The Art and Science of Retouching: What Really Happens to Those Photos


It’s not just Lena Dunham — every photo you see in every magazine and on every billboard has likely had some sort of retouching done. That’s common knowledge. But what’s actually involved in the process? We talked to a photographer and a couple of retouchers to learn what actually happens behind the scenes.

“Post-production really, really is an amazing and important part of what we do today,” says commercial photographer Doug Sonders. In the days of film, post-production changes were prohibitively expensive and the necessary expertise was rare. Nowadays, though, you can shoot a car and driver in a white studio, then drop them into a desert.

It’s not necessarily the photographer doing all that work, though. Sonders estimates that he retouches “maybe 75 to 80 percent of my own imagery,” but outsources the biggest stuff to a professional retoucher. And it took him a year to find the right one: “The funny thing with Photoshop is, it’s not like there’s one tool if you want to switch somebody’s head out—there’s 10 different ways to do it, technologically. and each one has a different visual style.” He compares it to the way you can recut the Mrs. Doubtfire into a trailer for a horror movie.

Some retouchers work freelance, while others work in larger firms that might have specialists in beauty, food and cars on staff, for instance. Some work in-house at magazines.

Justin Paguia walked us through his process as a retoucher. Before a shoot, he’s briefed about the layout and concept, and sometimes he’s on set for any questions that might come up. Afterward, the photographer hands over images (which might or might not have some retouching already done), with a rough composite of what they want and directions about color, mood, lighting, contrast. “this is where i really start to work,” Justin explains.

He estimates he uses photoshop 90 percent of the time, but also uses Adobe Illustrator (“to create objects i can use in photoshop”) and processing software (“to see if i can use certain parts or over/under expose shots for detail/information”).

since the
client/photographer only gave a general idea, its my job to use
discretion of how far to go for cleaning up skin, or how much contrast
to use or how to blend together 20 different images into 1. once im
finished with the image, the client/photog will give their feedback so
its up to their liking. ive gone through as many as 12 rounds of
revisions to get 1 image finished and approved.

Allen Chu has a similar process. He gets raw images marked with things to look out for, like “stray hairs, wrinkles in clothing, or
any distractions in the rest of the image.” He uses Capture One for an initial, general processing, correcting any lens weirdness, for instance. He does most of his work—detailed retouching like “the cleaning of skin, tonal adjustments, and color grading”—in Photoshop.

“My philosophy as a retoucher is to help bring out the
best of a photo; my goal is to polish and not to recreate,” Chu explained.

As for who’s calling the shots, different clients and editors want different levels of involvement. Doug says sometimes he’s turned loose with instructions to do his thing, while others want to see every proof and will ask to combine the head from one shot with the hands from another—which is perfectly doable.

The possibilities are extensive enough it’s opened up a new way of being skilled in the craft: “Some photographers are not particularly good but are amazing in post-production and just need a base image to start with and use it almost like photo illustration,” he explained. (You can’t make it all up, though: “It’s hard to produce a great image without a good foundation to work off of,” Chu pointed out.)

Overall, Sonders was pretty positive about Photoshop as a photographer’s tool. It makes it possible to rescue a throwaway shot that turned out really well, or a shoot done in a time crunch without the usual set-up. And he specifically called out Annie Leibovitz’s Disney Dream portraits as an example of how retouching can be used artistically.

That’s not to say there’s no dark side, though: “Entertainment is one of those worlds where, especially for young women, they really really make it hard on them,” Sonders admitted. “You’ve got a really heavy retouch.”

“Photoshop allows you to create the story that you want to tell,” according to Sonders. It’s just a tool, after all. So maybe what we need is better stories.

Image via Shutterstock.

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