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.
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.
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.
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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