Thursday, October 4, 2012


Q: I am still struggling a bit (but improving) in my editing. I'm considering having a private session with you on this topic, as I am unsure about what tool to use to get what effect. I attribute what success I've had to have some good basic tools available from other edits and some luck, but I am hard pressed to work from scratch in deciding what tool or effect gives me a look that I want for my image. I'll pull out some previously used actions and hack away but I admit that that I can't say exactly how to get down the direction that i am hoping to get to...its much more random than I'd like.

However, to make the best use of our valuable time during a one-on-one session, I'd like to make sure that I have some basics understood. But when I go into any LR or PS training module (Lynda, etc) I get to learn about EVERY tool, effect, option, etc. Then, to make things worse, many times the instruction says to "adjust xxxx slider until it looks right". Yeah, I get the idea, but a lot of times I don't really know what I'm looking how do I know what I'm adjusting is the correct tool and what is "looks right" for a particular effect that I am trying to achieve?

I know that some of this involves an artistic eye (which I have had very little training in), but I am sure there are some basic things that you are looking for as you adjust each tool. I know that a recipe or duplication of others work is not the way to go, but I feel that I'd like a little more solid ground to know what tools gives what effect (and how to judge if it is too much/too little/wrong color/etc.).

Given that I want to edit for fashion photography, it seems like overkill for me to learn and master each and every LR and PS tool that there is instructional videos for (nor do i have time with my "day job"). Can you give some guidance on what LR and PS tools I should become most proficient at so that when we do a one-on-one session we will get the most effective result?

A: There are several problems here. The first is "causality". As a beginner retoucher, you don't have enough experience with action-reaction/cause-effect to provide you with the proper skill set to retouch an image however you might want.

This second issue is very much akin to the "I want my models to be more emotive but I don't know how" problem. You simply don't know what you want. Not tangibly at least. You think you know what you want but you can't clearly describe what you want. Which is why your model can't produce the looks you want and also why you are aimless in the retouching for a specific look.

But to think that retouching an image is as simple as getting in front of the computer and slapping on random effects/actions/presets is reducing the art to a mere task. Retouching, (as you've heard many times on this blog before) should not be viewed as an independent task but rather a part of a vertically integrated and systematic approach to photography. It's an extension of the entire philosophy that drives your photography. Which is why I hate the idea of outsourcing retouching. Cost and time and lack of skill arguments aside, everyone would agree that keeping retouching "in-house" is better for vertical integration and executing the original vision.

So I'll start at the beginning. Retouching starts with a vision. A concept. An idea of what the image looks like before you shoot it and certainly long before it appears in front of your computer. If you don't have a concept. Borrow one. Hell, steal one. The way I did it before I had my own style. I'd look through magazines and find pictures I liked. Then I'd reproduce my version of that image.

Why does it go that far back? Can't an image be retouched in many different ways? Absolutely. But seeing that you are learning, it's best to start at the beginning with good fundamentals. Starting with a concept or a reference image at the very least, allows you to build a reference for "causality". Over time, you'll understand how images are "built" so to speak. And later you won't need to be so strict on concept but for now bear with me.

Concept drives images. It always has. Always will. Shooting from the hip, and retouching at will, while fun is always better when it's vertically integrated into the original idea. Concept. Wins. Always.

Yes, even when you look at my images. They look ad-hoc. Often they're shot ad-hoc. But I have a strong understanding of causality. When I get the shot, I pretty much know how it will look as a final product.

But why concept? What I'm about to say is critically important and sadly a lesson I learned far too late. The original concept/vision is paramount because the fundamental elements in the image are critical to the overall look of the final product. Elements such as the model's bone structure, lighting, background, dynamic range, skin tone, hair color, the list goes on but EVERYTHING in the image essentially provides a constraint in retouching.

Case in point, sometimes workshop students say, "How come I can't get your style/look/effect even when I've applied the same exact adjustment layers in Photoshop?" The answer is simple: You started out with a totally different image altogether. You're comparing apples to oranges. Hell, I can't even get my effect from your image.

So it starts with concept/vision. Let that drive the lighting, model selection, background, etc. Once you have the proper pieces in place, THEN you can attempt to retouch that image with the same style and effect as you want.

Because especially in the beginning as a new retoucher, that's how you know whether or not it "looks right". You're comparing it to a reference shot or a specific vision you have. Without this point of reference you are a blind as a bat that can't perform echo location. It's not until much later that you develop a sense of what "looks right". Until then you need something to tell you when you've gone too far or conversely when you haven't gone far enough.

And that's the thing with art. It comes from visions. But my visions aren't innate. I wasn't born with them. I developed them as a result of spending a lot of time practicing fundamental causality. I play the "what if" game as I've often mentioned said on this blog. And over time you know what's going to happen even before you do it.

Causality. Without it, kids would never learn not to stick a fork into an electrical socket.

That and there's no replacement for displacement. By now I'm really just repeating old material. For every blog entry that I have to link you guys to, God kills a kitten. So for the sake of the kittens, please read the blog on your own! :) Or maybe I just use these expressions far more frequently than I should. But what do I mean by displacement? Simply practice, practice, practice.

And while I don't believe in formulas, even I have my own workflow. Workflow governs how I approach things. But workflow should be a function of the philosophy behind your photography. It should also be a function of your concept. But yes, after a while you start to notice patterns in your retouching. That you like certain tools more than others. That you have an "order of operations". Those things come with time. They also come as a necessity to the desired outcome. Form follows function. How's that for another trivial saying? Fortunately, that saying does not appear anywhere on my blog so it's a first for me. Saved a kitty right there.

And of course there are invaluable resources online. But you'll never find them unless you ask the right questions. In my pursuit for perfect beauty retouching I found Amy Dresser's interviews and live retouches on I think I read through their forums a few times but I found the webcasts much more educational. What else? I'm guessing Kelby and Creative Live have some good classes on fashion retouching but I don't know that for a fact. Natalia Taffarel is a great beauty retoucher. And YouTube taught me a few things here and there.

Good luck! Hope to see you soon!

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