Sunday, June 24, 2012

Retouching without Expectations

Office Romance. Impromptu shots of Jessica in the makeup chair getting her hair done.

Q: Even though we selected some wonderful images from your last workshop, I have hated all of my retouching attempts. Oh, they have been all very professional and technically appealing, but they just don’t speak to me.

I cannot render them all in black and white and most do not lend themselves to the beauty-image style I normally do. I have to find some middle ground between technically perfect/emotionally dead and black and white. Do you have any suggestions? I love how you have been able to retouch some of yours so that the colors are muted, yet still interesting.

A: I'm not sure that the retouch is supposed to really say anything to you that the original image doesn't already say. Honestly, if you're trying to get the retouched image to speak volumes more than what the original shot says already, then you my friend are asking too much! The Magic isn't in the retouch. It's in the capture. Everything that the image says or doesn't say is set. What your editing will do is amplify (or minimize) those existing effects. But it won't alter the original feeling/emotion of the capture.

Now that being said, I believe you can make an image better with a good edit. Most of the time I have a good idea of my post-processing direction at the point of capture. As a loose rule of thumb, most of my outdoors stuff retains color and much of my studio stuff is converted to B&W for more contrast. That's a rough guideline for how I do things. But there are many times when I try a technique that I'm unsure about and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. That's the fun in experimentation. As much as I can see the future, if I knew exactly how every image would turn out, I don't think it'd be very much fun. I enjoy the anticipation of the unexpected.

I think you're experiencing growing pains in the transition and trying to reconcile your existing glamour style of editing with the new fashion editing that you're growing into. That's a good thing. Really. Not because fashion > glamour but while that's also true, you're on the right track because growth is painful. You're supposed to feel frustrated. But more importantly, it forces you to question your assumptions about editing. Like, why does A look better than B? It's the questions that drive us forward and allow us to forge that continuous process of improvement.

So to answer your question, after you first expunge the expectation that the retouch will dramatically improve the image, then allow yourself to dabble between the "technically perfect/emotionally dead" and B&W. Try some desaturation. Try some color processing like cross processing or a different mixture of color in your images. My gut feeling is that your current set of assumptions are holding you back from a smoother transition. I suggest getting the most recent copy of W or V and seeing how the big companies render their images in post. Flip through the editorials and see how the big kahunas are editing their images. That should recalibrate your mental model for how retouching works and should give you new directions/styles to try.

At the end of the day you must remember that the retouching should *not* be an afterthought. It should be something you consider during capture. Even if on a subconscious level. Because that way you can smooth out your workflow and make better decisions that will accentuate the features of the image rather than force an image to be something that it's not. It's like modifying a Rolls Royce to run a fast quarter mile. The Rolls does so many things well, but running 10's in the quarter mile just isn't in the cards for a 6,000 pound luxury car. If you wanted a fast straight-line car, you'd be much better off with a ZR1 on slicks.

Lastly, let yourself experiment. Mutations occur organically for me. Not under the stress of deadlines or expectations. My mutations flourish only when I release the assumptions that bind me to my routines. For example, the above images of Jessica were shot kind of as a behind-the-scenes for my private workshop. Totally spontaneous. When else would you focus on the mug instead of the girl? The image on the right was shot as I leaned over the makeup table and it was Magic. Lighting? What lighting? The roll up gate was up to allow Kathleen (MUA) enough light to work on Jessica and that was filling in behind me and flaring into my plastic 50mm lens. And retouching? I usually go for the soft flared out look for these types of images but this one did much better with more contrast so I went with more contrast! This all illustrates that sometimes luck and random events all play a hand in personal growth and different perspectives. So give yourself time to grow! Hell, I spent the first 18 months shooting and retouching without any expectations. I'm very lucky I had all that time to learn!

Now try your hand at retouching again but this time without the expectations! :)

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