This post is a somewhat long-winded response to an article that showed up on NYmag.com about how viewers don't like heavily photoshopped pictures. Click here to see the article.
Introduction to my Retouching Style
Today we’re going to talk about retouching. As a disclaimer I’m not the “be all end all” of retouching. In fact, as far as retouching is concerned, I’m new to the game. For years my brother was a much better retoucher as he used Photoshop (from hereon out, abbreviated as PS) for post-processing his own pictures. In fact lots of my earlier work relied on consulting his expertise so for a long time he knew a lot more about Photoshop. So for a long time PS remained very elusive because it’s was so complex and sophisticatd and admittedly a little daunting because it wasn’t easy to learn. Today, I can’t do what I do without PS.
Thus I’ve grown to love PS also developed my own style (though it’s constantly changing). My original style came from Jill Greenburg and Dave Hill, both of whom have a very punchy and contrasted style of retouching particularly in respect to highlights and shadows (hereon abbreviated as H&S). Hell, when I first started beauty or glamour retouching, it was simply to learn how to dodge and burn (hereon abbreviated D&B). Since D&B was a continuation of the H&S created by lighting, it was a natural follow-up to the process of creating a high-contrast and punchy pictures. So you’ll see that in my sequence/timeline of learning, I first conquered the lighting aspect and then figured out how to achieve certain styles with PS. The lighting that I wanted is very contrasted with H&S and then pushed “over the edge” with post-processing techniques like D&B.
Where I am now, and I’ve talked about this recently a lot in posts, is figuring out which H&S to accentuate. It’s not arbitrary. As a glamour retoucher, you have to be very selective about which H&S you D&B. Understanding H&S is very critical to a good retouch job. IMHO a good retoucher should be able to close his/her eyes and see where the H&S should be, given the angle and contours of the face and direction of light, without being tricked by irregularities, textures, blemishes of the skin etc. So this has been the concern by which I have retouched my more recent pictures.
The other start difference between current and earlier work is that my current work features a softer look and feel. A lot of this is attributed to the fact that LucisArt (a plug-in I used to use for my earlier work) featured results of what seemed to be a high-pass filter. This effect is more prominent in Dave’s work but not so much in Jill’s work. A lot of my pictures these days are simply softer and more pleasant to the eye. Part of that secret is that after the D&B process I then turn down the clarity in Lr so that the transition between the H&S is softer and not so harsh.
My Philosophy behind Retouching
My philosophy has always been that the photog should also be the retoucher because no one else can have that exact vision. Admittedly I sometimes enter a shoot without having a vision of the final product. Understandable for those shoots the shooting/retouching process is a little disjointed, as I’ll shoot without knowing the style by which I’ll later retouch. I say this as a disclaimer so that I don’t seem like I am totally ahead of the game in having a preset vision. I’m just saying that for the most part (and as I get better I think this will be the case) that it’s important for the photographer to create that vision and also be the retoucher.
The second reason that I think the photographer also needs to be retoucher is that pictures are very easy to come by these days. Let me rephrase that; it’s very easy to achieve good results with photography these days. Photography is technologically advancing at a near exponential rate. Less than a decade ago, we were privy to the first consumer-grade 1 megapixel sensor. Today, for roughly the same price we can purchase cameras with 20+ megapixel sensors. The camera is also becoming very “intelligent”. Companies such as Nikon and Canon are producing digital cameras with intricate algorithms for capturing the correct exposure, with the right shutter speed/aperture settings, spot-on focus, the proper white balance, etc. thus “dumbing down” something used to be rather complex and difficult to achieve. Furthermore, before film you could not ascertain whether you had properly exposed the shot. Today, we’re constantly “chimping” and checking the results of what we’re shooting before processing it on film thus making it a lot easier to learn how to take good pictures. Not to mention, it costs nearly nothing to shoot since film has been replaced by memory cards and you can check your results without having to pay a dime. Even better, if you’re unhappy with the results just delete the picture. Technologiccally speaking photography has come a long way.
The technological advances in photography has also brought down the entry barrier to photography. Thus with a massive growing population of photographers, you’re going to see a lot of good pictures. Sure you’ll still see a lot of average pictures but you’re also much more likely to see good pictures. Just look at flickr.
What I’m really getting at is that just shooting isn’t good enough anymore. Saying you’re a photographer just means you’re just a dude with a camera. How does that make you special? It doesn’t. Anyone can shoot what you shoot. Just provide the in-camera settings and the subject and bam, you’ve got the same thing anyone else has got. That’s why I got into strobism and learned how to use portable lights, triggers, and modifiers to capture and create different shots. David Hobby has been responsible for making studio lighting available to the average Joe. The strobist movement is extraordinary and a whole new facet to regular photography, but even that will at some point get dumbed down. So to stay ahead of the game you have to be the complete package, the one stop shop for creating great art/pictures.
Which is for me exactly why I got into retouching. I wanted to create perfect pictures. As it stands very few photographers can do even 2 of the 3 (lighting, photography, and retouching). So to differentiate yourself and to enhance your product you HAVE to retouch because it’s not good enough to just shoot. Every picture I’ve ever taken could have been made better via retouching.
In addition, you’re going to be able to achieve very interesting effects via post-processing that you can’t achieve with lighting alone. When I was researching Jill Greenberg’s lighting setup I discovered there was no secret. It’s nothing special, just a bunch of on axis lighting to bring out highlights. Her pictures simply wouldn’t exist without retouching. You can’t achieve those D&B effects with just lighting. Therefore there’s a mandatory aspect to retouching since one can’t achieve those effects any other way!
