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Opinion

You Can’t Be A Good Photographer If You’re Not A Good Retoucher

By Max Bridge on May 9th 2017

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.

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.

IS IT EVER NECESSARY TO USE SMART OBJECTS IN PHOTOSHOP?

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.

[REWIND: MAX FACTOR COMMERCIAL PRODUCT PHOTOGRAPHY | HOW I SHOT IT]

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.

[REWIND: THREE OF MY FAVORITE FEATURES IN CAPTURE ONE PRO]

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.

About

Max began his career within the film industry. He’s worked on everything from a banned horror film to multi-million-pound commercials crewed by top industry professionals. After suffering a back injury, Max left the film industry and is now using his knowledge to pursue a career within photography.

Website: SquareMountain 
Instagram: Follow Author

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Susan Neves

    I agree with this because it helps to validate exactly what I do, and who doesn’t like to have their opinion agreed upon? I am a landscape photographer who loves to shoot several different exposures, in certain situations, and only rarely have I used an image right out of the camera. I have defended image manipulation several times in conversation, using the masters of the “darkroom” as example! I recently have been struggling with the label “photographer” because of the tools I use to “finish” an image. I think I will begin to call myself “fine art image maker” because that’s what I do!! Thank you for this insightful and timely article.

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  2. Mark Sylvester

    I don’t really agree with this either.   I’m going to be a little bit picky here, but there’s a difference between general retouching and full blown post-production editing.

    You’re right that there is no such thing as plain “truth” in photography.  Everything is a choice – the type of camera, the setting of lens and shutter speed, the type of film, the digital codec that writes the RAW or JPEG, the clarity and sharpness of the lens – you are always making a choice when taking a photograph.  Even using an automatic Polaroid camera, you’re making the choice to use the optics and choices that someone else made.

    So, of course it makes sense to make some choices in the darkroom, or in your editing program of choice.  Those choices make a difference in how (and what) you edit.  The three images you used for examples are actually a great example of my point. 

    Take the photograph of the man in the rain first.  We don’t know which image was more “accurate” to the actual scene.  The print on the right is too dark, and marked with dodging notes.  You always do an early proof “dark” – because the details are in those shadows, and you want to make sure you know what you’ve got first.    In other words, the “non-edited” print actually IS edited – it’s purposely printed on the dark side.

    Then look at what was done to produce the “finished” image – there was a lot of dodging and burning – but that’s it.  That one curved street lamp in the background is still there.  That little odd square sign sticking up from the fence is still there – it hasn’t been removed.  There’s a piece of trash floating in the gutter.

    There is a level of editing done – but the scene itself is mostly “intact” and unmanipulated.  I’d call this a “retouching,” and in that sense, I think all photographers should be exposed to it.  It doesn’t have to be very long – I can do a basic edit on a raw file in about 30 seconds.  The exposure isn’t always perfect the first time around.  Reality still has slightly more detail in the shadows, so I tweak the hilights down a bit, and bump the shadows.  Maybe adjust the white balance or color temperature a bit.  It’s an edit done to the entire image, and one not unlike what I’d do in the darkroom.  What’s in the photograph, is in the photograph.

    In most of my work, I’m not doing anything fancy.  I’m not getting rid of that one phone pole that’s leaning at an odd angle two blocks away, or removing the pedestrian that decided to do a Monty Python silly walk while crossing the street.  To me, that stuff happened when the picture was made.  If I don’t like that pole, then I didn’t frame the picture right.  Silly walk guy was doing his silly walk – I either live with it, or try and shoot the image again. 

    The two examples of your own work that you’re using for “retouching” I feel are a little more then “retouched.”    You say that “The image above could not have been created solely “in camera”.  ”  That’s the crux of it. . .I think they could have been created entirely without a camera.  They look good – really good – but at that level, is it really photography?  I’m fine calling it art, and I’m sure that it took many hours of adjustments and compiling different layers and parts of the image – but the camera becomes such a small part of the equation.  The product bottle should be relatively simple to render digitally – it’s the splash that’s difficult.

    On an industrial level, it might be totally true that retouching is where the industry is right now – but don’t confuse that with where photography in general is.

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  3. Lee Hawkins

    I actually wrote a blog article last year in a very similar vein to yours, mainly just because I wanted to inspire photographers to dig into what can be done with good postprocessing…so yeah, I agree with absolutely everything you’ve said here. I’m a panoramic photographer, and create a lot of 360 spherical images. I created OK images for a long time, but it wasn’t until I really dug into color balance and started cleaning things up a lot more in Photoshop that I was able to create truly superb images. I think it’s absolutely essential that photographers learn what’s possible by retouching enough of their own work. I know 100% that the more images I retouch, the more I see ways I could improve my technique with the camera and the more I see how I could improve my composition. As a result, I’ve been able to take photographs in very challenging lighting conditions and turn them from meh images into really dramatic images. And it’s all because I processed a bunch of images and learned the limitations of my camera and its RAW files, along with the capabilities of Lightroom. And then there are all the images I’ve run through Photoshop to clean up distractions…I just know Ansel Adams would have loved Photoshop and digital photography in general! Anything that makes the images better and makes the work easier!

