really nice SLR, you didn't see or care how sharp a photo was. You just hoped in those 24 frames there was at least one where everyone's eyes were open."

Of course with professionals that's a totally different story. But now with phones and everyone owning an SLR, the floor is raised on quality. So everyone is now seeing so much more than what a drug store disposable camera offered.

J. W.'s picture

In real life, people do not just freeze and have strangers walk up uncomfortably close to inspect their faces, which is essentially what photographs are but on a flat surface. Video is not as susceptible unless someone pauses each individual frame for inspection, so imperfections are much less noticeable. Therefore, professional-level photography will always need some touch-up, but never a complete rebuild.

David Justice's picture

Agree completely. But we're seeing magazines and places like CVS adding more restrictions to their retouching and even adding labels to their photos when they are retouched.

briankaylor's picture

I disagree with your suggestion that studio lighting is one of the underlying problems.

You say that your example photos are "poor due to the use of studio lighting", studio lighting is like crappy bathroom bulbs, and that studio lighting magnifies undesirable elements in a way that natural lighting does not. This sounds more like bad lighting technique, and not the fault of using studio lighting in general.

If you want to see incredibly soft studio lighting that doesn't have the issues you describe look at what Peter Coulson can do with a 5 foot octabox and a reflector.

David Justice's picture

Using harder light sources isn't bad lighting technique. Beauty dishes and reflectors will give you completely different skin texture than large octoboxes. But the contrast you get from harder light sources are preferred by many.

Ivan Lantsov's picture

you not know how to use light!

briankaylor's picture

I don't think harder light sources are bad. What I didn't like was the way you repeatedly characterized all studio lighting as harsh and unnatural. If you're going to use a beauty dish or a hard light source for that "preferred" look you describe, then understand that your choice of modifier is causing all of the problems you wrote about.

David Love's picture

My thought is if there is something on the skin that won't be there forever, it goes. Bruise, blemish, scratch, lipstick smear, etc. Most of the time I'm trying to convince people they don't need that much but when you look at the blurry faced oversharpened instasuck pics out there, people are obsessed with trying to be perfect.

Kirk Darling's picture

For the portraiture that I do, the author makes my point in the second paragraph. What I'm interested in is not the optical truth, but the experiential truth. Meeting and interacting with my subject, what does my brain say that she looks like? I want the portrait to look like what my brain said she looks like, I want the portrait to portray the experience of the person.

I don't think I'm different from a portrait painter in that respect. I'll bet "Mona Lisa" had cowpox scars that Da Vinci ignored. The painter simply doesn't include what he didn't experience.

One of my earliest portraits was of my ninth grade Latin teacher, Mrs Shutz. Mrs Shutz was a "teacher emeritus," long past normal retirement age, teaching because she loved it.

She had a razor-sharp wit, a quick and bright smile, crackling blue eyes. The woman sparkled--that was the experience.

My portrait was a complete failure. It was physically accurate: I captured a sharp photograph of an old woman. But I didn't capture the experience of being with her.

I'm better now.

Warren Willson's picture

Under the sub-header “Marketing is about the product not the person” you go on to explain, “ In advertising, the subject is almost always the product being sold. Everything else surrounding the product is there to complement it. You want the model to be the demographic for the top, and you want the location (or background color) to complement the top. Anything there that doesn't emphasize the top is a distraction. This can be anything from removing a scar to replacing a face that doesn't match the mood of the rest of the faces in the group.”

I have to disagree here. Marketing is about selling an idea, a lifestyle or a dream. Fashion images, for example, are intended to show the product but only as a means to achieve the idea, lifestyle or dream. The limited exception is the commercial sales catalog. You want the viewer to believe they can BE the person in the image. That’s why Instagram influencers and the Kardashians can hold people’s attention. They are identifiable and attainable objectives for their followers. That’s what sold the Kylie K lip kit, not the pictures of perfect, puffy lips.

That said, retouching is key to promoting the idea, lifestyle or dream. Who wants to laze by a pool with refuse bins in the picture and flies on the subject? No-one really. Retouching, like everything else, is best done in moderation and for sound reasons. I agree wholeheartedly with using distortion to correct problems not caught in camera, too. I yell my subjects that Photoshop is for correcting the photographer’s mistakes, because God doesn’t make any.

Kirk Darling's picture

"I tell my subjects that Photoshop is for correcting the photographer’s mistakes, because God doesn’t make any."

Good line to remember.