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Insights & Thoughts

Does Photoshop Retouching Harm Our Body Image? – OP ED with Matthew Saville

By Matthew Saville on January 28th 2015

As a portrait photographer, I sometimes ponder one of the biggest photo-related discussions of our time, one that sees participation from professionals, hobbyists, and non-photographers alike:

Can Excessive Photoshop Retouching Harm Society’s Body Image? How Do We “Draw The Line?”

The answer to this question is usually never fully agreed upon, of course, but I’d like to take a crack at it anyways.  You’re welcome to disagree with me entirely, and you might even be able to change my mind (Only if we can manage to have a civilized discussion. Our general SLR Lounge policies apply – keeping it a place where we can enjoy, inspire and educate one another).

Simply put, I believe that it all comes down to why a portrait is being captured in the first place, who is the subject, and how the images are going to be viewed.  So, it’s complicated!

Over-The-Top Photoshop Retouching….Unacceptable To Whom?

I do think that if you took someone’s picture and Photoshopped them to look significantly different than they do in real life, that would be as disrespectful to them as it would be for a landscape photographer to fake a sunset, move mountains, or enlarge the moon…or whatever.

The difference? Landscapes don’t care if you Photoshop them! The only people who care if you Photoshop a gigantic moon into all your landscape photos is, well, other landscape photographers.

Generally speaking, nature and landscape photographers can do whatever they want to their images, but viewers only seem to get truly angry if it’s kept secret, or actually lied about.  This is what seems to carry over to other kinds of photography…

The Commonality Of Unrealistic Perfection In Portraiture

A collective perception of unrealistic perfection could be having a negative effect on our happiness as a whole, in my opinion. In portraiture and fashion, extensive retouching is essentially never disclosed to the end viewer, and as a result, it perpetuates the notion that the models, even the whole world, looks this way. “This is just what normal people ought to look like, folks!”

10608035_1506525352918111_1705853343_nMeaghan Kausman speaks out about the un-authorized alteration of her body
Photo by Seagypsea on Instagram

Obviously, this may seem dumb to me and you as portrait photographers, because we know better. We spent hours of our workday retouching portraits, it’s our job.  So when we see a flawless-skinned model on a billboard with an impossibly perfect face / body, we just shrug. We know the real world doesn’t look like that, and for the most part, it doesn’t bother us.

However, not everybody is a photographer, let alone a professional retoucher.  So most folks are indeed affected by this perception of what is normal. They see “normal” as being relatively perfect.

We could go back and forth about whether or not people are smart enough to know better, but as books like Dr Drew’s “The Mirror Effect” prove, plenty of people are indeed affected by the media world.

I think we can agree on this much- people are easily influenced.  But the question is, is it a big deal or not? You could argue that it’s nothing, and some people just need to suck it up and find more self-esteem. Or you could argue that the media is infiltrating every second of our lives with messages about an unhealthy pursuit of beauty and perfection.

I’m with the second group, partly.  On the one hand, I think that mass media is having an unhealthy effect, and the fashion industry in general could use a little more variety of body type. On the other hand, I don’t think people shouldn’t pretend to be helpless; we should be able to look within ourselves for a sense of beauty and confidence, regardless of what fashion advertising is saying.

Portraiture For Private Clients’ Display

Don’t get me wrong- smoothing out a few eye-bags or wrinkles, maybe slimming an arm here or there, is just fine for client portraits and lots of other things.  Why? Because the image is going on the wall of the person who is in the picture, and it makes them feel better about themselves whenever they see that picture.

Simply put, a little “cleaning up” here and there is fine, because it has a positive effect on the folks who view the final result.

phlearn photoshop retouching tutorial portraitProfessional skin retouching – a tutorial by Phlearn

Also, mind you, retouching is usually discussed by the client / subject and the retoucher before it is performed.  If you’re self-conscious about a mole, or some crows’ feet, I’m happy to smooth things out a little.

Portraiture For Commercial Brand Image & Advertising

In many other instances, namely along the lines of paid commercial advertising work, fashion, etc., having a “you need a sandwich” flat tummy and “twiggy” legs is perpetuated as the best look for a final product.  This, in my opinion, is just wrong.  Mainly just because it pushes everyone, from from regular everyday people to high-end fashion models, to hate their own bodies and do unnecessary or even unhealthy things in their pursuit of the impossible standard of perfection.

Nobody is expecting the entire fashion industry to start using bigger models. They’re doing what is most profitable for them, and that’s how business works. However, more diverse, healthy body types (and faces, etc.) could have a positive effect on society’s body image.


[Rewind: Time lapse video shows extent of photoshop retouching on model]

Photoshop Retouching: Everything In Moderation?

