Why Photographers Should Embrace Digital Retouching

Why Photographers Should Embrace Digital Retouching

Why Photographers Should Embrace Digital Retouching with Nino Batista

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Let me say this right up front: If you overlook or downplay the significance, nay, importance, of digital retouching, you are making a critical mistake. And I am going to be a bit direct, if not harsh, in this article, but I hope you take from it what you need to refocus your digital strategies in a direction I bet you hadn’t considered.

Retouching Has Been Around Since Almost Day One

Almost as soon as photography was invented, people were trying to find ways to manipulate the images they processed (which came to be known as “post-processing,” of course) for many reasons. From fixing technical gaffs to enhancing various elements in the image, photographers sought new and better ways to edit their work.

The timeframe I am talking about here is the past 100 years. Simple post-processing techniques to brighten and darken (“dodge” and “burn.” respectively) were staples in the dark room process for decades, and for good reason—they worked well. Blemish removal, brightening eyes, color shifts, skin smoothing and compositing are techniques that have also been done with great success over many decades, well before the Knoll brothers conceived of Photoshop.

What photographer hasn’t captured the perfect moment, but then saw in the final image that their subject’s face was a big darker than they would like? While the modern-day photographer’s solution is a quick and simple fix in editing, similar post-processing has been a part of professional photography since at least the early 20th century. Every subsequent era produced new and better post-processing techniques, ultimately leading us to the endless possibilities that modern digital retouching affords us today.

Google the history of retouching. I promise you’ll be amazed at what you discover. That said, perhaps your grandfather may not have done any advanced retouching on the vacation photos inside that old album in your closet (or maybe he did?)—but rest assured that almost all  commercial photographs from any era have had some manner of retouching, editing or manipulation. If well-done retouching has been a staple in professional photography for more than a century, why would you downplay it as some necessary evil or annoyance?

Digital retouching should not be seen as a modern bastardization of a beloved century-old art form, but instead as a mission-critical element in the professional image-making process that continues to evolve.

Precedence, Aesthetics and Morality

If your immediate response is, “Wait, I should focus on more retouching simply because that’s just what has always been done?”, then I urge you to reconsider. Retouching, like photography, is not a static thing. It evolves as technology and methodology evolve, and every single photographic artist approaches post-production differently, thus making the concept more of a general approach and not a hard and fast procedure. Best practices notwithstanding, we all see our editing differently because we are artists with different visions.

“I don’t believe in Photoshopping my pictures” is the legendary war cry of the uninitiated amateur retoucher who makes excuses for not seeing the photography process all the way through to post-production.

Do you know what appropriate retouching, and editing in general, even looks like? Is it merely wonderfully perfected skin on a human subject? Is it beautiful, rich color grading? Or maybe some other advanced special effects involving compositing? Perhaps there is no one way to define what good retouching is in a simple statement. It’s far more abstract than we give it credit for.

But the general precedence was set long ago. Professional photos get edited, they get retouched—you’re going to have to accept this. Society’s general idea of what makes for a good commercial photograph hasn’t changed much. And while there is always something enticing about going against the grain and eschewing any societal standard, totally ignoring standards (and not learning from them) is a guaranteed way to limit your images’ potential.

You have to know the rules before you can break them.

Don’t let yourself get too wrapped up in the idea that retouching photos is somehow immoral or wrong. That is an overly politicized stance on the subject, and is as naive as declaring wine to be evil and wrong because someone can choose to get drunk on it, drive home and kill themselves by driving off a cliff. Retouching is a power that should not be taken lightly. But more importantly, retouching should not be assumed to be a static process or a predictable act that just happens to occur after a photo is captured. Retouching and editing can take images in any number of directions, both good and bad. What directions you choose, and whether or not those directions are aesthetically pleasing, tasteful, decent or even moral, is up to you.

With Power Comes Responsibility

A highly successful plastic surgeon once sternly told me, when I made a critical statement about her industry, “You only notice the badly done, or tasteless, procedures.” I had no comeback for that, and I realized she was totally correct. The same goes for retouching, in that society tends to notice it only when it’s done badly. “Photoshop disasters” is a popular Internet search term, and in an industry flooded with more current digital photographers than in the cumulative history of film photography, it is statistically guaranteed that there is plenty of bad retouching out there.

You have to stand out from all of that carelessly done work by making your retouching seamless, or invisible, as it were, so your images are more associated with the commercial-grade photography that society sees on a daily basis. Like it or not, you’re being compared to other work. And if you want to be paid to be a photographer, people need to be impressed with your work enough to invest in it.

But How Do You Get Better at Retouching?

One of my favorite ways to learn more about retouching is to do as many tutorial processes as I can find online. Even if you never use a certain tutorial’s method, you may end up learning something new about editing in general that you can then apply to your own workflow. It doesn’t matter what it is—if it’s the genre of photography you’re doing, go through the tutorial. Go through dozens. Take the time to do the processes being shown, even if you don’t like the results. Watch and learn from multiple videos that are supposedly showing the same process. You’d be surprised how many variations there are of one approach.

Retouching can get technical, especially when you’re starting out. Before you can master oil painting, you need to understand how the brushes work, how the paint reacts to the brushes, how the canvas reacts. The base-level functions of Photoshop, Lightroom, Capture One Pro or any other digital retouching application are often difficult to understand when you start out. You don’t stand much of a chance of producing an industrial-grade edit if you haven’t taken the time to absorb the basics—which can take a while.

But before any of that, you need to accept that your retouching needs to improve. You need to realize where your challenges lie and work on them so you grow and evolve in your skills, knowledge and vision. Recognizing that you need to improve is the most important step.

I cannot think of a more fundamental strategy for business success than this: See your photos through, from start to finish, at the utmost level of professionalism, artistry, vision and aesthetics.

You wouldn’t skimp on your lighting and lens knowledge and then assume you can succeed anyway, would you? View your retouching the same way, and embrace it.

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