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Insights & Thoughts

Nigel Barker On Retouch | A Fashion Photography Icon Speaks Honestly About The Controversy

By Kishore Sawh on January 30th 2015


Are you a working professional? Then you retouch. That’s a bit abrasive, forgive me, but that’s the truth. If there’s any doubt about this in your mind, I urge you to consider spending some time looking up retouching tutorials and their popularity. You can search for a minute or a month and you will see no end in sight. From instructional videos on how to remove a pimple from your face on prom night, to turning your date’s wild hair that looks like it belongs on the fields of the Serengeti into something that belongs in a Pantene commercial, to how to turn a geek into a muscled freak; anything is possible. So you’ll never have to wonder if you could, but rather more importantly if you should. When it comes to Photoshop, or broader digital retouching, there are ethics involved.

There’s a sort of dichotomy of personalities when it comes to retouching. Typically, it’s either viewed enthusiastically with the wonder of a child whose just witnessed for the first time a rabbit pulled from a hat, or with a bit of disdain. As photographers, we unite as a paradox that is made up of both, and so the discussion is somewhat never-ending. It’s always interesting to hear from the most major of players how they view retouching – if they vilify it, or defend it, and why.


In this episode of #BehindTheGlass, we hear from Nigel Barker, who has been a professional on both sides of the camera. He’s internationally recognized for his body of work and features on various ‘Next Top Model productions, speaks about his idea of borders. While the discussion lives in the grey area, there are often borders that photographers and retouchers set for themselves, not to be crossed. How far out that line may be varies, and Barker seems to draw the line at altering bone structure to any real degree.


[REWIND: Does Photoshop Retouching Harm Our Body Image? – Opinion Article]

He goes on to speak historically of the existence of people ‘retouching’ the way they look via the use of make-up. Actually, he essentially references anything that manipulates how one would naturally look, from the black eye make-up of the Egyptians, to the ‘lotus foot’ of the Chinese who wanted their feet to appear smaller. Speaking to modern times, he speaks about how much of what we do as photographers, we do to make people look a certain way, such as using light to shape a figure.

What it seems he is getting at is that the idea of manipulating the way someone looks is historically prevalent, and that to some degree we all do it, so to vilify what we do digitally now, would seem hypocritical. We all make choices and take actions to ‘shape’ how we look. Our hairstyles do that, our clothes and how we wear them, make-up, and the list would go on.


It stands to be said that he doesn’t dignify all retouching, especially pertaining to digital manipulation of bone structure, but references how creating a shape with light is fine. To be honest, I’m generally in his camp. I believe it must be understood that the answers to each case are not binary – it’s all subjective.

I think digital retouching, as a practice, is still something we are learning to use responsibly, and it will take time to get it as close to right as possible, and then it’ll change again as the times do. Generally, I see little wrong with altering bone structure and so forth of the image; there are scenarios where I think it’s fine, such as if it’s being used for commercial purposes. Advertising is about selling, and humans are drawn to what we perceive as better than we may be. (Also, if you’re still under the misapprehension that nothing quite changes appearance like Photoshop, I’d recommend taking a look at what women are doing everyday with make-up and how it alters the look of physical structure. It’s mind blowing, and often more intensive and altering than any retouching I do).


This is not a new notion at all, and you needn’t go back millennia to see this. If you’ve got time, Google some images of golden age actresses like Vivien Leigh or Betty Davis and notice how perfect their skin and structure often look, shaped with light, dodged and burned. Or even to drawn advertisements in the 60’s depicting families with fathers that had jawlines sharper than their wit.

The only real consideration I think needs to be taken here is the effect on youth.

For the most part, adults have the experience and sense to understand that images we see in the media aren’t a representation of what’s real, and don’t fully expect people to appear how they do in marketing materials – and we know that it’s almost all marketing material. Youth however, blessed with naïveté, are often conditioned grossly by media – herein lies the social responsibility. But that being what it is, there should be no expectation from anyone that media changes how they do things because fiscal responsibility to these businesses, large and small, generally trump a social one. Don’t think it should be that way? I wouldn’t waste much time crying about it, because that’s expecting the mountain to come to Muhammed.

You can find more snippets and interviews with industry pros from a.a.Productions, and more about Nigel Barker here.

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. norman tesch

    when i first started photography i fought the use of computer programs to fix my photos. but the more i shot its not always about making someone pretty but also about bringing out colors, and shadows and things you actually see. the camera cant always get what you see. it also helps you become creative. think about it this way even though the art world have no respect for photography, lets see the painters only use one brush, one color, and be under time constraint. the sun sets in short time not over a month.

