I’m going to get a lot of s**t for saying this. Despite that, I firmly believe that to be a good photographer today you need to be a good retoucher. Our industry has changed so much over the last few decades that ignoring retouching is tantamount to believing that learning the intricacies of composition is unnecessary. Am I wrong? I want this article to promote conversation. We live in a world where we’re allowed to have our own opinions and I’d love to hear yours in the comments at the end.

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Our Industry Has Changed, Or Has It?

In years gone past, before digital cameras, before Photoshop, when photographers didn’t make significant adjustments to their photos, photography was pure. It was better. People knew what they were seeing was real and as a result photography was better.

Um. No, that’s not the case at all. Firstly, back in the day there was something called the darkroom. In that magical place images went through pretty significant changes. Today we have Photoshop and other photo-editing programs which allow us to make many of the same adjustments (and many more) in a far quicker and easier way. Secondly, one thing that has not changed is that photographers are artists who want to use photography to bring their vision to life. I guarantee if any of the legendary photographers of years gone past had tools like Photoshop, they would not have hesitated to use it if they thought it would improve their art.

L'Oreal serum photographed on dark background surrounded by splashes of a similar colour to internal liquid. Used to demonstrate importance of retouching
Photo by Square Mountain Photography

Granted, just because we have a tool doesn’t mean we should use it. That’s certainly true, but many of my images would be impossible without Photoshop and without the skills I have learnt over the years to accomplish my vision. The image above is one of the most complex I have ever created. It took days to create and required hours and hours in Photoshop. If I were one of those photographers that viewed Photoshop with distain, then that image would not have been possible.

If you ignore retouching you’re doing yourself a disservice as you’re writing off a plethora of possible images which you would otherwise be unable to create. In exactly the same way that a photographer who previously ignored the darkroom would have struggled in the past, so too will you now.


I Don’t Consider Myself A “Photographer”. I see myself as part of a different breed of photographers to which the term ‘digital artist’ is more applicable. Sadly, I cannot seem to find the article now, but I believe it was Tim Walker who recently said something similar. Photography has changed so much over the years that now the term “photographer” doesn’t seem appropriate.

[RELATED: Nick Knight Says Photography Is Dead | Is It No Longer The Medium Of Truth?]

example of retouching in the era of the darkroom. Before and after photo of James dean with darkroom notes

Why Does Ignoring Retouching Have a Negative Impact?

Photography never ended once the shutter was pressed. As discussed above, legendary photographers of old would spend countless hours refining their images in the darkroom, so why is it then that today, many photographers view “heavy” retouching as a bad thing? It’s almost as though they think we’re tainting the purity of our photos by making major manipulations in Photoshop. Either that or they’re trying to justify their lack of knowledge in some tenuous manner designed to belittle those who are better than themselves. Similar to some of those who define themselves as “natural light photographers”, as a guise for being unable to use flash and unwilling to learn.

Any good workman utilizes the full breadth of tools available to them to get the job done. I think we can all agree that dismissing a tool which can help you get your work done quicker, and to a higher quality, is illogical at best. At worst, it will have a detrimental impact on your photography. In Lightroom, Capture One and Photoshop you can do a myriad of things to craft jaw-dropping imagery. Can the same be done in camera? Sometimes yes but often no. If that is the case then why on earth would you ignore retouching? We are not always looking to mirror reality.

Max Factor foundation surrounded by splashes. Used to demonstrate the importance of retouching in photography
Photo by Square Mountain Photography


The image above could not have been created solely “in camera”. Certainly, one could have attempted to but I imagine most of you will agree the final result would be near impossible to accomplish. That’s just one image from my still life portfolio but the same can be said for many others.

Final Thoughts

Heavy retouching is not necessary in all images. In many, it’s undesirable; documentary/news for example. That does not mean, however, that the same principles should be applied to all of photography. If you can accomplish your vision to a higher standard, or in a quicker way by using Photoshop, why shy away?

As a Still Life photographer, I look at stunning images created by the top professionals in my sector and I struggle to find many in which retouching did not play a crucial role. Look at any of the images by people like Nori Inoguchi, David Lund, or Peter Schafrick to name but a few.


Photography is art and when did we start placing boundaries upon art? Do not close any door, allow yourself every possible advantage and make yourself a better photographer by becoming an expert retoucher. At the very least, recognize its importance and find skilled retouchers who can help you accomplish your vision.

Make sure you head to the SLR Lounge Store and take a look at all the education we have on offer for shooting and retouching your images.