An In Depth Look Into The World Of Creative Retouching With Matt Schuenke

An In Depth Look Into The World Of Creative Retouching With Matt Schuenke

Although I am invested into the world of retouching, the world of creative retouching and composite work is another world. They create entirely new worlds seamlessly. We see them everyday in the form of advertisements from big companies for the most part. Check out a few videos of what goes into Matt's work along with an in depth interview about the industry. 

I was really happy to find Matt because not only was he a good creative retoucher but he also was kind enough to share more about the industry that many of us have wanted to know more about. It's always visually fascinating to see especially when it is done right. Out of personal curiosity, I asked Matt to share a bit about what goes into his work along with some information on how it works on the client's end on getting a piece done from start to finish.

Before you do, here are a couple of samples to get familiar with Matt's work. To see more be sure to check out his website where he has more work and videos:


matt 1

Photo: Andrew Martin

matt 2

Photo: Dave Rentauskas


Fstoppers: Tell us about your history and how you got started in the field. How long did it take you to be where you are and what does it entail?

Matt: I became really interested in photography in high school. I studied photography at Columbia College Chicago, but I wasn’t the classic photo student that told stories about clutching a camera with them everywhere they went when they were a toddler. Rather I was the type that snuck off to the basement to get onto the computer before anyone else was awake.

Working on photo projects in college I always got excited when it got to the post-production phase. That’s when you could slow down and experiment in photoshop to see what results you could get. So I started pairing up with other photographers in school and doing post-production on their images. I had a great internship at Filtre Studio just outside of Chicago where I had a mentor who really took me under his wing and gave me a good direction of what I needed to look more into and get better at.

Once I had worked my portfolio up to where I wanted it I started reaching out to new photographers and retouching studios I had come to admire. As time has gone on, now I've worked with more and more of those people I contacted then. It’s really only been about five years since I decided that this is what I wanted to do.

Fstoppers: Just looking (admiring, really) at your work, your execution is effortless. How did you know that creative retouching was the avenue you wanted to explore over standard fashion/beauty retouching? Was the element of composite work more exciting to you in general?

Matt: I saw compositing as the most challenging avenue and therefore had the most to learn from. After learning more about retouching I found that all the different types can be equally challenging, but what holds true to me is that compositing offers the most variety of work. I could never make a ‘startup action’ like I have for portraits for compositing, because they are all need you to start in a different place.

Recently most of my work has been fashion images, that I’ve had a great time working on. But just like you dress for the job you want to have, you showcase the work you want to get again. Ideally I’d work on projects where I always spend at least half a day on every image I work on. That way I have enough time to really work an image into something great. And whether that comes from fashion or compositing isn’t as important to me as what I can come up with.

As for why I enjoy compositing, I really connect with the objective data that is involved in it. The way you can study the RGB/CMYK/LAB values of an image and tweak them until they play together like a shot would straight out of camera. I love those wonderfully nerdy things like looking at the blend mode formulas and trying to reverse engineer each adjustment layer to have better control over how they're working. If you split people into left brain or right brain camps, I was definitely on the left-brain logical/analytical side. Only kid at art school that was good at math. Retouching and compositing was a good way for me to embrace that side, while still contributing to telling a story and creating something visually stunning.

Fstoppers: Judging from your videos, it seems like each of the pieces are very time consuming. What range of time would you expect for a commercial job from start to finish?

Matt: It varies pretty wildly, but commercial composite jobs generally take between 10-20 hours. When possible, I bid jobs on a full flat fee instead of my hourly rate and estimated time. That way I can put into it however much time is needed instead of being restricted by hours. I’ll spend a great many more hours on my own images though that don’t have deadlines or budgets. I’ve definitely put more than a hundred hours in a few images.

Fstoppers: Do you prefer using the pen tool to make selections over using a Wacom pen tablet and manually masking out objects when you create full scale composites?

Matt: I use a Wacom tablet for everything I do. Might have to find a new profession if someone took it away from me. Each selection is different and I just choose the right tool for the right image. But mostly they start with a penned out path and get refined by photoshop's helpful tools, then get manually tweaked.

Fstoppers: Has there ever been a request that you just could not accomplish? What type of examples would this include?

Matt: That’s only happened to me when the budget doesn’t match the request. If you need a composite done in under an hour, then I’d rather pass on the job than go out of budget or turn in something I’m not satisfied with.

There have certainly been times where I've accepted a job without being exactly sure how I'll accomplish the end result. But if I can recognize that all the needed pieces are there, then I’ll take it on and figure it out along the way. If you're wondering about a client not being satisfied with a job, that can come when a client has vague instructions on exactly what they want. Imagine sitting down to get a haircut and telling the barber that you don’t know how you want it cut, you just know that you want it cut. Sometimes what they get won't match what they had pictured. That's why I normally return a few different treatments of the image so we can then decide together what direction to take the project.

Fstoppers: Do clients ask you before each project on what you would need to create the end goal they have in mind? Or do they come to you after it is all done and ask you to complete their specific requests?

Matt: Most photographers I work with have a great amount of foresight to see what all of the different shots they will need to get me for a composite. They used to do their own post-production before they started working with a designated retoucher so they usually know what is needed. I can just offer additional shots that would be helpful to have that would cut down on retouching times/costs to them (empty background plates, subjects’ shadows, different angles, wide shots.)

Fstoppers: What type of turnarounds do you work with when it comes to delivering the end result?

Matt: They're usually pretty quick turnarounds, especially to get the first comp to them. By the time I sent off a final image it's rarely been more than a few weeks from first being contacted.

Fstoppers: When you're working with a commercial client, how many levels of approval must be obtained before the final image is approved?

Matt: There are a few stages of revisions that get bounced back and forth until we are both satisfied with the final image. On larger jobs I’ll put a number in the job estimate to how many revisions the client can have (usually 5.) Luckily I just have one contact on the jobs I work on, an art director or photographer, so they are getting approval from the people above them and just passing it along to me.

Fstoppers: Do you strictly work with commercial photographers who are shooting for advertisement, or do you work with anyone who can meet your rate?

Matt: I work with anyone that can meet my rate. I also spend a few weeks out of the year on 'portfolio work.' This is collaborations with photographers that have a concept or a set of images that we are creating just for self-promotion and use in our portfolios. Some of my favorite images has come from this kind of work, most likely because it isn't limited to a deadline or needed to fit into an ad campaign's perimeters.

Fstoppers: Now that you look back at it, was the journey harder than you had previously imagined it would be?

Matt: I was lucky enough that early on I figured out what I wanted to do and am still happy with that decision. That really shortened the path and made it more straightforward. I never really imagined that learning the craft or working on the images would be difficult. I just knew that it would be difficult to get those first opportunities to work on larger exciting projects. Going to school for photography really ingrained in me how much goes into a shoot, so it means everything to me when a photographer trusts me to take their images to where I think they should go.


Thank you to Matt for taking the time out to talk to us!

Be sure to check out his work on his website You can also find him on twitter at

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1 Comment

good and interesting interview. thx. one suggestion: it would be nice to have more open questions rather than closed ones. luckily, matt is very talkative :-).