My Philosophy on Retouching Models in Photos.

March 19th, 2011 Yikes!


Wow!  It's been awhile since I last posted but it's been a busy start to 2011.  Since a large part of digital photography these days is image retouching, and the over-use of it, I thought I would offer some insight into what my particular thought process and goal for retouching a photo is.  As you can see by my high-tech illustration above, that seeing a person in real life verses in a digital photograph are two very different things.  I was on a commercial shoot awhile back and the owner of the company I was shooting an ad campaign for was there to supervise the shoot which involved a model wearing the company's products.  I had a monitor set up to show what the camera was capturing so the client could view as we went along.  After a few shots, the owner told me, "I don't like the photos, she looks better in real life than in the pictures."  Yikes! (pulling my collar)  Every crew member in the studio just looked at me at the same time- and the air in the room got real heavy and silent. I quickly had to give a short explanation to the client that the camera "sees" differently than we do, and that the post-production process fixes flaws that happen in camera.  It wasn't a problem with the lighting or the camera settings, we got it right in camera, it was just the circumstances of the strobe lighting that resulted in different capture image vs. real life image.  Of course in other situations, lighting/exposure  can be manipulated to hide flaws in a subject, but this was one of those cases where it just was going to take retouching to fix the digital side effects of high-resolution capture.   Check this out.

"THE CAMERA DOESN'T LIE."     Oh yes it does.  (FYI, it also loves to make you look fat.)

When we view a person, our eyes and brains adjust to the light we are in and we usually aren't standing 6 inches from someone's face examining them.  We just see them normally and they look fine in general.  However, when you put someone in front of a high-resolution camera, an expensive lens designed to magnify detail, a big bright strobe light (or multiple strobes) and zoom in on them for a closer, larger image; what happens in the 1/3000th of a second while that strobe light fires and the camera clicks is not in any way the same as what you and I see normally.   For that split second, the model or subject is in front of a magnifying glass and a super-bright light.  The camera is set to capture a normal exposure of that light, but it's also capturing an enormous amount of detail that we don't see when the strobe is off and there is normal light on the subject.  Skin pores, wrinkle lines, dark tones under the surface of the skin, makeup particles, red veins in the eyes, and small bumps and blemishes on the skin are just a few of the things that are brightly exposed like a dermatologist's lab.  It's not the way a person normally looks at all.  It's the way they look with that much light power hitting them, a powerful lens taking in that light and putting it on a powerful digital sensor that records every detail and assigns it a binary number, then picks a color for each pixel and sends that all through a computer for more processing, then to a monitor where either LED's, or phosphorus crystals render the digital numbers into electronic light amplitudes for you to see.  Not the same as just saying "hi" to someone in a room standing a few feet in front of you.

Furthermore, I can swear that the camera makes stuff up and throws it in as well.  You've heard of that word "photogenic" right?  Or "the camera loves you".  It means someone who looks good in pictures, versus someone who doesn't.  How can it be that some people don't look as completely accurate in a photo as they do in person?  It's beyond science I think, but it is a real phenomenon.   I think that somewhere between the lens slightly distorting the light passing through it, the camera capturing and recording that light into pixels or the computer's handling of the image, a person's image can become misrepresented.  I've seen it thousands of times.  When I shoot with a beautiful model with perfect features and in the photos her nose looks like a potato, even with the most pleasing focal length and lighting, something's up.

Ok, so what do we do about it?

Digital retouching is the only viable solution for these instances where the subject's digital images, whether due to to technical side effects or mysterious gremlins in the camera, end up looking less accurate than the actual subject does in real life view.  Retouching has always had a sort of negative reaction from people, mainly because it's mostly used to make certain people (mainly celebrities) look better than they really do.   Furthermore, now that the internet has enabled all the amateur and hobby photographers to learn quick and easy retouching methods, everyone is out there snapping away pictures and over-glossing them up like crazy, to the point that it's not even about the photo anymore, but more about how much retouching was done.  That in turn makes the market flooded with photographer/retouchers, and lowers the aesthetic and monetary value across the entire board since everyone does it, and the quality is the same (poor).

When I retouch a photo, I'm essentially interested in just putting things back to the way I see the model with my own eyes, and removing all the digital flaws associated with the capture process.  Unless there is a specific look in mind for the retouch work such as a Dior ad where the models are supposed to look futuristic and sort of plastic, I want the retouch to not reveal retouching.  I find that to be one of the biggest giveaways of a non-pro photographer, is that they use massive retouching for their signature style and that's it.  You know it as soon as you see the photo, and people even commonly say "That looks so Photoshopped.".  Sure, I do plenty of post-production work such as compositing several images together, and special effect stuff, but as far as work on people, I just want the image to meet fashion standards but still keep the model real in the image's final form.   I've found that the best way to capture a subject and not have to deal with abnormalities, is by using natural light.  Most of the time, it just looks great as is and very little post work if any at all is required.  However, if I'm required to use strobes either for creative effect or job purpose, then I'm aware that there could be some artificial additives that are part of the capture process.  It's a mixed bag of elements that can determine how much or how little retouching is needed, but the best strategy is to avoid things that you know are going to lead down the path of a photo ending up looking fake.  For instance I follow a few simple rules:

1.  Use models with great skin.  Bam.  Done.  In the bag, no retouching needed when you have great skin.

2.  Whenever possible, use natural light.

3.  A few flaws are ok- leave them in.  I'd rather have a photo look perfect with flaws in than artificial with every flaw removed.

4.  Don't ever follow formula-matic retouching methods. Meaning, don't retouch every photo with the same procedure.  Each photo is different, retouch it to retain it's individuality.

5.  Retouching isn't what makes a photo compelling.  If you think it is, then go right ahead and keep thinking that it is.

So there ya have it, I prefer a cleaner approach to the whole retouching thing when it's my choice.  What goes in the camera isn't always what the human eye sees, so retouching can get it back to normal.  When used properly retouching is a great thing, but when used excessively for any other reason than creative vision, it can get pretty ugly.