Retouching - Is Credit Due?

Retouching - Is Credit Due?

In the world of digital photography, retouching often plays just as much of a role in the final image as taking the photo(s). There seems to be an even split of professional photographers who do it all themselves vs those who hire it out, and lately I've been noticing some discussion based around where credit is due when a photo's final appearance relies more on editing than setting up lights and pressing the shutter.

In the days of film, a professional photographer was usually expected to be an expert of not only his camera and lights, but the dark room as well, and the final photo was the product of this combined knowledge. Nowadays in every part of the industry there are well known and respected photographers who openly hire out their editing, whether it's with an in-house team or one of the many freelance retouching services around the world, and are often credited as the creator of the final image just as the darkroom photographers of the past. The question is, when manipulation plays such a large role do the retouchers deserve equal credit?

Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of photographers out there who are great about promoting their editors whenever they can, and very rarely do they have any say in who's credited for the images, but there are some cases (especially in the commercial/advertisement world) where the photographer's images are such a small component of the final images that the editing and element composition is what ultimately tells the story. One popular and controversial example among our readers was Annie Leibovitz's Disney set where we see the actual photos shot as simple portraits with minimal set/props which is then transformed into a rich and surreal environment.

Behind the scenes with Jack Black, Will Ferrell and Jason Segel  as the Hitchhiking Ghosts from the Haunted Mansion as photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Disney Parks Campaign(example of from-camera shot on original set, by Annie Leibovitz)

Russell Brand Appears as Captain Hook in New Disney Parks Dream Portrait by Annie Leibovitz(final image with edits, originally shot on the same set)

Try as I might, the most I can find about the retouching in these surreal sets is that it's done by a team of editors she hires, their names, backgrounds, and past work completely unknown. I don't want to turn this post into another Annie Leibovitz love/hate debate, these examples were simply chosen because they are so well known, but you can't tell me that the first photo even remotely creates the mood, impression, and feel of the final product, and this kind of drastic manipulation (which often takes more hours of work than shooting the images themselves) is very common among the commercial industry.

Despite what seems like such an injustice to their craft, there don't seem to be many retouchers openly complaining about the lack of credit, in fact most of the content I can find surrounding the issue is written by photographers, like this blog post by Jeremy Cowart, coincidentally fueled by the same image set, where retouchers among the comments simply write it off as the unfortunate circumstances surrounding their industry.

Personally, (and this is where this becomes an opinion piece) I've always worked by a self-set rule that I couldn't put an image in my portfolio that I hadn't imagined, shot, and retouched myself from beginning to end. I feel as though that work is a representation of my own skills and abilities, but at the same time I entirely understand the mindset behind hiring it out, and if I had a client ask me to create something like a complex composite for them that I knew was beyond my editing abilities, that's absolutely the route I would take... but no way would I be comfortable including that image in my portfolio without noticeable credit to that hired artist and a note in the exif, which takes all of 30 seconds.

Ultimately it seems to me like another case of  things being done how they've always been done and no one wanting or knowing how to change an entire system, but I want to know from you in the comments at what point do you think a photographer can't be given sole credit in publications for the final images? Has this issue effected you in your own work, and if so, what was your solution?

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I find retouching fascinating since I have no idea how to do it well myself. I find the concept of "contest toning" fascinating as well. Forget the current World Press Photo uproar, look at Yuri Kozyrev's amazing images that won him Pictures of the Year International's Photographer of the Year (Freelance/Agency) in 2011. Immediately after, there was rush of people interested in the toning they did. Retouching didn't change the content or the context, but it stylized the images to great effect.

The credit eventually came out as 10b Photography. They edit for a lot of major publications and at 6 to 12 Euros an image, it adds up.

On the other side, a number of retouchers don't want the credit, from my experience. The credit is the fact that the retoucher's job goes unnoticed. That means they did a good job and didn't cause an uproar. Now the example shots here aren't "subtle" so thats an entirely DIFFERENT issue.

There's so many facets to this. In my opinion, the more obvious (stylistically as above) or egregious (major changes, major defects in) the retouching, the more likely the retoucher should get some credit.

I'm a professional retoucher and manipulator. While I usually ask for credit, I will forgo for an added payment.

I'm a photographer and I do all my editing because is simple (skin blemish, color correction)
If I outsource and the retouching changes the nature of the picture, than i think credit should be given to the retoucher.
Must be said that many photographers rely too much on freelance retouchers to save their poor work and take all the credit.

Dennis Titov's picture

Agree 100%.

Don't hire Annie Leibovitz for a cut together collage. That's what you shouldn't do.

The simple images shown here and the others from the Annie Leibovitz are making of pictures. Why is everyone, including Fstoppers, suggesting that these are the actual pictures taken from her? Can't everyone see that the natural light in these pictures is nothing like the lightning scheme shown and the kind of camera is not from a professional camera like hers (which is also shown in the making of pictures)?


As a retoucher, in most of the times, you sign a contract with the phototographer/company where you have some rules that you need to go on. In most of the cases you are not allowed to use those images in your own portfolio because when you sign that you give them permission to fully ignore you after you get paid (they have no obligation to give you credit).

I had employers that asked me if i want to be given credit and others that told me from the start to not even bother to ask for credit.

Depending on the final image, if the retouching takes more time and effort than the photo session, i think that is a must to give credit to the retoucher.

There are a lot of photographers that give credits to make-up artists, hair stylist, assistant but the retoucher is left out in space, that i think is pretty offending to the retoucher (you put effort and time in that image and you are not given credit, just like you didn't do anything).


