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Photoshop Retouching

What are your thoughts on digital retouching? Do you care one way or the other? Now, imagine you have a portrait session coming up tomorrow that you’ve waited months for and yesterday you developed large pimple on your chin. Does your opinion change at all?

Photoshop can be a dirty word or your best friend, especially when it comes to portraits. We’ve all seen examples of complete Photoshop failures where an arm is completely taken out or a leg is on the wrong side of the body. Obviously, someone was working too fast for a deadline. Then there are the examples of magazines that have “gone too far” when touching up a celebrity for their cover. “Touching up” in those instances is a bit of a stretch – it’s closer to altering or restructuring, and most people feel like it crosses the line into dishonestly. The sad part is that we often don’t notice unless we see a before/after picture, and unless someone points it out to us in an enraged rant.

On the other hand, Photoshop can bring out the beauty that’s already present but hasn’t been professionally teased out. Not everyone has a makeup team at their disposal during all hours of the day, or can afford to have their hair styled professionally. These things, along with a great wardrobe choice, can go a long way in portraits. If they’re not there, though, Photoshop can help bring out that best version.

A few months ago, Esther Honig circulated her picture across the globe to have professional Photoshoppers retouch her. Personally, I don’t believe that these were pros working on the photos, but then again maybe they were and they only spent four seconds on them. The more I saw her photo circulated around social media and the news, the more I wanted photoshop her myself. Here is my before and after:


This is what was done to this photo:

1. Her skin was warmed up
Natural lighting is almost always warmer than flash, so I wouldn’t even consider this step to be Photoshopping the way most non-photographers think of it; it’s a standard colour correction.
2. Her hair is smoothed in places and teased in other places for subtle volume.
This is something a hair stylist could very easily achieve. Normally I don’t do this for portraits unless it’s a flyaway hair and is distracting (i.e across the face). But having your hair done before a session can make a big different in your photos!
3. Her eyebrows have been slightly thinned
Again, something an aesthetician could do. I also wouldn’t do this for portraits for two reasons: I wouldn’t presume to know what a client loves about him/herself , and it would be a lot of work to do that in every photo.
4. Contouring
If you’re familiar at all with makeup application (which, to be honest, I’m not really!), this is when you use darker and lighter powder to contour the face. It can make a forehead appear smaller, cheekbones appear more pronounced, etc. In this case, it’s really a substitute for better lighting. I also darkened her upper eyelids to give her eyes some depth. Even a small bit of eyeliner would have had the same effect here.
5. Skin Retouching
Here I “softened” her skin and removed the bags from under her eyes. Again, this is something that can often be achieved with makeup, though depending on the person’s skin it’s difficult to do. I used to do a fair amount of skin retouching in my portraits, but as I get better with lighting I do less and less. 

It’s really common for clients to joke about retouching within minutes of arriving at a photoshoot. Usually they’re asking me to help them out a little with their skin, or their size. I use my artistic judgement for retouching. I like it to look very natural, and as I improve with my lighting and posing skills, I do less and less retouching. What I do use it for often is to remove distractions (like broccoli in your teeth). I try to catch that during the shoot, though!


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Ottawa, Ontario