Where Do You Draw the Line When It Comes to Editing Portraits?

Where Do You Draw the Line When It Comes to Editing Portraits?

I consider myself lucky. Not because I won the lottery (which I didn’t), or because I drive a Dodge Viper (which I don’t). I do however, consider myself lucky for photographing subjects with a clear complexion more often than not. It’s luck. Not Photoshop. 

I’m often asked by clients and other photographers what software I use to edit my photographs. I don’t spend much time providing an answer and generally mutter something like "Abobelightrooshop” and quickly change the subject. I don’t change the subject because it’s some secret that I guard at night. The truth is, I really just don’t care that much about unnecessary post processing techniques, and to this point, I’ve only learned to use the tools made available by programs like Photoshop to correct problems that I feel are necessary to correct - the ones that don’t take too much away from the moment or person that I photographed.


Ah, our little puss-filled friends that are the food for the vain insecurities of teenagers everywhere. Disgusting, right? They are natural, so arguing to remove pimples may be taking a step towards supporting the type of post processing that I tend to find distasteful – you know, those portraits depicting people with plastic looking skin that's so obviously Photoshopped it more closely resembles digital-art. However, considering the ease of removing unsightly blemishes with Photoshop’s spot removal tool, I don’t find any reason to leave a reminder of something that in the scheme of things, is quite temporary. Pimples get popped in my imagination as I click them away in PS. 

Moles, Freckles, and Scars

Pimples get removed, but moles, freckles, and scars are another story. What if Cindy Crawford had her mole removed during post processing? Would her face be as memorable as it is without the mole? I think not. That’s because people remember physical characteristics like moles and freckles and associate them with your identity. And scars, well, scars are earned. That being said, I’m a photographer, not an identity-changer (if that is such a thing). Moles, freckles, and scars stay.

Lint, Dirt, Deodorant

After I’ve gone through and made any of the corrections I deem necessary on my subject’s skin, I then move to their clothes and inspect for things that I may have missed while on set, such as dirt, lint, pieces of grass, and deodorant marks. There isn’t much more to fixing these issues than there is to fixing blemishes on the skin, however patterns and designs can sometimes present a challenge when trying to spot heal or clone something out. 

Things happen when you shoot outdoors - especially if infants or toddlers are involved. Stains are another simple and justifiable fix.


Oh boy. You may have heard these once or twice before: “Can you use your skinny lens?” “You’re going to make me look skinny right?” “I hate my arms, you can make them thinner in Photoshop for me, can’t you?” "Just Photoshop my gut to look like I have a six-pack. Okay?" I generally answer these types of questions by telling the person inquiring that I’ve only learned to enhance features in Photoshop so far. This tends to generate a shock response, shortly followed by a sarcastic laugh. Don’t hate me if you try it and it backfires.

When it comes to situations brought on by lifestyle choices or genetics, I find it difficult to put much energy into changing them. After all, I’m a photographer, not a lifestyle coach, and it’s awkward being put in a situation where you’re defending the quality of your images to someone only concerned with your creation matching whatever self-image they’ve created for themselves. I know it sounds insensitive, but this thinking has taught me to feel out potential clients and turn down gigs that I know will lead to an unsatisfied client regardless of the quality of my work.

So, what can be done to prevent having clients who are less than flattered by their portraits? Well, this is where our skills as photographers are needed to direct subjects to pose in the most flattering ways, and to suggest changes to poses or wardrobe choices that may not be doing the individual(s) any favors. Personally, I’d recommend spending time learning about posing and lighting techniques far before I’d suggest spending any time learning about fixing them in post.


I recently wrote an article about five purchases that changed my photography forever. Adobe Lightroom should have been one of them. Lightroom really did change the way I process raw files and has become an irreplaceable part of my workflow.

More Power and More Tools

While Adobe Lightroom does offer many convenient tools, and I rarely use anything else, there are times when you need a few more tools than it provides. This is where programs like Adobe Photoshop really shine. Prior to making the switch from a Windows PC to a Mac, I had only used Corel's PaintShop Pro – mainly for flyers and graphics (and embarrassing over-processed HDR shots). It became clear after downloading PS for the first time that the software was far more capable than the Corel software I had been using before.


All people are different and carry different physical traits that visually make them unique and who they are. I feel, and you may feel differently, that it’s the responsibility of the photographer to portray subjects in a way that depicts who they are, and accurately. While it’s obvious that not everyone is going to love they way they look on camera, there’s a lot that can be done to ensure we’re not capturing unflattering and distasteful images to begin with, far before they're ever brought into post - and that's where the focus should be.

Have you ever had a client that you just couldn’t please, or who had unrealistic expectations of you as a photographer? How did/do you deal with those types of situations? 

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Dave McDermott's picture

The only skin retouching I do is removing the odd spot or blemish. However there seems to be a bit of a trend now where portraits are retouched to the same extent as beauty head shots. For me its excessive and just isn't necessary but it seems to be a popular look.

M Clark's picture

My personal guidepost is to imagine if every element of the person and the day were perfect - if their skin were unblemished after a day at a beauty spa, the lighting were soft and beautiful, their hair was in place, etc. Never to make it unreal, but create what it would look like if everything were realistically optimal.

Chris Adval's picture

I've been trying to figure this out myself for the past year to help reduce time in editing for client work, such as senior portraits. Thank you for the clarification. Now I'll keep in mind to keep the characteristics on the skin like Moles, Freckles, and Scars in the shot, or at least ask them before hand if they want it removed or not (excluding freckles, I usually keep those no matter what but usually remove moles and scars).

Kirk Darling's picture

Seniors expect to look like models these days in their senior sets. They expect a fashion-shoot experience and result.

Chris Adval's picture

I agree, but in my area they (parents) don't expect to flip the hefty bill that comes with the skin retouching, which isn't cheap or fast unless I'm an amateur and use "portrait professional" and do a few clicks and presto I got "perfect" plastic skin. So I am thinking of doing much lighter skin retouching than full blown fashion shoot skin retouching for I can lower prices, at least until now, and when I move to a more wealthy and appreciative community then I can include that normal workflow in skin retouching possibly.

Kirk Darling's picture

I don't know what you call "hefty," but a couple of thousand dollars isn't unusual. In my town, I compete with Richard Sturdevant, who isn't using Portrait Professional.

Chris Adval's picture

I already charge anything above the vast majority here, which is sadly S&Bers is "hefty". i.e. $300 is the market cap. Do I charge that? Nope. A lot more if you include products, since I'm an IPS studio. Couple thousand is extremely unusual or near impossible,ESPECIALLY in senior portraiture around here. But no worries, I plan to move anyways.

Christos Dikos's picture

When they ask to make them look skinnier hand them a Personal Trainer's card.

David Arthur's picture

I once had a softball coach come in for a headshot who was always self-conscious about her photo. I encouraged her to tell me what bothered her and maybe we can avoid accentuating those features. She had a square jaw line and a smaller bust, so I could have gone in with liquify and whatever else and completely changed those things. But instead, I just burned a bit at the corner of her jaw and under her chest. Didn't change anything but the lighting and made her happy. If it's something I also could have done by fine tuning the lighting of the photo I don't have a problem with it in photoshop.