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    • Amanda Jehle

      Yep. My post processing often consists of making my photo match what I actually “saw”. No matter how good camera sensors are, they just don’t have the dynamic range of the human eye. Often my SOOC photos are not as vibrant as I remember the scene… the orange leaves were more ORANGE, the light in my daughters’ hair made it redder & her eyes are definitely more blue… this is where LR or PS comes in for me.

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  2. John Sheehan

    It’s a tough issue, and like the Kishore Sawh said it’s all subjective. My friend showed me her new headshots last month (she didn’t ask me to take them, but that’s another sore point), and I was horrified by the over the top retouching that was done to her image. It didn’t look like her anymore, more like a plastic Barbie doll with red hair. She thought it looked great because it made (in her eyes) her look younger, but that’s not what you should be going for in an actor headshot. She’s gone on three auditions and all three casting directors told her to get a new headshot because her’s isn’t going to get her any jobs.

    I’m not against retouching, but I do tend to want my portraits to look like the people who I photographed.

    I did have one actor come for a headshot, and the night before he got into a bar fight and was beat up in the face. He needed a headshot for Friday (four days away), so I shot him and used Photoshop to get rid of the bruise under his eye, the scratches to his face, blood shot eyes, and the lump on his forehead. In that case I was trying to make him look like himself again, not something he normally isn’t.

    As a father of a teenage daughter, I do worry about the unrealistic images being show to young girls. Luckily, my daughter is a more into Doctor Who and nerdy stuff and not fashion magazines and heroin skinny models. Still, I do talk to her about what is being sold to her in the media, and she understands about image manipulation and how things are sold to people.

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  3. Basit Zargar

    Good article.

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  4. Ben Perrin

    Photography is like making love to a beautiful woman. It’s expensive, everyone thinks they can do it, and usually involves retouching.

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    • robert garfinkle

      Yup, I think making love does involve “re-touching”, isn’t that how it’s done?

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    • robert garfinkle

      Let’s see if I can land you in the right spot of where my thinking is. yet it starts with a story.

      But first, let me first disqualify myself here. I am not a photographer – i.e. a photographer in my head is someone who not just does it for a living, but has a passion-backed (and education / experienced-backed) talent for it.

      As far as I’m concerned – at this point in the game, I probably have as much photographic talent as a red-light camera blowin’ in the wind… imagine being told that during an interview. T’would probably make one just want to toss their gear in the trash leaving the interviewer’s office…

      but, just the same, I do own a camera, and not a bad one at that, yet it comes attached to my brain which sits atop my desire to take photos. Somewhere inside the depths of me is a photographer wannabe waiting to happen. yet also attached to my desire is a block, a mental block, a strange perfectionist’s block which instructs me to NOT do post production. Because the thinking inside me says, post production is a lie – i.e. not real;

      So, while I learn to take better shots without the use of Photoshop or light room – actually learning to take a good photo, in the midst of my experience, I get broadsided by new thinking, that the raw photo is not only not enough, that digital photography is in and of itself post-production between the sensor and the CF or SD card, especially when the photographer adjusts camera settings other than changing ISO, adjusting depth of field, focus, and of course shutter speed – this is what I’m told anyway… thus destroying my perfectionist thinking of “all I need is the camera..” and I’m good to go…, to my disappointment.

      the only thing I would say in my defense of using the camera only is, what if I purposely meant to take the shot that way, and accepting the outcome… as a matter of fact, that is what I try and do, is just use the camera…

      The truth is, because I am definition-less (uneducated) and very unpracticed (no experience), it makes it very hard to not only take a good photo but use tools like light room or Photoshop (if I owned it) because I just do not have a clue how to use those tools… and I’m an IT guy, imagine that…

      but aside from that, if it is true that in a digital camera – the rendered image is post produced just after it is shot, then that too is a lie more or less, which frees up my self-hostage-held thinking paving the way to use tools like light room etc…

      I mention all this, as I too have a circle of confusion going on in my head (poster child for the digitally insane!!) which asks what is photography these days? Because what I’m hearing is the photograph, the end product starts with the camera – the raw shot, but is not done / finished until it washes through post… is that right…

      funny story I leave you with…

      Within a couple of months of me getting my first camera was my first iPad to show the images, made sense right…

      I was showing my images off at the table in a restaurant, guy walks up, looks down at the iPad and says “WOW!!! That’s a great picture!!! Did you take that with a camera???” funniest thing I ever heard…

      and so it goes.

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  5. Brandon Dewey

    Interesting, but well written.

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