The road goes both ways, mind you.  Every now and then we hear about a plus-sized model showcase, and people take things to the extreme in that direction as well.  Too small or too big, un-healthy is still un-healthy. And health is what should be promoted.

(Guys & gals, this has nothing to do with what you’re “into” behind closed doors. ;-) What we’re discussing here is entirely different).

In conclusion, as photographers we should just tread carefully and discuss things with portrait clients.  If you’re doing a personal project and your client / model mentions something, keep it in mind.  If you have a specific interest and you want to showcase it, that’s awesome!  Just be careful not to screw up in a highly embarrassing manner.

Target-photoshop-fail-1[Rewind: Target misses the mark with absurd photoshop fail]

If your day job is to shape the standards and expectations of men and women around the country / world, then yes I’d be a fan of “dialing it back a notch” and being a little more realistic, or healthy, or whatever you want to call it.

Can The Masses Influence Mass-Media?

If you’re in the game of national / international fashion & advertising imagery, then you should consider whether or not you’re promoting a healthy body image. It would have a positive effect on society.

However, I fear that a major change in philosophy may simply not be possible, at least not for a few generations, for reasons related to corporate sales figures and profit margins.  That, and the simple fact that it is human nature to envy whatever we grew up envisioning as “perfection.”

[Rewind: Photoshop Used For Good – Retouching photos recovered from tsunami]

What Do You Think About The Integrity Of Photoshop Retouching?

As I said at the beginning of this article, you’re welcome to disagree with me entirely.  I hope we can have a healthy debate.

The one thing I think we can all agree on is that society has many different ways to achieve happiness, and photography & portraiture are a small, but powerful part of that. Personally, I think the best way to find happiness is to take a deep breath, have a healthy meal, get enough sleep, and go out for a little exercise whenever you can. Find your own contentment via the most natural means possible. Both mentally and physically, be the person you want future generations to see, and to become. Oh, and be sure to take plenty of pictures of each other, so future generations can remember us.

Take care, and happy clicking,


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Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge.

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Q&A Discussions

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  1. april huckle

    I was just curious about the images you have used in this article? Who’s work are they, because i would like to use their work in a university and want to research them,

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  2. Rafael Steffen

    Great article

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  3. Randy McKown

    Sooooooo if I instruct a model do what actors do when preparing for a movie role and spend 6-12 months prepping their body for the role so I don’t have to Photoshop them … is there really a difference? .. other than the shoot taking forever to complete

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    • Peter McWade

      Just find the model that fits the role. There are some people that would fit just fine with little makeup and effort. No need to do any drastic photochopping. Reality is far more intriguing than fiction.

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  4. Peter McWade

    Problem is that young girls and boys DO think this way. Its ground into them and then reenforced in social settings at school and other places. Its a HUGE problem. And as for those Jeans you want? Just go to the local mall and you will quickly decide not to buy as you can find many who think they look like the model but in reality don’t. I like to see reality. The art is not how much you can make them look like someone else but how well you can take a normal person and flatter them with a great photo without touchups. A tough art to follow. Slathering junk on a photo is easy.

    I say keep it REAL.

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  5. Jen Andrews

    As a mother, I have very mixed feelings on this. I agree, that it’s marketing, and it’s what people want to see, and what sells. It will likely always be this way, but do I want my son growing up thinking that all women should look like this, and my daughter thinking she has to? No way. I personally love when I see a bit more of reality coming through in marketing campaigns, but if I’m being totally honest, seeing a gorgeous model wearing that new pair of jeans I’m shopping for makes me want to buy them, hoping my own butt will look that good. If I saw a model with a butt like mine, I’d likely pass on them, ha.

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  6. Murray Severn

    I really like the point you made that they should look healthy. There’s people out there that think that everyone needs to be thin, and others that think people should be whatever they feel comfortable with. Unfortunately, at times neither of these opinions is healthy. I’m just a hobbyist at the moment and the only retouching I do is primarily to see what I can do and to develop my skills. Images I give/post to others are just edited for colour, WB, exposure, etc.

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  7. Peter McWade

    My opinion is I don’t play that game. Quite frankly most images are not used in advertising and so you must get permission to touchup any photo. If its for advertisement purposes then some touchup would be acceptable. Not too much and yes it is a self esteem issue. Its far deeper than just a personal problem. So the use of gross photoshopping is just stupid. More natural is actually the better way and if everyone started doing that it would become the norm and expected. Right now its just grossly out of whack.

    I remember the days of the fashion shows where everyday people made and altered the patterns from Spiegel and went to the local fashion show to show off the new designs. Normal every day people. Not made up puppets. Its time to get back to those days. That way every one will be able to participate and have fun. I’d love to go do a photo shoot an event like that.

