Is there anything you would not digitally retouch?

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No…anything is game these days. Recently National Geographic ran a series from my Echolilia project and, due to their standards, they wanted to use the raw files, unretouched. We agreed and ran them unretouched, and I don’t think anyone noticed the difference. It’s so easy to get wed to perfection and sometimes, in the end, no one notices.


There Are 45 Comments On This Article.

  1. John Milleker

    For my own shots I really only retouch in Photoshop the same things I can change on the enlarger table.

    For clients I’ll retouch whatever needs to be retouched to make a shot I am happy to present for the job I was hired for.

    Unfortunately I don’t think the big question is ‘Would you retouch’. Too many people are shooting with the mindset of retouching later. It’s far easier to move a piece of trash, step to the right to hide a light pole or un-wrinkle a shirt than it ever is fixing in post. Time is money, sitting at the computer in Photoshop is much more boring than going out and shooting.

  2. National Geographic’s standards require the use of “raw files, unretouched,” as in RAW files with absolutely no color/contrast/etc. editing at all? If true, that seems rather extreme and unnecessarily severe.

    • House & Garden in Australia is the same. Doesn’t mean the shots for them are “untouched”, just that for the sake of consistency in printing they prefer to do it in-house. Does mean you’d beter get the basics pretty damn close!

  3. @mew So what would you do if NG still required you to send in your film? Isn’t that the same as requiring raw, unretouched digital files?

    • Yes, I’m used to the idea of submitting slides, so I suppose it is the same thing in theory. However, I think there’s a difference between publishing an unretouched Velvia slide and publishing an unprocessed RAW file. I do very, very minimal post-processing in my own work, but even the most spectacular shot in RAW usually requires minor adjustments before going to print.

  4. I think it’s most important to define “raw”. If I shoot Portra film vs Provia it’s markedly different and then it depends on how it’s processed and then how it’s printed. There’s no true “raw”, un-retouched there – just like a digital image. If “raw” is being defined as how, whatever camera is used, interpolates or runs a proprietary algorithm to produce a jpg thumbnail, that’s something else and isn’t fair either.

    I completely agree that photography in general is getting sloppy and lazy. Never before have I seen such poorly lit, dirty images being produced because they know there will be extensive post production than of late. Whether it be stands, stylists hands, dirty floors or trash, color temperature, under or overexposed, it runs the gamut and people should be saying no. We’re just getting used to it, but $350/hr in post to “fix” things is just wasteful and unnecessary.

    • Whatever happened to the art in our art form. If you like pushing buttons then go for it. But I feel that pushing the button is just the beginning of the story we are aiming to tell. To me it is a blast playing with images… post button push. And perhaps it is a defensive reaction to dislike something that you simply cant wrap your head around. Any one can hammer away at that button, but knowing where a image wants to live and can live is a entirely thing that not everyone can do. And then again we all have our reasons for doing what it is we do.
      I like pictures

  5. The pendulum swings back as always, but this is silly. A raw file is still interpreted by Adobe at some level, otherwise it’s a large bucket of data, so what Nat Geo is saying is whatever Adobe decides is okay by them. Again an extreme. I understand the issues of the over-processed image that would make even Thomas Kinkade blush, but is this imagined righteous hands-off approach a realistic alternative? Can’t we do better?

  6. I agree with Keith and Anthony; there SHOULD be a better way, but I can’t fathom what it might be. A RAW image is MEANT to be processed, in the same way a negative is meant to be processed. I understand as we all surely do that processing and editing are worlds apart in practice and it’s important to be aware of this discrepancy. That said, how important is it really? If I hire a photographer and he says to me after taking a few shots that he’ll have to charge me some $200 an hour to “retouch” I’m going to tell him where to stick it.

    Still, if I’m trying to enter a photo contest and they’re only accepting RAW images, I’m not going to argue because everybody has to abide by those rules. Everybody’s restricted, so everybody’s practically working with the same medium; I get it, it’s just a bit of a nuisance because probably you’re going to lose a lot of image information that would’ve been expressed had the RAW been properly processed.

