Retouching, You're Going About it All Wrong

Retouching, You're Going About it All Wrong

Retouching problems start well before we sit down in front of the computer and begin pushing pixels around. I know this because as I reflect on my past work, I realize that I’m as guilty of making countless mistakes as much as anyone else. Rather than talk about techniques like dodging and burning, frequency separation, etc. let’s focus on more high level problems that might be leading you in the wrong direction. Retouching is as much about mindset as it is technical ability so let’s start with the former and ensure that you’ve got some prerequisites in place before you even pull out your stylus.  

You’ve got the Wrong Intent

We talk a lot about “bad retouching” but we have to quantify what that really means. It’s important to view it as a relative statement as opposed to an absolute one. Good retouching for one genre can be bad retouching for another. I would also say that bad retouching is retouching that took longer or did more than it should for a particular intent. It’s important to approach the image differently depending on how and where it will be used as opposed to seeing it as a one size fits all solution. If you’re a wedding photographer, I can’t really blame you for using shortcuts like portraiture, canned actions or other plugins. With tens of images to go through and an inability to pass off high retouching costs to your clients, you do your best within a set of constraints. You can’t however take the same approach with a beauty retouch which requires fine attention to detail and a very careful, bespoke approach. I talk about this in my photography and retouching course on RGG EDU and purposely demonstrate several different looks with varied degrees of retouching complexity. Often times we get sucked into thinking that we have to make everything look perfect and polished or we’ve failed. The fact of the matter is that for certain uses, imperfection is a desired trait of the final product. I see lots of popular and successful portrait photographers that have retouches which are far from perfect at a technical level, and that’s OK. The below portrait is an example of spending a minimum amount of time and focusing purely on quick, high impact tasks like contouring and color grading.

Portrait with minimal retouching. Greatest effect comes from color grading and contouring.

The total retouch took about 20 minutes and is far from ideal by beauty standards. When I shared this photo on Instagram and Facebook, it ended up being one of my most popular shots which ultimately had little to do with the retouching work I did on it. If I made everything perfect and spent hours on it, the honesty of the image would have been lost and it would have detracted from the final outcome. Just remember that imperfection is acceptable and that it’s OK to let go and leave “flaws” behind in the right context. When you approach an image, find references from the same genre that you like and determine what it is that really needs to be done. Consider what your client wants to get out of these images and how they’ll be used. Set a time limit for yourself and create a game plan that doesn’t leave you doing too much or too little. Good retouching is a balance of time, requirements and appearance.

A more complex beauty retouch with the intention of retaining a fairly natural look

A more surreal themed beauty shoot so retouching could feel less realistic as well

Your Eyes Are Holding You Back

While the application of various tools or techniques is often a problem in the final outcome, you can’t correctly apply them if you don’t know what a correct outcome is. In the Retouching Academy group, we get a lot of submissions asking for feedback, and often times I don’t know where to begin. The image is so far off the mark that any specific advice would be useless. My advice therefore is to stop retouching and start absorbing. Look at examples of images within your field of interest and objectively compare them to what you’ve produced as well as comparing your retouched image to the original. Does the subject look human and realistic? How does it compare to the work of your idols? Learn to spot where you’ve gone wrong and only then ask for advice on how to correctly get to your destination. The techniques and tools require years of practice to expertly apply, but application must be tied with vision. If you don’t know where you’re going how can you know how to get there? This process takes time but make sure you’re working on developing this vision constantly. Avoid asking for broad general feedback and learn to look at your work critically while seeking advice on specific elements. The feedback you’ll get will be more practical and helpful as a result.

You’re Starting out Wrong

It’s interesting that when we begin retouching, our progression typically starts at over-retouched and gradually progresses from there. Rarely do I see a before and after where the retoucher did too little. My advice is therefore to do too little and start from the other end of the spectrum. Retouchers seem to love diving into complex beauty images and trying out every technique available to them. That’s a bit like trying to learn how to drive by starting out in a Formula 1 car. Imagine you start with a classic headshot, you clean up some blemishes and distractions, match the tones across the subject, add a pleasing color grade and stop there. You do that 20 times until you’ve nailed it and only then take the next step. Now you introduce dodging and burning and contouring, apply those gradually, with a little at first and more as you progress. You stop at the point when you still think you should do more and just let the image be. By doing this, you’ll learn by developing good habits as opposed to eliminating bad ones and produce pleasing results in the process. As you master the foundations you move on to more challenging genres and photos and simply build on what you already know.

You’re Asking for too Much

This has been said many times but I think it needs to be repeated. A lot of people that start out in retouching forget the fact that retouching is a finishing tool. There are certain things it can fix but it can’t work miracles. The minute you begin asking for miracles is the minute things start to go wrong. Beginner retouchers sadly make it more difficult on themselves by starting out with images that shouldn’t ever be retouched in the first place. They take what they can get and end up getting lost. You’ve got enough to learn already without having to undo bad photography so take the time to learn what a good starting image should look like. So many people complain that their retouches don’t look the way they want them to and the problem is often down to their starting point. When you’re first learning, a contrast lacking image with terrible skin texture, color and acne and poor lighting is probably not the best choice. In fact it’s never a good choice. It’s a recipe for doing too much and ultimately failing. There are a variety of places where source images can be found. Some are free and some are paid, but take the time to find a handful of images that you can enhance rather than resuscitate. Master those and use them as a marketing tool for contacting photographers. If you’re retouching your own images then you’ll of course have to go back to your own photography and determine whether you’re doing everything you can to make your post processing life easy. Try to progress as much there as you do in your retouching and you’ll notice a dramatic improvement.  