    Pete :)

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  8. Michael Old

    I thought the makeup transformation was quite spectacular on its own.
    The problem becomes: were do you draw the line?
    What becomes excessive? Is it removing blemishes? Removing a bit of excess skin from arms? Then legs lengthened? Then……?
    What do you do when “excessive manipulation” has occurred?
    I like the idea in the video that a disclaimer is added to advertising images that have been “excessively photoshopped”.
    My personal opinion is that when the body shape has been changed from the original, that a simple “this image has been edited” disclaimer be used

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  9. Robert Moura

    Good day to all, Well I come from film days, both positive and negative said that till today I rather do all the work before I click the shutter, obiviously to a certain extent than after that small ajustments in lightroom. if needed.
    If not carefull we can get sloppy with the techniques and depend to much on software corrections and miracles.
    Personally I like reality over illusion.

    Thank you and good day to all

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  11. Arnold Ziffel

    Sometimes I have to watch it, lest I get too heavy handed with photoshop or lightroom…

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    • David Hall

      Yes, it’s easy to over do it at times. Usually best to make your edits, then sleep on it and go back the next day. It’s amazing how you can see things after a break from it that you didn’t see when you were in the thick of it.

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  12. Michael Burnham

    Advertising has always been this way. There are very few companies that use normal people off the street in there ads. Even in insurance commercials there are idealized “normal” people who are in fact actors and models. As the image becomes more of a commodity the pressure to produce more for less forces a lot of companies (and for the same reasons, photographers) to broaden the scope of models they work with and then turn to Photoshop to perfect the imperfections.

    The question of wether these idealizations damages one’s body image or our self-esteem is a question that has been asked since the at least for the last 50 years. It depends a lot on the esteem of the viewer to begin with. People today are very aware that almost no image they are going to see is exactly as shot so there is an expectation of unreality that does exist and for most of society I think that they just pass over these images as fantasy being used to sell something. But his is not the case for people with self esteem issue or people that already have body image issues.

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    • Matthew Saville

      While you may be right about there being few companies that use “normal” people in advertising, it is also true that the standards vary from one place to another. For example, if you compare the faces in TV shows produced by Hollywood against the faces in TV shows produced in other countries, or smaller industries elsewhere in the US, you’ll see a stark difference.

      I do agree that self-esteem is people’s own problem, and that as a society there are much bigger mental health issues than whatever influence advertising photography might have. But it would still be helpful if people could turn on the TV or open a magazine and see people that look nice, but not so un-believably perfect that it depresses any viewers who already struggle with self-esteem.

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    • Graham Curran

      Many people are completely comfortable with “normal” sized models, but too often they are pared down to uncomfortable levels. My wife used to be a counsellor for women with eating disorders and these ultra-skinny images have a big influence on impressionable young women. A further downside of the ultra-skinny look is that in reality the face becomes unflatteringly gaunt, something which never happens in PS.

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  13. John Cavan

    I think Stan has the right of it and I do think the most people, today, would be quite naive if they didn’t expect that images in advertising (amongst other forms of glamour) weren’t seriously retouched. I realize that there’s been a backlash as a consequence of some extreme work and spectacularly bad efforts, but the idea that advertising around fashion and lifestyle will stick to reality instead of fantasy is implausible at best because the market doesn’t really want that when it’s all said and done.

    On the other hand, we’re rapidly getting to a point where we may start to question if that really is a photo with a real human in it. There are people that can make very realistic images just using tools like Photoshop, no model required…

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  14. Stan Rogers

    Just a little extra food for thought: back in the day, on the commercial side at least, we used models who DID “look like that”, or at least who “looked like that” after the makeup, hair, and costume was done. Retouching (other than minor spotting, where the word “minor” actually means a two-day job under a loupe) was a freakin’ Project with a capital “P”. It could be argued that Photoshop is good from an employment equity point of view, then; marketing has always been, and will always be, about selling the dream, not the goods, and while the occasional “enlightened” retailer may ride a short-lived wave of goodwill arising from a “keep it real” policy (whatever that’s supposed to mean), eventually the money is going to follow the fantasy and they’ll need to change their minds and play the game. If the game becomes finding those couple of hundred (worldwide total) models who can play the fantasy role without Photoshop or flaws, then we’ll just be back where we were in the ’70s and ’80s. The only thing that will have changed is that fewer people will be in the ads.

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  15. Greg Silver

    Years ago I was against this kind of thing (altering an image so dramatically). But over time I think I’ve relaxed my stance. I have to look at this kind of thing as art. Just as an artist can start with a blank canvas and create an image so can a digital artist take something and work the digital canvas.

    There is some ethics that goes along with this kind of artwork (especially when used in advertising and news). I’m not for hiding reality – so there’s a fine line that has to be watched depending on how the photo is used.

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