IS PHOTO RETOUCHING A BAD THING TO DO?

Every time I meet new people and get to the ‘What do you do?’ question, I mostly get blank stares when answering that I’m a retoucher. “Photoshop” I then add, which brings up a face of recognition, with a slight uncertain look.

“I help photographers make beautiful models even more beautiful and fuck up the self-image of insecure people.” 

Self-mocking is the easy way to deal with it, but actually there is a truth in there that stings. I do sometimes feel hesitant about this job and wonder What do I do for the world to make it a better place? Photo retouching has a bad name. And using it, often feels like cheating. But where does that feeling come from? 

Retouching refers to the process of enhancing a photograph to bring out the best features and reduce or remove any unwanted flaws or imperfections.

RAW VERSUS JPG

If you use a point and shoot camera or phone to take a picture, your output is most probably a jpg image. This means that the photo is already processed (color) and compressed (quality) by the device itself. The manufacturer of the used brand created presets for the adjustments, yet these photos are often perceived as ‘original’ unedited output.

Raw (left) versus Jpg (right). Both straight from the camera.

On the other hand, if a photographer uses a RAW format and customizes the settings itself with the right software (like Photoshop, Capture One or Lightroom), it is seen as ‘manipulated’ and edited output. Which is strange, because this file type is MEANT to be post-processed. It stored all the information captured by the sensor, so that you have maximum control over the endresult.

Without retouching, the photo will come out more dull, boring and flat then supposed to. It’s like serving up raw food that should actually be cooked.

Raw
Jpg
Photoshop

PHOTOGRAPHY VERSUS REALITY

The problem is that we still think that photographs capture and represent reality. Which is a false believe. Let two photographers make a photo at the same place at the same time and they will definitely come out different.

There are so many creative decisions when taking a photo that influence how it eventually will be perceived: lens choice, camera angle, light, composition. All these happen even before the actual click of the camera button. Then there is the set of choices that happen in-camera; like exposure time, aperture, zoom, ISO level etc.

Because the retouching part is last in line and happens after the actual product (the photograph) is delivered, it might feel more obvious in influencing the outcome. But they all work together in creating a vision and perspective of the image maker.

Raw drone shot (left) versus processed with Photoshop (right).

HOW FAR IS TOO FAR?

Although I do think that retouching is an indispensable part of the photography process, there is a line to draw when we speak of ethics and right or wrong.

The problem is that this line is differently positioned for everyone and therefore has faded into a big grey area of photo fakeness.

When we talk about journalistic news, documentaries and reportages, it is of course expected that those should try to get as close as possible to capturing reality as it is. To deliver something that tells the story in an objective way so that the viewer can form an opinion. Time has proved that even photographers in this field are tempted to manipulate things

But what about the personal photographs? Our travel pictures and the day-to-day snapshots that end up in our social stream? The way we present ourselves to the world can heavily influence the perception of others.

Phone selfie before (left) versus Photoshopped (right)

MY PERSONAL ETHICS IN DIGITAL PHOTO MANIPULATION

Photoshop has a magical attraction to me. I enjoy tweaking and searching for options to stretch the boundaries of photographic possibility; to balance on the edge between ‘real’ and ‘fake’.

Study after study has shown that seeing manipulated photos of others can lead to anxiety and low self-esteem. It really bothers me, that even though I am fully aware of this fact, I still contribute to these fake world creations.

Want to know more about what I do and why? I discuss all my considerations when retouching in the following blogs:

  • Color, light and other quick and simple photoshop adjustments *
  • Removing unwanted distracting objects or persons *
  • Making skin more flawless *
  • Replacing heads, bodies or face expressions *
  • Altering body shapes to look like a supermodel *

* to be published soon

WHY DO I CONTINUE TO RETOUCH MY PHOTOS?

Reflecting on my Photoshop behaviour, made me realise that there are multiple motives involved for me to still retouch my personal photos:

1 – Using photo editing software gives me the creative freedom I need to create beautiful imagery. Diehards in photography often emphasize that their photos are delivered straight out of camera. Do they mean it then presents reality and therefore is a better photo? I don’t even think that’s possible.

We shouldn’t trust photos as a documentation of the world as we see it.

Photography and retouch is not about cloning the view exactly as seen. It is an art form, a vision. And I like to create.

2 – It’s the comparing with other social profiles that gives me the feeling I need to edit my personal photos as well to be able to measure up to the online standard. Especially since I consider myself a “professional” in the field of retouching.

I can’t possibly show any photos that are inferior to what I could deliver workwise, isn’t it? It’s a social circle that maintains itself and possibly even spirals towards becoming more and more fake and unrealistic. 

3 – Receiving likes, followers and recognition improves your social status.

We all crave for appreciation from others and receiving satisfaction is now only a few clicks away.

Straight after my fake travel project it felt too hypocrite to me to use facebook or instagram as a way of showing off my daily highlights. I stopped posting, but quickly realized that nowadays as a freelancer, it is an indispensable tool in marketing your work.

Since then I have a love/hate relationship with social media and still battle with mixed feelings about it.

I battle with mixed feelings about social media

INTENTIONS

Retouching itself is not the culprit. If you use the editing functions as expected, there should be no harm in pulling some sliders to adjust things like contrast, sharpness or colors. It only makes a good photo even better. In my opinion retouching becomes a bad thing only with the wrong intentions.

Of course nobody thinks “now, let’s ruin some self-images today”. But it is the careless act of leaving out the honest details in the description that causes problems.

Why is it anyway, that the retouchers are often left out of the magazine credits? Is that because we rather pretend or believe the photos were not touched by someone else than the photographer?

My point is, that we all have a duty not to be ignorant of the facts. We have an example function to fulfill when posting edited photos publicly. Either to your big audience as an influencer, or just to your friends and family – or even (and maybe most importantly) just to yourself.

WHAT DO I DO TO MAKE THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE?

I feel vulnerable throwing my before/afters out in the open. But I do this, because I think that honesty is the key in this whole issue. While I am often tied to non-disclosure agreements with crazy fines for showing work in progress in my professional career, nobody will sue me if I show my personal snapshot treatments. So that is what I will continue to do from now on.

I asked myself what I do to make this world a better place and realized that by starting this blog, I found the answer: writing this article is my way of contributing.

It is my mission to make people aware of what really happens behind the scenes and continue the controversial conversation on the topic of retouching.