    When it comes to this talk of editing versus processing I like to mention that it’s always safe to stick with layer masks, and be gentle with your sliders.

  7. It is impossible to print a “raw” file. It simply cannot happen. There must be some kind of conversion to an image format like jpg or tiff. That conversion shapes the look of the file. Different converter, different look.

    “Printing raw files” is a stupid statement, and only clouds the retouching discussion.

    • Although your ““Printing raw files” quotation doesn’t quote anything I actually wrote, I’m assuming this was directed at my post above? What I wrote was that “even the most spectacular shot in RAW usually requires minor adjustments before going to print.” Obviously “going to print” requires a conversion to a printable format. I assumed that went without saying. A jpeg or tiff does not however mean that the shot has been processed or edited in any meaningful sense of the words.

      • No, I was referring to the absurdity in the original post, and this part in particular: “[…]they wanted to use the raw files, unretouched. We agreed and ran them unretouched,[…]

  8. I hate all this photoshop puritanism. Things were added or deleted by print years ago before digital was even thought of. Same goes for the printing equivalent of levels and curves.

    For a news photo-yes, maybe adjusting levels and curves and some dodging and burning but with nothing added or taken away. But people surely must realise that just framing something in a camera can add or take away things from the image as seen to the naked eyes.

    Enough of the photoshop police already!

  9. Completely untouched raw files? Let’s hope there isn’t any sensor dust that needed removing or that the camera was held 100% straight all the time every time and that nothing needed any cropping.

  10. I assume he is just saying the files were presented raw and then adjusted for printing from there. That way any adjustments are within their accepted limits.

    Actually, it’s very cool that Nat Geo has standards that they adhere to. Would you rather they behaved like the NY Times Magazine and just hang the photographer out to dry when retouching that is not acceptable was caught by the public?

    • No, and I’m not at all a fan of “retouching” as it pertains to journalistic work anyway. That wasn’t really my point. I was just curious to know exactly how extreme NG’s policy actually is. Handing over a raw file to be processed by their photo editor seems less preferable to me than having to submit the unprocessed raw file along with the photographer’s own processed image.

    • I always thought that best photographers are something like artists … Photography is subjective and editing RAW files should be left with photographers … But that’s my personal opinion.

        • Well, I was developing E-6 by myself too. That’s an Art as well. RAW files need some color & contrast adjustments to look “similar” to E-6. This is exactly what I am talking about. I have spend years to learn how to use Photoshop properly. And there is a lot of tricks which you can discover by yourself. Reouching should be invisible and shouldn’t be overdone. I was dreaming about something like Photoshop back in my darkroom days. You have much more tools now to enhance your image without manipulating image itself.

            • RAW is a filter in itself. Use of this tool may preclude using other capture tools (filters, exposure, pre-exposure, film stock, printing stock, printing style, etc.) with the desired image created in post.
              Previously this desired image may have been created with other tools.

    • I shoot and deliver to my client’s specifications. Some want the cards straight from camera (which is cool by me – they know what they want to do with them and they have the ability to handle all the post-production) and some need me to do all the heavy lifting.

      At the very least, I try to get it as right as possible in camera so that I can deliver with minimal post-production on my end, leaving them with maximum flexibility as to how they can utilize the images. In a perfect world, I’d only shoot and deliver RAW images…

      (And I make damn sure my sensors are clean before I head out the door!)

      • I’m curious, how often do you see your raw files interpreted (processed) in a way that you felt was detrimental to your image? And I mean just the processing, not layout or anything more than just basic picture editing. Do you ever see a final image and think, “Wow, that isn’t what I meant at all”?

        • With some clients, hardly ever, with others, well…you wait for publication, peeking through through your fingers, wondering what you’re going to see when you dare to pull your hand away from your eyes.

          The biggest crapshoot is waiting to see what happens to jpegs subjected to Intellitune software (typically used by newsprint publications). Every now and then it’s simply terrible, but for the most part it’s ok.

