I’ve just been informed by a very reliable source that, for high end fashion and beauty the client will book a retoucher before the photographer… (jaw hitting floor) are you kidding me?

Furthermore, they went on to say that if you actually printed an unmolested image in one of these magazines everyone would go screaming out of the room. This retouching business has gotten to the point where normal beautiful women look hideous next to these frankenbarbies.

Now, I work with a lot of photographers who retouch and frankly I’m starting to get concerned with the rising cost of shooting high end digital. With a digi tech on set and all the rentals plus the retouching with match print the digital can take up half the shoot budget.

That would be fine if the result was actually better than film. Perfect but not better.

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  1. So what’s better? I just shot a job where I shot both ,uploaded to my server for the client and he asked me why the big files looked kinda funny….Ouch! they were shot on film.

  2. Glenn, one is not better than the other, it is what serves your vision best. Wether that be a lith print, a fujiflex print or a retouched digital file its up to you to stand up and say thats the way I see the world. I do believe that is why the editor hires you and it seems to be what this blog is confirming.

    As for out of control digital costs, don’t you think those can be lowered by a great hair and make-up team? Who are your favorites these days?

  3. It’s called “The Allure of Tethering”. Once a client gets a taste of being able to see the images pop up on the screen, it’s like giving them a vial of crack. Once you do it, there ain’t no going back. And then, at that point, it’s converting your old spontaneous method of shooting to the newfound Ball-And-Chain, Dog-And-Pony Show. It’s a dangerous road to go down, because it can change the feeling of the session to such a degree. Where you once just roamed around with a handheld camera, you now turn around behind you to see a Magliner Senior, an Imac 24, a Honda generator, extension cords, firewire cables, and the makeup artist staring at the monitor instead of at the model.

    Tread carefully, fellows.

    And yes, the money can get out of control very quickly. It’s a slippery slope.

  4. Mark, I really enjoyed your comment, and I appreciate the warning. I just started tethering when shooting studio style photos of artwork on location for the artists. It’s fantastic for that but I could see it becoming an incredible ball-and-chain as you describe it. Fortunately most of my shooting at this point wouldn’t allow for it, but I’ll keep this warning in mind!

  5. So in the editorial world, how much is shot on film vs digital, and what is your feeling about the preference of most editors?

  6. Over half the assignments are shot on film. Maybe 80% in some issues. Most guys seem to be picking up digital so they can shoot ad jobs. I never ask what they’re going to shoot an assignment on but I may have to start making people use film. It’s cheaper and takes less time to get a final print!

    And, no I’m not anti digital, it’s just that I only care about the final product. A photographer who does their best work on film should be shooting film.

  7. That’s good to hear. Some people have been spreading around a lot of fear about film users being obsolete dinosaurs, or that editors insist on digital, but so far I have yet to encounter an editor that prefers digital.

    I don’t think I could ever stop using my Leica or my Polaroids. Not just because I’m some weird gear fetishist (which I am), but because I love the results – the texture of Tri-X, the color palette of Polaroids, etc. I know what I’m going to get, and can integrate it into the concept.

  8. Ball and chain is a great analogy for shooting tethered. Really kills the momentum of a shoot, especially for editorial work.

  9. Uh, wow! I’m a senior retoucher, and I can tell you that that retouching is really pretty terrible. If I presented that type of work to a client, I probably would not be hired again. Amazing? No. Amazingly bad? Yes. I’m just sayin…

    Check out the portfolio section of this retoucher. Amazing…in a scary way.


  10. First, a huge thanks for this blog, unbelievably insightful and valuable.

    Obviously the film vs. digital debate is exhausting and never-ending for the most part, but it’s important for shooters to realize what is actually expected of them in their particular market. Like our moderator, none of my editorial clients ever ask me to shoot digitally. Only when it is an insane deadline have I needed it. And that has been twice out of 70 shoots this year. I’ve found that in portraiture, even rushing the crap out of film still comes in cheaper than a proper digital tech and kit, which is usually necessary for peace of mind and quality.