The other thing is that we often forget is that the best photographers from the old guard (film) used to process their own pictures in their own darkroom. You know what they’d do in those darkrooms? Well, let’s just say D&B wasn’t a term created by Adobe. Lots of the stuff we do in PS were things photographers invented in darkrooms!
Moral Stance on Retouching
As far as retouching is concerned, I’m too young in my career to have a moral stance on what it means to society. Let’s just say that I don’t necessarily agree with all the things that come with the glamour/modeling industry, like eating-disorders, partying, drugs, ageism, flawless-ism, etc. I’m enamoured by the artistic aspect of photography and glamour. I’m also fortunate in the sense that I don’t have to work under the criteria of others so I’m not exactly enslaved by the standards of the industry; well I’m not being paid to be so essentially I don’t have to suffer by their standards directly.
While I can afford to have my own values, the problems with the industry come with the territory. It’s what the market wants. You can’t put a girl with wrinkles and flawed skin on the cover of the magazine because no one would buy it. It’s not attractive; it’s not what the people want. The art of retouching comes down to what is attractive and what is beautiful and there IS an archetype of what is beautiful and thus a goal for retouchers to “create beauty”. Since the archetype exists, retouching will always be enslaved to and by these ideals.
The basics of glamour retouching are that you remove the blemishes, make the skin look flawless via blurring. For me, I’m looking for that lustrous, shiny, glowing, flawless (but still with pores) skin. That’s why I retouch while trying to maintain the semblance of reality; skin that looks real and not like plastic wrapped over someone’s face. In all seriousness however, retouching is essential because no one likes looking at zits and other blemishes on the face.
In fact, a constant concern of mine is always “how far should I push my license to retouch on this picture?” The little things like freckles and moles are okay, but what about slimming certain parts of her body? Or even worse, what about slimming her entire face? Yes, I’ve had to tackle those internal questions. For me, my responsibility to art and less to truth allows me to do whatever I want in post-processing. So I’ll just be honest here, I’m very familiar with the liquefy filter in PS…
With the article saying that editors realize that viewers like pictures with less PS, I think it’s just the viewers lashing back at the industry a little. It’s a push back on what’s been crammed down the consumers’ throats all this time. However with that said, I guarantee you that if all these magazines got rid of their makeup artists (hereon abbreviated as MUAs) and retouchers, people would stop buying these magazines. And the magazines that that did still use MUAs and PS to make their pictures more attractive would sell better. Let’s admit it people, we’re drawn to and more attracted to those retouched images because that’s the archetype of beauty! That’s what the market wants, that’s what people think is beautiful. It’s not up for debate. Sure we’ll have lash-backs now and then but not every girl looks as good as Monica Bellucci without makeup and not every magazine is ballsy enough to air an edition with the cover girl without makeup, (though I bet it’s still retouched!). Lastly, this “trend” would not stand the test of time so let’s throw that idea out the window altogether shall we? I’ll bet money that ELLE magazine is not going to do this from here on out. You can’t convince me that ELLE magazine MUA’s and retouchers are going to be out of jobs.
So to answer the question, do we have a social responsibility? Yeah, we do. But hey! We’re talking about the market that buys these magazines, the first-world countries that can afford this stuff. We’re also talking about the industry standards, the modeling, the acting, the Hollywood, the fast life, the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll. It’s the glitz and the glam that attracts attention. You’re not going to convince me that Leonardo DiCaprio’s going to ditch Bar Rafaeli for a 300lb. fat chick without makeup. He’s going to continue to date the Bars and Giselles of the world because guess what, that’s what people want and that’s why the industry has such standards. So in a way the photographers, MUAs, the retouchers and even the magazine editors, are all somewhat at the mercy of the people because it’s the people that drive these standards!
If people didn’t want to hear gossip 24/7 magazines like Us Weekly wouldn’t exist. As consumers (and a society) we’ve brought this unto ourselves because we’re the ones buying the goddamn magazines . We’re the ones perpetuating these (flawed) beauty ideals. So we have to turn around and look at the truth. We can only blame ourselves. We’re the ones that purchase the goods and ask the magazine editors to create such products. Please Mr. Magazine Editor, tell us what’s fashionable, what’s in and what’s out, what’s hot what’s not! And now we blame the magazines for perpetuating the images that we’re so quick to purchase? Don’t forget that we the people vote with our money and dictate who stays in business and who. Oh, the irony behind the lash-back!
Sure I don’t agree with the eating disorders, the way we live, moving away from what’s natural, etc. I don’t approve of caking makeup on the skin, environmental issues, how are we viewing our women (as sex objects), the values are we teaching our girls, how you must be the model archetype. Sure these issues all have great implications that I wrestle with as a photographer/retoucher because it’s constantly in my face, but at the end of the day the responsibility lies on us as the consumer. Photoshop and makeup are here to stay. No Sephora isn’t going out of business tomorrow. These things aren’t going anywhere until we as people change the archetype of what we consider is beautiful. I think it’s a cop out to blame it on the magazines; it’s like when parents blamed the video games (first-person) shooters, for making their kids violent. Does every kid that play those games shoot up their school? No. People have to make their own decisions and take responsibility for their own actions. Because at the end of the day, it’s your own damn fault.