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  4. Richard P

    I don’t entirely agree with this. I think that being a good retoucher can take an average photographer to the next level, but there are always those that are just naturally talented.
    Case in point, I consider myself to be an ok photographer, not amazing but I have sold photos and could probably scrape together a living if I needed to. My cousin, who just bought a DSLR on a whim and has no interest in being professional, is hands down a better photographer than me and has produced some astounding work, despite probably not even knowing what retouching is.
    You could argue that his photos might be even better if he got into using Photoshop, but people with this kind of talent are still good photographers, depite not doing any retouching

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  5. Michael Alexander

    The idea behind the article is great. Unfortunately, the article was poorly executed. The writing is weak and the author repeatedly blathers on about things that are obvious to everyone but him.

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  6. Griffin Conway

    Hey Max! Certainly enjoyed the read and would applaud you for writing on a topic that is often controversial.  

    I want to start out by saying that I am a fan of your product photography and think you are extremely talented at what you do.  I would personally disagree that to be a good photographer you have to be a good retoucher.  I would agree with the statement “to be a better photographer, you should learn retouching”.  Many extremely talented photojournalists do not use retouching in their photography but still capture emotion, tell a story, and connect with the viewer in some way.

    I am certainly not opposed to retouching photos to enhance them, make them better, or do things that are not possible in camera only; however, I would not agree that it is mandatory.  

    Thanks for sharing!

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    • Max Bridge

      Hey Griffin. Thanks for the compliments! 

      I certainly don’t believe that every photo has to be retouched a large amount. As you say, many genre’s, like documentary, would not have the need to be, nor should they be if retaining authenticity is a requirement. 

      You put it very well saying that “to be a better photographer, you should learn retouching”. I would add that to be a “great” photographer, you need a strong understanding of retouching and the possibilities it can bring.

      Undoubtedly, one can be a good, or even great, photographer and do very little retouching. However, I believe that can only be the case within certain genres, as we’ve mentioned. To ignore retouching for the majority of photographic disciplines is, in my opinion, too restrictive. 

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  7. Randall Huleva

    While I certainly understand where you are coming from with the points you have made, I’m not sure I completely agree with you. There are many very good wedding photographers for example who are simply so busy shooting that their time is more valuable in that capacity than sitting at a computer doing the retouching. With professional outsourcing options such as Shoot.edit, it may well be a more cost effective option for some photographers to outsource their work. With that said, I do thing it is important that every photographer should have a good understanding of the digital darkroom, regardless of who actually does their post-processing work. Ultimately, it is their name and reputation that is on the line with their client when the images are delivered, Even if they outsource this work, at the very least they should import the catalog of work when they get it back from their retouched and inspect every image to make sure it is on par with their studio’s reputation. Shoot.edit does a great job with things like correcting white balance, color correction and so on. Basically they do those edits that you would do in ACR or LR if you had the time. However if more advanced PS retouching or artistic effects are desired, that is where the photographer probably needs to step in and put that final polish on the images before delivery.

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    • Max Bridge

      Thanks for the well thought out comment Randall! 

      I completely agree with you. Not every image we produce will be our best work and there’s certainly no need for us to give every image the same level of attention. Handing off to an external editor is not an issue if that what works for ones workflow or is necessary to complete a certain number of jobs in a specified time period. 

      I have absolutely no qualms in photographers who hand off work to retouchers but I strongly believe that, in this day and age, every photographer has to have a strong understanding of the possibilities of post production. If you know those things and have a retoucher complete your work then that’s fine but you NEED to know what can be done. Otherwise one would be in danger of stabbing in the dark a little, as it were. 

      At end of the day it comes down to a workman knowing all the tools available to them. Ignoring retouching is, in my opinion, restricting. 

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  8. Max C

    I totally agree with you. Many times I can get great photos straight out of the camera but  I can always make them better with editing. The majority of the time, I shoot raw so I always have to edit to utilize dynamic range, adjust color, sharpness, clean skin etc. Photoshop goes hand in hand with photography. I also agree with your statement about the people calling themselves natural light photographers; why put yourself in a corner? There are situations where you need to use flash and there are situations where using natural night is satisfactory. 

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