    I have tweaked my post production film workflow to mimick digital when needed, where I flatbed my selects and post them to a web edit, the same way most digital shoots are submitted. But I haven’t had to give up shooting with the tools I am most comfortable with and give me (mentally and aesthetically) the best results. Like PE says, if you do your best work on digital, shoot digital. If not, do your thing. Your book is what got you the gig, do that!

    This is just my 2 cents, as a photographer shooting editorial portraiture. Advertising, photo-j, catalog, etc. are of course another matter.

  11. I just delivered an ad job tonight. I’ve started making Contact Sheets again for clients. For a while there, they always just said, “Just give me the web galleries, and we’ll pull FPO’s from that”. But I don’t know about you guys, but I hate to edit a photo session on the computer, versus off of paper Contact Sheets. It’s just a human nature thing I guess. There’s just something very tactile about spreading contact sheets out on the table and marking them up with a grease pencil.

    I’ve found a way now to deliver nice size Contacts, pretty effortlessly. Even if the clients say they don’t want them, I’m still betting that they enjoy having them, once they arrive.

    Some things just shouldn’t change, no matter how much digital changes our lives.

  12. No worries – budgets will seek their own level; they always do.

    As for retouchers becoming more critical than photographers in the final image, I’d ask: “are you sure you’re getting photography and NOT illustration?”

  13. If the topic is “retouching”, I’ll take a bit of liberty here and post a link to a fascinating article in The Times, written by filmmaker Errol Morris, about an 1855 photograph, where there are two versions of the image — one with a clean road, and another with cannonballs in the road. Fascinating to me that the article is so long, and that so much thought went into these two photographs, and even more fascinating the amount of Comments about it.


  14. shoot film until this problem clears up.
    only mess with the colors and curves. try that!

  15. As one of the high end retouchers, my experience is that rarely is the retoucher booked and the photographer is relegated to a second tier decision, at least in the fashion/beauty world that I see and work in every day. But there is a fact that the leading new york city retouching house is very hard to book to work with (Box Studios) so in fact you might have to book with them in order schedule it before a photographer can be booked. Also, some of the leading fashion/beauty photographers will not work without Box working on their stuff.

  16. As a retoucher myself I would say that you all are giving the retouchers way more power then they have. A file is not simply delivered to the retoucher to work on and send back retouched how they see fit. There are pages of notes from the photographer to start with and then the art director starts tweaking each mole and wrinkle for days. To say its the retoucher making these choices alone is foolish and naive of how the industry actually works.

  17. Everyone always wants a slice of the money. This is not all that dissimilar to the rise of big rental studios and rental equipment companies. The associated support industries will always try to drain money out of the system, they are there to make a profit. And they are smart-these kind of expenses can increase from year to year because as we all “know” things get more expensive every year don’t they? And digital has been an enormous profit center for rental-when you get to charge 1/30th the value of a piece of equipment (that you are leasing) and that digital back is out 150 days a year you see that this has been a huge money grab for rental. Retouching is very similar-the investment to get in is high (servers, redundancy, backups, APS, wages) but once you are there the throughput can be high, mostly catalog and internet work keeps the drones humming.
    Beating a dead horse-when was the last time a photographer actually raised his or her rate-for some reason they are never allowed to get more expensive.
    For profitability, my money is on the retouchers-they are the sane ones. And the rental studios and equipment rental houses. I might be flogging a dead horse, but they have been bleeding it dry for years…:)

  18. In my opinion, Box is not the best studio in New York. Sure they have great names, but to be honest, that’s about it. So many of Box’s clients have moved on because a.) their rates are too high ($20,000 for a cover? c’mon!), b.) Pascal is tryinig to get a piece of the photographer’s copyrights which many photographers don’t like, and c.) their retouching is simply mediocre! They do tons, and tons, and tons of editorial which means you can screw up and make mistakes, and chances are you wouldn’t notice it printed at such a small scale. However, when it’s printed billboard size, watch out. Yeah they do a lot of advertising, and it’s okay, but word on the street is many clients are unhappy with their overall quality and attitude and are moving on. Which is great for the rest of us, because honestly, their are better retouchers out there. No offense to Pascal- he just happened to be one of the first of the better ones, but not the last.

