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Insights & Thoughts

Confessions Of a Photoshop Lover

By Michelle Ford on March 4th 2014

The last few months of photography articles have had an unusually high percentage of ‘hatorade’ for digital editing in the fashion world. So much so that some brands have chosen to feature images that are Photoshop free. While I’m an advocate of self-love and teaching our youth that perfection is impossible, I cannot be a hypocrite and turn my back on Photoshop. I love it, my clients love it and my business would suffer without it. I am a wedding and portrait photographer. Let me share with you three reasons for my Photoshop passion.


image by Michelle Ford

1. Photographers Judge Each Other

I’m a member of several online photography groups. It’s a closed environment and an open forum for my peers to “help” each other out with our work. We post images and seek opinions among other things. We ask for constructive criticism, but don’t tolerate negativity and hateful comments. I can tell you, honestly, that in a couple of my networks that are beauty and fashion based, because of these fundamental rules when people post images that are clearly from newer photographers with little to no Photoshop experience, the comment thread can go silent. I know that I personally don’t comment on these because, either the image didn’t move me enough to comment, or I adopt the if-you-have-nothing-nice-to-say-don’t-say-it attitude. If the contributor had very specific questions about the image I might leave a note. But see what just happened there? I took a look at the image and judged based on the image the level of experience of the photographer.

You might say that great photographers have great images straight out of camera. You might even say that beauty is beauty. I would agree on both accounts. The right lighting, the right subject, the right clothes, the right moment, all the right things can contribute to an awesome image, but that number of right things is a small percentage in my field. If I were asked to find the beauty photography experts out of 10 images from 10 different photographers, I would most likely select the well edited ones and so would you. We are a visual group and we like our images to look amazing. Photoshop takes us there. And before Photoshop there was image manipulation in the dark room too, so don’t even go there.

[REWIND: Friday Funnies: Unbelievably Shocking Photoshop Transformations]


image by Michelle Ford

2. Clients Judge My Work

I’ve gotten calls from women who found me on Facebook because their co-worker had photos done and they saw the final image and loved them. These are women who knew what “everyday Gina” looked like personally and saw what Gina and I achieved together on our shoot. They loved the images enough that they envisioned the same thing for themselves. They know just by looking at the images that there was some digital manipulation involved for the final rendering. They know this; they understand it and they want it for themselves.

Photography clients are clearly visual people as well. If and when a woman decides to pay the fees for a beauty portrait session, she weighs in the value of her money and she’s looking for someone that can make her look good. She shops for the right person and that photographer’s portfolio is their resume. Many glamour photographers these days even provide examples of before and after images to push the impact of their work. The use of digital manipulation is very clear and it’s part of their value.

What about models? On sites like Model Mayhem where there is a slew of professional models and even more abundantly, people that want to become models, the subjects judge the photographers they want to work with based on their portfolios. Again, these people are looking for a way to look amazing. Unexperienced models are hoping for a seasoned photographer to take them on and, in some cases, will pay for a session. Models with representation are naturally looking for work, but will be willing to do a trade with amazing photographers. We’re back to how they judge amazing. At this level, amazing almost always includes digital manipulation.

I can hear it now, people will say, “but that’s because of what media has taught us to expect.” Yes, the law of supply and demand definitely created our current situation, but I would also like to argue that regardless of how much we grumble about it, the truth is if you or I were the client, WE want to look good. WE are part of that supply and demand. There is nothing wrong with wanting to look good. There is also nothing wrong with shopping for the photographer to get you there if you were in the market for that.

[REWIND: How To Heal and Clone Non-Destructively in Photoshop]


image by Michelle Ford

3. The Woman in the Mirror

We wake up every morning and we look in the mirror and we see. We see all our flaws and we work on it. We comb our hair, we brush our teeth, we put on makeup and we dress ourselves. We do what we can with the tools we have to present the best version of ourselves that we are able to on any given day. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not so good. Sometimes we want a whole different version altogether. I say we, because I am one of these women. I am just like my clients.

My clients are not models. They are everyday women with flaws and beauty just like me and just like everyone else. They come to me with an objective and it’s about looking good. They want me to see past the flaws they saw in the mirror when they got up this morning. They want to see the beauty that I see when I look at them and they want to be amazed by it. They want to see outside of their everyday view. I use an amazing makeup artist to help transform them out of their everyday. I use my talents and skills as a photographer to get the image right in camera. I use my personality to coach them out of their shell. And I use Photoshop to finish the image.

