Photo Retouching: What It Is, Isn’t, and Shouldn’t Be

Photo retouching receives a lot of attention from the media, often for slimming down celebrities and removing key details from famous views. These days, not many people are sure what is real, fake, or downright impossible thanks to Photoshop gurus painting away life’s imperfections. Whether it’s in a magazine, a poster design, a web ad, or your very own family portrait, photos are edited and manipulated all around us.

So, what’s the big deal? Let me take a moment to share my experiences with the good, bad and ugly of my Photoshopping jobs over the years.

Retouching: What It Is
A true retouching job involves enhancing what the photo already has to offer, showing what the eye can see but the camera couldn’t pick up, or restoring what was lost due to poor lighting or other problems during a photo shoot. A true retouch shouldn’t be impossible to see in the real world. For example:

Retouching 2 - full

In this shot for a Sunshine Kids product, I edited out the umbrella shadow and brightened the model’s shadowed face. The human eye would typically see this scene well without the umbrella’s shade, but the camera required it to pick up detail and color. I also filled in the grass which was too expensive to replace on-site. A retouch brought the image back to what your eye could naturally see.

Retouching: What It Isn’t
Retouching doesn’t involve changing key characteristics of a photo. Beyond those changes, it becomes photo manipulation – which is either for artful purposes, demonstration, or manipulating the perception of the viewer. This is where some companies take it too far and can damage our expectations of the real. Sometimes as a designer, I walk the line between retouching and manipulation to satisfy ego, art, and other objectives. However, making purposeful choices to enhance what a person or scene already has – never taking out the essentials – preserves the integrity of the work.

Face retouching

In this photo, clearly the model has some skin issues and was shot in inadequate lighting that distract from his eyes and skin tone. While he’s not naturally blemish-free, nobody wants to be remembered for their poor skin as a teenager. A little Photoshop satisfies the natural ego, while helping us see his amazing eye color that already exists.

Retouching: What It Shouldn’t Be
Photoshop shouldn’t be used as a crutch for bad photography, lack of exercise (or too much) or poor setups. I don’t believe Photoshop editing is inherently bad for our society, though ethically designers and artists need to speak out against altering scenes and people so far from reality. Once we edit it away from reality, let’s call it what it is: art.