  19. shooting tethered doesn’t kill anything….
    Just treat it as polaroid w. the film days……use it to define the image and move on, unless of course you have no idea what you are actually trying to create or are too inimidated by the client.

  20. Great information coming out here. Retouchers and those in the know thanks for your comments here. It’s very informative.

  21. One thing I always wanted to know — where do Retouchers go to learn their craft? Where is Retouching University? I don’t think I”ve ever seen a class for it listed anywhere.

    Are these just guys that drink a lot of Red Bull, and sit in front of their Mac, and ask themselves, “What would this Adjustment Layer do?”

  22. can’t speak for anyone else, but you kinda got it… minus the red bull. i got a job where i got paid to learn. had plenty of time to find out what those adjustment layers do. then i got a job at a better place, with better photoshopers and absorbed what i could from their files. i suppose the main thing is to have an interest in art, photography, and design….

    also, my apologies to the naturalbeauties retoucher, it’s not a “dude”, its a woman…

  23. Just to throw a copyright monkey wrench into the equation there is a legal leg that retouchers can stand on depending on the extent they apply interpretive artist changes to an image, and maybe even two legs if they take a variety of elements to assemble a new work. A new work is a new work in the eyes of copyright law, like it or not. Unless a photographer has the retoucher sign a waiver to their interests in a copyright to the new work, the legs are strong.

    But this is just a tiny little back story though. I retouch my own work as an extension of what I put in front of the lens, but I really do commend those who can hand it off to retouching artists as part of their artistic process. It takes more than just handing it off really, there’s more to it than that. And you can almost feel when a photographer has just handed pieces to someone else and there isn’t an aesthetic lock down going on. The best retouching isn’t an afterthought at least in my small brain.

    The problem lies in that a studio like Box will command the higher retouching fees than the photographer doing it themselves as part of their photographic aesthetic. Just try as a photographer retouching their own work for those fees on an editorial assignment. For ad work I actually keep a separate company for just this reason. It’s still me and my retouching assistants, but it’s a separate company, striving for the same end point – one cohesive process.

    Matthew wrote: “Pascal is tryinig to get a piece of the photographer’s copyrights which many photographers don’t like, and…”

  24. Perfection and gloss are becoming relatively mundane. In this day and age, where trailer parks house their fair share of 42″ plasma TV’s and Blackberries, what’s the point of publishing yet another photographic equivalent thereof?

  25. It’s not surprising to me that retouchers, in some cases, may be hired before the photographer. Certainly in some ads (shoes, automotive) if you see the before and after, it’s really become an illustration, and the photographer simply provided a very basic set of images from which to work.

    When the styles change again (and they always do), there may be less of a desire for such over the top, fantasy type retouching (then again, maybe not…).

    As far as shooting tethered goes, I’ve found that I use it in certain situations, and not in others. It’s often simply a digital Polaroid, and I let ADs or CDs know that if we want to get anything done, they can’t scrutinize every single shot on the laptop.

  26. Maybe I’m missing the point but surely you shouldn’t have to spend hours retouching, “enhancing”, etc post-shoot? Call me a heretic but if you treat your digital camera like its film equivalent (but with a much longer roll of film) then you’re going to be shooting high-quality pictures? Also, if your model doesn’t have the right look then, duh, you hired the wrong model!

    Or maybe that’s why I’m not a pro…

  27. It’s interesting to me that so many editorial and/or “celebrity” photographers take such crappy shots. I have seen the turnaround between the before image and the retouched images and WOW I am so surprised at how much work has to go into retouching because the photographers initial shot had horrible lighting and distracting backgrounds and disaster make-up.

    When photo editors accept photography that is low quality then the master retoucher is much more valueable than the photographer indeed.

    What I find humorous and disheartening is I have held so many photographers on a pedestal based on the work I saw…only to find out later the image’s allure was most certainly ONLY due to the master retoucher, as the original image was nothing to write home about.

    If I had a magazine ABSOLUTLY I would hire a fantastic retoucher before photographers who didn’t produce quality work.

