Retouchers are commonly found behind the metaphorical curtain of the photography process. They operate as the hidden muscle behind a large quantity of the high-end imagery we see these days. They can play an integral role in refining a successful image and taking it to the next level.
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What is Photo Retouching?
In short, photo retouching is the finish of the image. After a photographer has captured the subject, a retoucher takes the final steps in executing the creative vision. They are the last line of defense in eliminating any imperfections from a photo. Frequently, professional retouchers are the last link in the chain, cleaning up any mistakes that are bound to happen on set. As Orlando-based retoucher Brad D’Amico puts it: “Retouchers are essentially the quality assurance officers of the photo world.”
Retouchers and Post Production Workflow
What Does a Retoucher Do?
Professional retouchers use a mastery of the digital tools available to them to bring the image to where it needs to go, fulfilling the vision of the photographer and the client in elevating the final product. Nowadays, they have access to an almost bottomless bag of tricks that can refine and modify digital photos to meet the needs of the creatives who conceived them. “We have tips, tricks, and scripts to expedite the overall photography process,” says Stephanie Goode, a Boston area retoucher.
The modifications can come in many forms — color and tone correction, removing blemishes and under-eye circles, changing brightness, contrast, and saturation, making sure anything distracting is removed, and compositing the successful pieces from several images to create one well-polished final photograph.
Intermediary Between Photographer and Client
Robert Cornelius, a Cleveland-based photographer and retoucher, points out that in many scenarios, retouchers also function as a liaison between the photographer and the client. They understand the possibilities or limitations around the images being captured and how they relate to the client’s goals. Since retouchers often have a great understanding of the photographic process and the creative concept behind a shoot, having them to consult with enables a clearer line of communication, saving time and money for both parties.
Maybe you can get this done in camera — but would it take more time to get what you need in a single image, or can it be comped together in post? Is this wrinkle a problem, or can it be removed? Can we move this light? Can we drop the camera? If the client thinks they know what they want but doesn’t know how to ask for it, a retoucher can often be the one to fill that gap.
“A retoucher is an investment,” says Taisya Kuzmenko of Picturebox Creative. They can also answer a client’s pre-production and post production questions, act as a second set of eyes, and explain the photographic process as well. To photographers, they can add a great deal of confidence in the final product, taking an objective approach to the images.
A photographer who shoots a campaign with thousands of images might not know where to take it from there. As a retoucher, I want to be able to make him feel confident in the end result.
Retoucher as Creative Partner
Philadelphia-based photographer Colin M. Lenton sees an expanded role for retouchers on assignments.
Like anyone on a creative team and photo crew, retouchers are there to help you. They allow photographers to concentrate on shooting while other projects are in post production. This allows for faster turnaround and will keep jobs from falling behind.
It’s extremely valuable to have a clear idea of what you’re looking for from a creative standpoint as well. You should have PDF markups, notes, and a description of the look and feel of the concept. In short, really communicate and work to involve them as a creative partner. David Lewis Taylor, a product photographer based in New York City, sees retouchers as partners who’d facilitate additional avenues for productivity and efficiency.
The retoucher’s contribution goes beyond their technical and artistic contributions. A well-organized retoucher will facilitate the retouching process with detail-labeled layers on each shot so that corrections and adjustments can be made to the files quickly.
On a separate note, a retoucher’s involvement doesn’t need to come up during the second half or final third of a campaign. This point was emphasized by Vienna-based Mladen Penev, who prefers being in the mix from the first step itself.
I like to be involved in the whole creation process after the concept is sold to the client by the creatives. But frankly, I don’t see myself as just a retoucher. I am an art director, photographer, and graphic designer, too. In my opinion, the best results are achieved when I can give my expertise right from the beginning of the production.
For Mladen, being on set isn’t a novelty either. In fact, it could help the creative team and client get on the same page about a campaign’s expectations. However, the past few years have affected this process.
Before the pandemic, I was traveling a lot for productions abroad: in USA, Dubai, Germany, and many other countries. Even here in Austria, where I’m based. Quite often, I was on set for many different brands and photographers. In addition to quick rough tests which are essential for some productions, it’s also helpful to converse with clients on set. I give my technical or creative opinion when I feel that it will help in some way. It is sad that this process is almost non-existent now. Everyone is sitting behind their screens in their convenient offices and revising everything remotely.