My friend Michel Karman is a master printer, truly an artist in the darkroom. Over the years he has printed for Helmut Newton, Sally Mann, Greg Gorman, Brad Pitt, Nan Goldin ... countless portrait and fine art photographers. We invited him to speak about his work at an event in Los Angeles, and the audience was mesmerized as he presented examples of his work with the stories behind the images. Halfway through the Q&A, someone asked a similar question about credit, pointing out that: "Michel, it seems that, in many cases, the final image is more a result of your vision and artistry than the photographer's. Do you feel you should get more credit?"

As a testament to his professional humility, he did not even understand the question. He sees his role as enabling the photographer's vision, even as he transforms a simple photo into visual poetry.

(That being said, I'd love to see these talented people get more credit.)

I've always retouched or manipulated my own photos. I feel that if a photographer doesn't credit the retoucher then how are you to know who you're getting? Although, my images can stand alone SOC, There nothing more than a rough starting point as I shoot for the edit. I recently had a meeting with a magazine creative director for a freelance shooting opportunity He says "I love your portraits, the look, the feel and the style" then he tells me that he has his own team of retouchers because he's "really picky with the way he likes HIS images retouced" I'm sorry, but I feel when you hire me you're hiring me as a package. His retouchers don't get any credit! Its a crappy system if you ask me!

As a counterpoint, I might liken it to a director in the motion picture industry. The final film is the director's vision - no matter how many hands have touched it or had a part in producing it. In addition, that director hires and works with people he knows can execute the result he wants to create. But he hardly does all the work. So while Leibovitz may not have processed the photo, it may have been completed according to her vision, which is mostly likely why she was chosen for this campaign.

On the other hand, is the assistant or the lighting tech or the makeup or wardrobe artist or even the subject "due" credit for their part in the making of an image? All have a part and some measure of creative contribution to the final outcome, but in many cases they are just doing a job - a job dictated by the vision of the photographer. Most film cinematographers, production designers, and sound mixers are
nowhere near as well known as the directors they work for. And i think most photographers and directors are glad to acknowledge the efforts of those they work with. But in the end, it's the director's name on the movie poster, with everyone else listed in tiny white letters at the end of the film.

But even in the case of commercial work, the photographer is not really the top of the totem pole - it's more like the art director. In that case, the photographer is contracted to execute the vision of the art director - typically because they know the photographer can deliver what they're looking for. And the post processing is possibly assigned to someone else the art director chooses. So who then should have their name on the final image?

James Robertson's picture

Regardless if people watch them, motion pictures still have credits at the end which can be carried over in the case of smaller films online which are linked back in publications including those credits, a part of my point is that when a photo is credited you just see the photographer's name in the publication.

I definitely understand, and agree that there seems to be an unbalance in the photo industry regarding production credit, especially when compared to the motion picture industry. But i was mostly making a point for the sake of argument. You could easily argue that every single creative work in any industry *should* have a list of credits for everyone involved.

But there's still a very practical reason there's just one name (the photographer's) linked to a finished photo. It's a physical limitation of the medium - where would you put a list of credits on a still photo? Or even in a caption next to one in a magazine? Aside from watermarks, photos themselves typically have zero attribution to the author. It's just not as practical as it is in motion pictures where the credits literally can exist within the medium. If they aren't physically attached or embedded like that, they must be added in some other way - a plaque on a gallery wall next to the photo, a comment or list on a photo sharing website or blog, metadata in a digital file. It doesn't translate very easily between various presentation media. It's not impossible, but it's just not practical in most cases.

A practical solution would be, IMO, maybe a QR code or link to a document that would list parties involved with a particular image/shoot contained in a given magazine/medium. For example, Beyonce's GQ shoot was credited to Terry Richardson. Perhaps the retouches were handled by XYZ Finishing, LLC. So, maybe in the back of the magazine, they would include a online link that would attribute roles for shoots accordingly, naming the photographer, retoucher, hair, makeup, etc., and everyone is given a piece of the portfolio pie.

But the reality is that most times, contracts/NDAs are used to push final claim back to the photographer. For space is money, and they have to be as minimal as possible to protect the bottom line...

This is a pretty difficult question. In my opinion, when it is a big production then there's a person who coordinates everything, and whose vision is being created. I think this person should get the main credit, while all others receive secondary credit too.

In smaller projects when photographer is being contracted to do work and he uses a retoucher, then retoucher should also be credited.

I always feel that if I don't retouch my own photos, I can't say that I created them myself

Sean Tucker's picture

Agreed. My personal line is that if it's a 'retouching/clean up' job then I will happily add the shot to my portfolio as my work, but if there is any manipulation or creation from the editor (as part of the vision for the shot) then I won't unless I create a description of the process with credits (which includes costume design, make up etc too BTW). Either way I am always shouting the praise of my editors and the good work they do to both clients and colleagues.

As a retoucher I just accept that a part of my job is to let the photographer have the glory. Often they'll give props, and that's great when it happens, but I never expect or demand it.

I thing everyone here is missing the point and I believe that this images for Disney are the wrong example for what the article is saying. This shots usually require an art director who has responsibility to create (through all available means) the final images for the studio. Employing the services of a photographer + retoucher is part of the process to provide Disney with a final piece of art. I would understand if this was a bad photographer selling his own vision by relying on retouchers to make images better; how ever this is not the case here. The same goes for a lot of contracts where photographers are required as part of the creative process.

Karl-Filip Karlsson's picture