Retouching Portraits


I've been shooting contemporary, fashion and commercial inspired portraits for just under two-decades; we create an experience of looking like the men and women in magazines with that feeling of beautiful and cool. I've also been teaching photography workshops and one-on-one lessons for Arizona photographers. The subject of retouching is always a topic of interest for both clients and students.

In the past few years, the word retouching has taken on an ugly connotation (and justifiably so). There's been a lot written about the excessive editing done on men and women in the media:

With the advent of Photoshop in the design industry, it has been easy for the media NOT to keep it real. Photoshop has allowed advertisers to give cover models a little superficial nip and tuck or body sculpting where it doesn’t really exist. These false images can affect the way readers see beauty in an unrealistic way, impacting self-esteem and their own body image.The more women and girls watch television or look at magazines full of unattainable and idealize images of women created by “photoshopping”, the more anxious and insecure about their appearance they become. The pressure to attain the “perfect body” has women now spending millions of dollars a year on unnecessary plastic surgery and harming their bodies by becoming anorexic or bulimic.-University of Missouri, Kansas City

The industry was on a path of creating a hyper-reality, a world were subjective perfection existed everyday in magazines, movies, and television. This has had a detrimental effect on all of us, especially young children:

The average American encounters 3,000 advertisements every day, and spends a total of two years watching TV commercials in their lifetime, Kilbourne said. At the center of many of these ads is an image of idealized female beauty. Models are tall, slim, and light skinned, and digitally altered to ever-more unrealistic proportions.-Harvard School of Public Health

This short video hits the nail on the head!

Women and girls compare themselves to these images every day,” Kilbourne said. “And failure to live up to them is inevitable because they are based on a flawlessness that doesn’t exist.” The American ideal of beauty has become so pervasive that 50% of three- to six-year-old girls worry about their weight. -Harvard School of Public Health

The major issue with this toxic style of retouching isn't that the images are styled, hip, or beautiful, it's the fact that they are changing a person's defining features to fit a subjective idea of what beautiful is. If this doesn't makes sense, check out this other video from the Dove campaign for beauty:

This unrealistic transformation is at the root of the problem. After being inundated with a media culture based on unnatural images of beauty, men and women are left looking in the mirror seeing huge deficits between themselves and these images from the media. The truth is, those actors and models don't have the figures we see in magazines. These images create a demand for them which helps the industry sell products and services. We spend countless dollars purchasing surgeries,  beauty products, pills, ...we starve our bodies desperately beating our bodies and self-image into submission.

Fortunately, there has been a growing awareness of this issue and a public outcry for more realistic images in the media. Magazine editors are starting to realize readers don’t like heavy photoshopping.

As a photographer and retoucher, I humbly believe we have a moral and ethical duty to do our best NOT to contribute to this "toxic cultural environment." In fact, I've been trying to steer my clients and students away from the word retouching in favor of post-production. Yes, I spend anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour on an individual portrait, but these edits aren't to transform the features that define an individual. Post-Production is about helping the client see themselves the way the rest of the world does: beautiful.

When we look at people in our day to day lives, they exist in the context of movement and environment; we focus on the personality as it communicates through eyes, smile, and gesture. The challenge of a photograph is it loses that context and we gaze on a single moment in time. A retoucher's job in post-production is to represent the person as we see them in the real world. We remove blemishes, stray hairs, deemphasize distracting elements and even correct a gesture that is only visible in a still photograph. We shouldn't change a person's features and personality in an effort to make them beautiful. They ARE beautiful as they are; our job is to help them see that.

The image of me below was shot in a Las Vegas mall by my wife (my favorite student... I may be a little biased). I work hard to avoid being in front of the camera because I struggle with the same self-image issues we all do. However, Sarah has an ability to help me feel comfortable and attractive. She captured me in a way that allows me see myself in a positive light.

I've included the image as I've edited it (with a detailed close up of my skin) and the image straight out of camera. Notice how features weren't changed in the edit. The post-production process was intended to highlight certain features, deemphasize other features, and give it an overall mood and style.

Before and After
Before and After

Yes, I shoot contemporary portraits in a fashion and commercial inspired style, but no... I don't change the person's identity in post-production. My job is to help clients see themselves the way the world does... beautiful.