Finding the Right Retoucher
Retouchers, just like photographers, have different styles and approaches. When looking for a retoucher to work with, New York-based retoucher Bianca Carosio stresses the importance of finding someone who communicates well and has excellent judgment.
The photographer needs to think about what type of work they’re doing — find a person that has worked with that subject matter. Align yourself with someone who works the way you do, is like-minded, and understands your style.
Retoucher Ben Woolsey reminds us that “a pixel is a pixel” and that a good retoucher can work with almost any image to increase its quality in some way. So, looking at examples of their work to find something that matches your vision (and budget) is important. The best retouchers function as an extension of the photographer’s abilities and creativity.
You’ll get a lot of value from a good retoucher that understands you, even an hour’s worth of their time gets a lot done for your photography.
Types of Retouching
Classifying by Technique
There are different ways to classify the types of retouching, and retouchers by extension. One way of doing it is to focus on the specific techniques and processes that are involved, some of which are:
- Color Correction: Adjusting the color balance, saturation, brightness, and contrast of the image to make it look more vibrant and appealing.
- Exposure Correction: Adjusting the exposure and brightness levels of the image to correct overexposure or underexposure.
- Object Removal: Removing unwanted objects or elements from the image, such as stray hairs, dust, or other distractions.
- Background Retouching: Removing or adding elements to the background of the image to improve the composition or create a more cohesive look.
- Sharpening: Enhancing the image’s sharpness and detail to make it look more crisp and clear.
- Compositing: Combining multiple images to create a new image, such as adding a subject to a new background or creating a montage.
- Skin Retouching: Removing blemishes, wrinkles, and other imperfections from the subject’s skin. It may also include smoothing out the skin texture and adjusting skin tone.
For Czechia-based photographer Jiří Lízler, the world of compositing feels like home. He sees the discipline as a case of problem-solving, when a certain aspect of production can’t be created physically. It’s a matter of “enhancing and creating worlds,” as a recent assignment he completed for the non-profit organization, České Švýcarsko, would prove. For the assignment, he had to combine various images with illustrations as part of a campaign for Bohemian Switzerland, inviting tourists to a region that faced forest fires.
With compositing, one approach is to create an image where all the elements are integrated seamlessly. Another approach is to develop an image where the combined elements stand in contrast against each other. Jiří’s campaign for České Švýcarsko falls into the latter camp, since the goal was to highlight a component that was missing from Bohemian Switzerland after the forest fires: tourists. For the highlight to stand out sharply, the creative team opted to use illustrations, conveying the message that the region misses its seasonal visitors.
Classifying by Market and Specialization
Tomasz Kozakiewicz, Co-Founder of House of Retouching, identifies an alternate structure to classify retouching and retouchers, with the primary factor being market and specialization.
Just as photographers have their specialties, retouchers are likely to do the same, whether they choose editorial fashion versus e-commerce fashion, or focus exclusively on still-life photography. Even within still life, some retouchers would settle into a smaller niche, such as jewelry or beverages. Elsewhere within the world of beauty and fashion, you could find retouchers who deal with hair while others do skin. Ultimately, a retoucher would choose to hone in on a specialization depending on their skill set and personal preferences.
For David, that specialization was product and still life. As a photographer who has done his own retouching for years, he’s familiar with the minutiae of the specialty inside and out. He states that without retouching, advertising imagery on marketing collateral would draw attention to obvious faults.
Retouching is essential to product photography because you’re often looking at a product or packaging on a larger scale, and any flaw, seam, or poor printing becomes very evident. A general rule I like to follow is to straighten lines in product retouching. Separately, if a glass seam or plastic tube is not finished properly, the lines may be uneven or jagged. Type can create distracting shadows; a label usually looks more readable and smoother when removed. With women’s shoes, the soles are so fine, and the seams in the tiny straps can appear messy or uneven before retouching. These are all delicate and slight corrections, but when a product is enlarged, the flaws disrupt the flow of the eye.
Speed tends to be a by-product of market and specialization. To illustrate this, Tomasz compares retouchers in the e-commerce space against those in advertising.
E-commerce images are often done in mere minutes, with the help of automation and AI. On the other hand, a single advertising composite – involving high-end retouching, color grading, and artistic skills like light painting, morphing, merging, and drawing – can take days or even weeks, especially when factoring the back and forth between parties.