          It did take some time to get past giving up control, but in the end it has been a lot more liberating to be focused on the shoot and not worry about the ultimate interpretation by a photo editor.

    • Thank you for this example. The sky in the background is too light and the foregraund is too dark. I would even contrast of this image. You can take different cameras, then you will get different RAWs or you can use film camera + you can have some filters on the lens. In all cases you will get different RAW files or different film frames. I am trying to explain that to print untouched RAW is not a great idea and has nothing to do with the reality of the image as the reality is relative.

  11. Hi there everyone-
    Yes, that is the body of work in question that Stanchung provided the link for.
    Some of the original images were cleaned up a bit in my book- the image of the boy with the log on his bed actually has my reflector in the photograph on the far right in the National Geographic version. The discussion with NGS was that they could run them with these slight retouching changes and then provide a note on the story, explaining that retouching had been done, or they could simply color correct them from the raw files I provided and run the story without a notation. After discussing the pros and cons with Sarah Leen in the photo department, we both felt the story would be most clearly presented by running them un-retouched. And until now, no one has ever noticed that reflector in the photo.

    • Timothy, I like your images and I think you are a great photographer.
      You mentioned your own reflector within your image. I personally don’t have a problem with this. But NG didn’t want to retouch your image as they want to keep strict reality. But you, as a photographer, changed the reality of the scene before you took the picture. I am surprised they didn’t have a problem with this – as any documentary photographer shouldn’t be a part of the reality he is taking a picture of. I really don’t understand what it is all about …

      • Changed the reality of the scene before he took the picture? Filip, he’s not in Rwanda, photographing genocide, these are staged portraits of his son( which, by the way Tim, I think are absolutely wonderful. Kudos on this project).
        To hold this series of images under the documentary microscope is a bit off base. If he throws up a light with a reflector to change the light in the room, that’s his call, and does not alter the reality, since the images are thought out and set up beforehand.

        • Damon, I am with you, these pictures are absolutely wonderful. But to be honest I don’t understand the reason to discuss if their were retouched or not? It should be Timothy’s final decision as he is the author. As he placed the reflector there before he took the picture, he could remove it within Photoshop as well.

      • The human element in imaging will always be part of the reality described. There is no escaping this. We use perception to determine which image to capture or create. We use perception to determine which image to select from our captures. Even a group of images captured by a robot would have some human element in the process – especially during the final selection. Awareness of this human interaction allows us a better understanding of the communication process.

  12. To the comments about lack of adjustments if submitting RAW… Just because a photographer is limited to submitting raw photos, doesn’t mean they haven’t manipulated the images. A gentle warming or cooling filter could easily change the feel of an image, a ND filter, more specifically a gradient ND filter could change the feel from day to night. Not to mention what a person could do when they set their own white balance… Use colored filters over light sources, or use reflectors and/or diffusers…. The list goes on.

    Most knowledgeable photographers will do as much prep to catch the image in camera as possible, they may also have fun with PS, or use it for clean up and adjustments, but as much as possible will have already been accounted for before the shutter even clicks open.

  13. Oh god, get over it people. He did not say RAW files, he said raw files, i.e. “raw” as an adjective not a file format.

    • Grant, photographers are getting fired because of “an unethical retouching.” As a photographer I would like to be aware of rules I should play by …

      • People here are arguing whether or not you can actually print RAW format files or not when in fact the original quote says nothing about that.

        As for you wanting to konw the rules you should play by so you don’t get fired, don’t you think it would be better to consult the publication(s) you’re working for instead of looking for answers on a blog?

        • No, nobody’s actually arguing about that. And the photographer in question already posted his own clarification above your original post.

  14. Spark to tinder- yes calm down everybody-

    Kudos to NG for keeping it real but sometimes the camera can’t produce what you see & sometimes it makes something hyper realistic like saturating more colours in an otherwise ordinary sunset or biased blues in high ultraviolet conditions.

    At the end of the day, the general public doesn’t really care if you played by man made rules, unless you plan on having a career with NG. :X