Monday, August 2, 2010

Harping on the subject of retouching

Recently I looked through my posts trying to find where I talk about how retouching is uber-important, blah blah and realized "Damn, I don't have 1 specific post dedicated to harping on the subject of retouching"

Now I do.

Retouching is to me vertically integrating the front-end with the back-end of this "photography" thing. It's like McDonald's buying up the farms that produce the poor cattle that become my Big Mac, but in reverse. Let me try again. It's like Ebay buying Paypal to make online payments easier for their customers. Or like Ma Bell (AT&T) setting up retail outlets where you can buy phones.

It's basically integrating the next step of your business process into your own business or in this case workflow. Can Ebay live without Paypal? Probably. Can AT&T live without selling phones in the Whole Foods plaza next to my house? Sure. But in selling phones, they're lengthening that chain of expertise and (hopefully) benefitting their bottom line in a field of expertise they know VERY well.

Same thing with retouching except it's even more important. In photography having the photographer and the retoucher be the same person is like having Robert Mondavi personally sell you a bottle of wine, then uncork it for you and drink that bottle of wine with you while explaining the nuances of that particular bottle. If I were Robert, I would want the experience of hearing what my customers think and feel when they taste my wine. In fact, I'm sure he does it all the time with the exception of actually ringing up the cash register for that bottle.

Why? Because it's feedback. As photographers in 2010, we are afforded this wonderful luxury of having a dark/lightroom to examine our work and evaluate it. If you're reading this blog, yes
you have this luxury. Best of all, we get to fix the problems. I guess outside of the purists (a.k.a. idiots), why wouldn't you want to improve upon your image in a lightroom? Do you know better than Dick (Avedon)? Because Dick always sent instructions for post-processing to his printer. I mean, unless your name is Patrick (Demarchelier) or Steven (Meisel), both of whom have retouchers, you can safely conclude Dick knew better.

One of the reasons I sucked at film photography was because the feedback loop was too long. By the time I got my prints, I had no idea what I did to achieve that image. Reviewing your images immediately after shooting is a luxury (also the reason why there are so many photographers now and why there are so many GOOD photographers now). You will fall to the wayside into the pile of "never heard of him" if you don't retouch your images. If you can't retouch or if you refuse to retouch, get a retoucher!

It's hard enough to compete with photographers these days. Too many and too many of them are good. Not retouching is like relying on pure talent to win a gold medal at the Olympics in "you name the sport". Olympic gold medalists have trainers, strict diets, and workout regimens, etc. Hell, you might not even place at the Special Olympics!

I think we have to stop thinking and referring to retouching as a disparate field. It's an extension of photography. It IS photography. Hell, Ansel Adams wrote the book on dodging and burning
(The Print).

Is it hard? Yup. But so is photography. It requires practice and patience like anything else. Look at my flickr photostream. The stuff from a few months ago is practically comical IMHO. But I chip away at my shortcomings everyday. I realize sometimes I get complacent and force myself to learn some new tricks. Do I have a personality defect (read: OCD) that lends itself to retouching? Sure I do. But there are days I don't want to retouch either :)

I'm not the end-all-be-all of retouching. There are lots of great retouchers out there. I pride myself in being that vertically integrated all-in-wonder. I'm a pretty good retoucher, probably a better retoucher than I am a photographer. But combined, that makes me pretty potent, like a shot of isopropyl alcohol.

Yes, this thread is worthless without pics. So here's an example:

Gil Wertheim, beauty photographer and I were having a Facebook conversation about retouching and I mocked this up in a bout 20 minutes.

The "After" is Gil's retouched version of the image. Mine is on the far right. Lots of flaws on my version that I overlooked for the sake of time (after all it was just a 20 minute example). I worked off the leftmost image (Before) so that I could start carte blanche. For beauty I think this is the direction that it needs to go to be "competitive". Beauty is not my favorite because of the intensity of retouching required but it seems to be right up my alley of skills.

Perhaps you think I'm crazy, but you're wrong :) I'm sticking with my guns on this one!


  1. Hullo Charles,

    When I started out taking pictures, a friend of mine said that the taking of pictures is just half of it. The other half is in the digital dark room. After doing this for a while, I think I would have to disagree with my friend. I think two-thirds of the work is in the post-processing phase.

    If you think about it, a session usually runs about an hour or two. BUT you can easily spend the same amount of time on just one image. Just one.

    So, no, Charles, you are definitely not crazy. ;P If at all possible, a photographer should retouch his own images or else develop a very good working relationship with a retoucher who has similar aesthetic tastes. Being the control freak that I am, I prefer to do everything myself :)

    I think that doing everything yourself also helps to train your eyes to see details many would otherwise miss. Because you retouch you can be at a shoot and say, "Okay, I'm going to dial down this flash because I want to keep the details here and adjust this part later on in Photoshop." Because you retouch, you can have more creative control over what you have in-camera and what you have as the final, finished image.

    ... but then again, I might also have OCD... probably :)

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