Different specializations require different skill sets and tools, which in turn determine the effort, resources, and time poured into campaigns. In short, certain retouching markets are created due to the time constraints created by clients.
A third factor could also emerge via specific personal talents. Through experience in the field, a retoucher could build a reputation for a particular ability. As an example, someone could be lauded for their perception of color against space, while another may be excellent with texture control. Once again, these specific abilities may develop due to a professional’s focus on a given market segment, or vice versa.
The bottom line is that there are infinite ways to classify photography retouching and retouchers, but the most common boundaries exist through technique and market specialization.
Cost of Hiring a Retoucher
The cost of retouching is just as complex of a subject. Different types of retouchers would utilize alternate pricing models.
- Per Image: Typical pricing model of individual retouchers
- Per Hour: Typical pricing model of post production houses
- Per Assignment: Typical pricing model when a bulk of images needed to be retouched
In Mladen’s experience, a typical freelance retoucher works on an hourly basis. For him, though, pricing is handled on a per-project basis, given the breadth and depth of his involvement from the beginning of a campaign. The volume and variety of post production work that goes into an image or campaign can influence price significantly.
In my case, it comes down to the complexity of the image. It starts with a basic clean-up and could end with complex, multi-layered, multi-object comps with many nested smart objects. Then sometimes, I need to play a part in the conception of the image or campaign. The agency and client may only have the idea, but they need a good working treatment for the creation. They may even need sketches and rough comps. So these elements could also influence the price. On other occasions, there are unexpected format changes which could be tricky and time-consuming, resulting in unexpected price gains.
After accounting for different pricing models, the cost factor varies significantly depending on the geographic location. This was a point noted by Jiří, Mladen, and Tomasz. In Tomasz’s experience, the US market is by far the most expensive.
The US has the highest prices, with hourly rates going well over a hundred on advertising jobs. EU rates are lower, but Western Europe tends to be more expensive than the East. If we look at the Asian market, some post production houses handle bulk image editing at a fraction of the US cost. The quality is still often hard to accept, but they have made significant progress over the last decade.
Advertising vs The Rest
Tomasz also draws a distinction between advertising and editorial work, but this separation has changed with time.
Now that paid, or at least reasonably paid editorial content is very rare, it is more a case of advertising vs the rest, with ad work being billed at 100% more or higher compared to other projects.
David agrees. It largely boils down to the amount of work involved in ad campaigns.
Prices are really high for advertising jobs. Often with high-end assignments, products in a group image are all shot individually so that there’s no reflection from the adjacent products. At times, you’re asked to shoot composite models of products, and there can be rounds of retouching between the client, agency, and artist.
In David’s line of work, he specifies a base rate and a TBD if corrective retouching is required. The various elements of product retouching – adjusting type, color correcting, compositing, and more – are hard to price quote until a full lay of the land is assessed.
Retouchers in CGI and Video
Times change, and with it, the responsibilities associated with a job can change as well. With the growing prevalence of computer-generated imagery (CGI) and video content, professional retouchers can look beyond the traditional scope of their position. Tomasz sees the jump to video as an easy one.
I see a lot of people learning video color grading. It seems much more intuitive for us and in some aspects, much easier than retouching. I would argue that a hybrid stills and video post production artist will be the new norm.
The jump into CGI may take more effort. Tomasz believes that a retoucher’s perspective of photography should lend itself to a great understanding of color and structure in CGI. While he’d like to see more retouchers work with CGI, he concedes that it’s no easy feat. However, with their existing skillset and experience, retouchers have a solid foundation to build upon and can certainly succeed in the field of CGI.
What Makes a Great Retoucher
The photographers and retouchers we spoke to agree on the hallmark of great retouching: it remains invisible. Jiří insists that it should not be seen, while David labels it as naturalism refined. On one end of the spectrum, retouching is a case of eliminating mistakes and flaws. On the other, it’s about transforming a good photo into a great one, and no photographer worth their salt would neglect either.
About the Authors
Andrew Souders is a Philadelphia-based visual artist with an educational background in fine art, photography, art history, and theory. He is also a producer and an author at Wonderful Machine. You can find more of his work on his website and connect with him through LinkedIn.
Sankha Wanigasekara is a content writer and an Entertainment and Arts Management graduate from the Cinema and Television concentration at Drexel University. You can connect with him through LinkedIn.
This article was originally published here and shared with permission.
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