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.
In short, 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, 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.”
A retoucher uses 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 and 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.
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 photography process and an understanding of the creative concept behind a shoot, having a retoucher to consult with enables a clearer line of communication and saves 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 client’s pre-production and post-production questions, act as a second set of eyes, and is someone who can talk to a client and explain to them what is going into the photography process. For 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.
Philadelphia-based photographer Colin Lenton adds: “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, a description of the look and feel of the concept. In short, really communicate and work to involve them as a creative partner.
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.