Fashion image with most of the retouching time spent on color consistency and toning

You’re Stressing Too Much About It

Although I love to polish and put my stamp on images in post processing, my overall attitude towards it has changed dramatically from where I started. The essence of the photo is still created the moment the shutter is clicked, not the moment it’s exported from Photoshop (composites are a bit of an exception). I’ve come to realize that the majority of my style comes from a few simple steps that take relatively little time but produce a large impact. Those steps will vary for everyone and part of the journey - guided by your vision - is finding them and applying them consistently across a broad set of images. The rest of the work is what you’ll vary depending on the nature of the job or image. It takes far less than you think to create a captivating image and I assure you that you won’t find happiness in the next trending technique or Photoshop tool. As with Photography, it’s a journey that varies for everyone, and it’s one that you’re certain to fail at often before you settle into a groove that you’re comfortable with. My best advice is to try different things and not get locked into one workflow. If you’re not getting the results you want, change things up. What works for one person may not work for another. Just because one retoucher gets great results with frequency separation doesn’t mean you have to use it as well. Just remember that you’ll mess up countless images - I know I did and still do - but that’s OK. It’s your path that will define your ultimate destination so take things in stride and don’t obsess over it too much. One day it will just click and you’ll find a balance that you and your customers will be happy with.

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25 Comments

Adam Bender's picture

Thanks for putting things back in perspective!

Thanks for reading Adam, cheers

Rene Valladares's picture

Great article Michael. One thing I do to train my retouching skills is to use some before/after photos of photographers I like, and see what I can do, and compare the final results. That way I can see if I did too much or too litle and where to improve.

Isaac Ruiz's picture

Great Article Michael, thanks for posting

Fantastic article! I have a client who expects miracles on a shoot and doesn't like me saying no. His response is always "well can't you photoshop it?" Well, no, actually I can't perform miracles in photoshop because I need something decent to start with.

Jason Ranalli's picture

These are excellent points and in my limited retouching experience I have gone through darn near exactly the same through process.

I've noticed two things in particular throughout my own progression:

1) My oldest retouch jobs....EEEKKK...all overdone. I make it a habit now to deliberately dial things back to where my eyes "at the time" are saying, "it's not enough". This way when I go back the changes are reasonable and balance....realistic.

2) I need to have better quality source shots in-camera and practice more shooting. Too much time is wasted trying to fix the world with retouch.

Mario Jones's picture

Great article, thanks for the wise words.

Retouching is a "behind the scenes" job, and I think that is really hard for new retouchers to accept. They want people to notice all the work they put into it, so they make it noticeable. Subtlety is something you learn with experience.

I know when I started out, I wanted the client to notice the dramatic difference before and after a retouch, now I'm happiest when they don't know what I've done to the image.

Jason Ranalli's picture

Actually I'm guilty of this....there's something satisfying in seeing how much better your retouch is than the original when comparing. Then again that "better" is not always better....sometimes we do change for the sake of making change.

Chris Knight's picture

Great and thought out piece!

Excellent read as always Michael! Always love reading your articles!

Randy Budd's picture

Very wise. Thanks for the great article.

Terence Warren's picture

Helpfully true, and very well written.

Zoli Tarnavölgyi's picture

Thank you! This is exactly, what i needed at the moment!:-) You just gave a "Manual" for those smart and helpful tutorials and articles. Use with care... :-) To see more before/after photos would be really good indeed!

David Geffin's picture

Excellent article, thanks Michael

Karl-Filip Karlsson's picture

Awesome read! Iam always looking to simplify my retouch work. many layers not necessary mean awesome work.

- "Fake it til you make it" noo i dont think so! :)

Geoffrey Badner's picture

I usually do what I think looks good at the time and then force myself to reduce the impact by 50-75% (transparency, saturation, color, etc.). Later, when I look at the image a day or two later, the reductions looks much better than what I though was originally "right" at the time.

Derek Yarra's picture

Keep up the great content Michael!

Dave Piper's picture

Great Read !! Thank you

olivier borgognon's picture

Super article Michael, thank you, it will take time to define a vision, that could be an interesting article too :)

Paulo Macedo's picture

Thing is, people are getting more and more aware of the power of Photoshop vs the Camera. I believe that retouching is nothing on a picture that is bad at the begining.
As Michael knows, i am one of the many who have actually bought his RGG EDU retouching course, and I use a lot of the techniques he teaches there.
But when i use them, i use them in conscience that i might destroy the model identity by over processing the shot. Imperfection is a part of perfection.
Yes, Michael's RGG EDU course helped me a LOT! But also made me aware that abusive retouching can have the same outcome as no retouching at all. The focus is to get the best results out of the camera, the best makeup possible, and then you can think about retouching things that you actually can't control, or escaped your attention. That's what i think about retouching, otherwise it would not be REtouching! (sorry for the long post and bad english!)

Very well written & couldn't agree more. Regain perspective by seeing it as a tool, means to an end that you work backwards from. Polish the original vision, don't alter it. Like with mastering all tools of the trade, you unfortunately do need to make some experiences (such as overuse), they can't be easily taught.

Enjoyed the article a lot, some very helpful points here... I have to ask though about the left leg/hip of the model in the last pic! Seems to me that there's something amiss there?

You can certainly talk the talk, but the images speak for themselves and lack the sleight of hand that you're striving for. Do you work on your own or with a retouching company?

That looks like an awesome post here, thanks for sharing .......