[PRODUCT HIGHLIGHT: Learn how to use Photoshop like a pro for beauty retouching with the Digital Photo Retouching ebook by Julia Kuzmenko McKim]

I am a portrait photographer. I employ my skills in Photoshop to render the best version of my subjects with the tools I have. I don’t use Photoshop to turn a size 12 woman into a size 6 but I do nip, tuck and smooth to enhance an image. I don’t use Photoshop to turn back time on a 60 year old woman, but I will soften lines and eliminate blemishes to show her the beauty I saw when we sat face to face during the shoot. I’ve shown my clients the images straight out of camera and they love it. Two weeks later, I show them the enhanced images and they love it even more. I have never been asked for the pre-edited photo.


image by Michelle Ford


What I do is eliminate the veneer of imperfections that we all get hung up on when we look in the mirror in the morning. I help my clients get past that first layer and introduce her to the beautiful woman I saw. It’s like that Dove commercial that went viral, but my tool isn’t a pencil and paper, it’s a camera and Photoshop. They might have come to my door looking for a way to look good, but I like to think that I gave them more than that, I gave them something to feel good about as well.


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Michelle is a Southern California Portrait and Wedding Photographer. When she’s not geeking out with a camera she’s nerding out in her IT world. All other moments in the day are spent with her two wonderful children.

See her work on The COCO Gallery
check out her blog at frexNgrin

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Bob Fletcher

    Having been around for awhile now, I started out in 35mm film, went on to 4×5 and the zone system, I used to take pride in composing images in-camera and not cropping, getting great images straight out of a processor, and so forth. If you wanted a different look, you were pretty much limited to changing film types. Came the digital revolution, I was pretty skeptical on a number of fronts, not the least of which were the downright awful things that were produced in the early days – 500 images blended in a print, and so on – mirrored now in common HDR excesses and general over-manipulation. Once I realized the potential in Photoshop (or other imaging tools) for artistic expression and the possibilities to really produce the mental images I saw in my mind at the time of shutter release, I never really looked back. Ansel Adams himself once said that his finished images looked nothing like what the camera recorded (The camera is the instrument, the negative the score, and the print, the performance). The greatest artists through time have always used whatever means were at hand to accomplish their artistic goals. It is left to the rest to carp about purity of technique – a myth which never existed. You expressed very well the same general feelings i have come to about digital manipulation…..Do it wisely, sparingly, and to bring out the inner beauty of your subject, whatever it may be. Screw the critics…who will remember their names in a hundred years?

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  2. Jason C

    Michelle, this article is right on time! A old photography mentor once told me this, “No one wants to see themselves exactly as they are. If they did, there would be no need for photographers. All they would have to do is look in the mirror.” That statement literally molded me years ago, and pushed me to learn as much as I could about Photoshop and how best to utilize it to enhance or get really creative. In my career thus far, I’ve only had one client request that I not retouch anything in their images and I respected that. As a photographer, I feel it’s incumbent upon me to wow my clients with each and every image and Photoshop gives me that edge. I don’t go overboard with my retouching…unless it’s for deliberate artistic reasons. I very rarely will use liquify and if I do, it’s because I know my client may not like a particular body part looks in a pose. I don’t care if you’re thin or wholesome, the beauty comes from within and sometimes we can use a little help getting that out in an image!!!! Bravo Michelle for keeping it real!! Thank you!!

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    • Michelle Ford

      jason, thank you!

      on this statement however “No one wants to see themselves exactly as they are. If they did, there would be no need for photographers. All they would have to do is look in the mirror.” … let’s not forget the value of journalist photography. my first love comes from creating heirloom moments that preserves an emotion to cherish and pass on to those i love.

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  3. Nicholas Gonzalez

    That’s real talk!

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  4. Steven

    Hi Michelle,

    Great article and I’m especially pleased to see a female adopt this perspective – I was moved to write a post of my own on this subject (here, if you fancy taking a look: after seeing the recent Buzzfeed video demonising Photoshop (“Four women react to being photoshopped into cover models) which I felt showed no respect to the skill involved in retouching. Articles like Buzzfeed’s are propagating a belief that photoshop takes away a person’s identity, that it’s a magic trick for transforming people into idealistic caricatures, of themselves and a crutch for poor photography that requires no skill.

    You’re clearly a skilled photographer and retoucher; your images speak for themselves regardless of the methods you used to create them.

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    • Michelle Ford

      ugh!!!! THAT video (4 girls) sent me on a tangent. it definitely influenced this article although it’s been broiling in me for a while now. that one definitely was the last straw.

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  5. David Liang

    You know I can only speculate but I suspect the large majority of photographers boasting their SOOC(straight out of camera) images, are doing so because they don’t know or can’t push their work beyond that. Equally ironic is that a lot of these photographers try and portray themselves as “old school”, as if to scoff at the photographers embracing and mastering photoshop. The irony being that true “old school” masters worked the darkroom like magicians. They knew their timing, their temperature, their flow and true dodging and burning. There isn’t a master of any genre that doesn’t tinker with their work until they felt it was perfect.

    There is of course really great images coming SOOC, but as you say the vast majority of images are not finished until processing. There’s definitely a lot of pride and joy that comes from capturing that perfect moment, but in lieu of all the things the need to coincide to aid the photographer in creating that image, deliberate and tasteful post processing can do an image well.

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    • Michelle Ford

      it’s so true that getting the image right in camera just minimizes the time i have to spend on it on the computer.

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  6. Bill Bentley

    I’m not a portrait photographer but I totally agree with this. It’s not unlike the hatred that HDR photography has undergone in the past few years as well. The hate comes from seeing images that ruin the beauty of nature by being crushed under the weight of tonal contrast presets run a muck . But when done well the images are very striking and beautiful. Like you said Michelle, it’s all about (re)presenting the image as we envisioned it when we captured it. People and landscapes. The same approach pretty much applies to both.

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    • Michelle Ford

      bill! you are so right! i guess in a way, all the systems we use for our art can be taken down a very heavy handed path and it’s really up to us to know where to draw the line.

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    • Ranalli

      Exactly. You can go overboard in both HDR and retouching….and the results look gaudy. The HDR will look too “cooked” and have halos and in retouching the skin may look like plastic and/or lack texture.

      But do these right and it’s semi believable…it works.

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  7. Ranalli

    Excellent write-up and this statement says it all: “I employ my skills in Photoshop to render the best version of my subjects with the tools I have.”

    Why would you want to render someone any other way for a portrait where they want to look good? People come to you because they want to look good. If they want to look like they normally do well then they can just do that with an iPhone and take a selfie…why hire top talent for that?

    I don’t see any point in hiring a photographer/retoucher to portray you in anything but the best light possible.

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    • Michelle Ford

      ah ranalli i was trying to wrap my head around this too!! and then i talked to a fashion and commercial photographer and understood everything else. my client is hiring me to shoot HER to make HER look good but still believable and still recognizable. a commercial and fashion photographer’s client is the manufacturer of the product. that photographer is using the all the tools to make the product look good and if that means rendering perfection on the subject that is representing said product then so be it.

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  8. Rick

    Definitely agree.

    When I first started retouching, I loved the mechanics of it (e.g. understanding how frequency separate worked, methods of dodge and burn, etc.). But, I soon struggled with the “why”. Seeing near perfect images actually looked wrong.

    Kudos to not going to extreme lengths at alterating a person’s look too much. I know this is a sticking point for many in various industries, and the following is just my own opinion…

    When I retouch, I only address things that are not meant to be there. e.g. a blemish or scar (unless the client wants that left in). I sparingly will use liquify, and never to reshape faces or change body weight.

    I remember reading one forum where a retoucher made a comment something like “I wish she had a less masculine appearance”. To me, if we retouch to the point where the person is no longer themselves, then what is the point? If I wanted absolute “perfection” where a model’s neck is of an exact length, cheekbones set just right, etc., I would stick with just rendering something in 3D.

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    • Michelle Ford

      yeah rick that’s definitely where i come from as well. in a recent discussion with a commercial photographer however i completely understand that his client is the prod manufacturer and not the subject of the photograph. so he manipulates the image to attain the hyper perfection that his client requires.

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