    There is a large pool of great photographers out here who may desire slight retouching however it isnt required for that image to be Amazing! But when I see retouching changing the ENTIRE image on various levels..taking a wasted image and performing miracles to get it to be of basic standards WOAH I am floored and wonder why my phone isn’t ringing more.

    I can always use a great retoucher to make my images go from gorgeous to WOW WOW WOW but the day I turn out shitty images that REQUIRE a master retoucher to even find the value of it…GEEZ I’ll quit.

    So, please when I hear people whine about why magazines pay retouchers so much money..it’s because they have to WORK THE SHIT out of lots of the images photographers submit…It’s almost embarrassing to call ourselves photographers when magazines accept crap before natural talent.

    My thinking is it’s crazy that a photographer who takes a very crappy image can hire a retoucher to dismantel the entire image and rescue the key point and bring it to life…and yet, the retoucher doesnt get much credit. How much can an image be retouched before we realize that it’s no longer the photographers work but the retouchers creation that is to be commended.

    I just want a list of all these amazing master retouchers so I can keep them on file for future referals. They are amazing and talented and deserve alot of credit for producing fake but beautiful images.

    Oh, while we are at it, I love that I can take an unsightly model with distracting attributes with an assugly wrinkled outfit on and mismatched boots…send it into a retoucher and the final image is: a stunning model with the perfect figure and facial features in a dress that melts upon her body with perfectly matched boots. Ha…why not just use animations, we dont need photographers or models anymore..the retouchers can create it from scraps.

    No need for dogs, we can turn your cat into a cute fluffy pup!

    Get with it everyone: if magazines want to say they have an image of the celebrity show it like it is…blemish for blemish, quality for quality. Hire better photographers, models and set the standard!

    • @Barbara Sklar,
      As a retoucher I would certainly like to be in charge of the photoshoot, and that happened 3 times in my 13 years of work. Collaboration is something that is really rare these days.


  28. Dear Sir/Madam,

    My self Amit Jain.

    I am a Multimedia Professional.

    I am also a very good retoucher and working on 100% Retouching Images.

    I want to join your organization as a freelancer.

    Only reply me on my email-id, because in our office Mobile is not allowed.

    Waiting for your good reply.

    Thank you
    Amit Jain

  29. Matthew and others:

    I don’t think iwanex is that bad. Are you against using the Liquify filter? I’m not challenging you, just want to understand because I’m trying to educate myself. Can you give an example of great retouching?

    Uh, wow! I’m a senior retoucher, and I can tell you that that retouching is really pretty terrible. If I presented that type of work to a client, I probably would not be hired again. Amazing? No. Amazingly bad? Yes. I’m just sayin…

    Check out the portfolio section of this retoucher. Amazing…in a scary way.


  30. You know, you have to hand it to Pascal for actually getting some sort of credit for his hard work. As mentioned above, the final work printed and given credit only to the photographer is very much the creation of the retoucher and the other creatives involved. It gets my blood going a bit when I look through showcases like the Archive books, and see blatantly retouched photos with credit only given to Mr. superstar photographer. C’mon. Some of these guys are only shooting simple components for the photoshop wiz to do his thing for the next 50 hours.
    And, listen, photographers, unless you are shooting pure news stuff, I can assure you that none of your pictures make it to print these days without somebody altering them somewhat.

    And somebody hire poor Amit. The third world needs our support.

  31. As a retoucher we are the unsaid truth in a lot of the fashion and advertising world.

    We always have to work to other peoples budgets even if the files are worked on for weeks at a time. Hourly rates just don’t exist.

    Photographers and Art Directors supply the briefs, and then the next briefs and then the next briefs and then shout at us when it looks over retouched.

    We hardly get credit’s in magazines.

    We’re told to make the worst images look the best and then no thanks.

    However it’s the best job in the world because the job satisfaction is enormous. I can generally be as creative as I want. I don’t have people sitting over me all the time meaning I can enjoy most of my working week. Knowing that I was part of a creative team and to some extent the guy that could help when everyone else was unable.

    I’d recommend finding a retoucher, making friends with them and sticking with them for a while so that a creative relationship can blossom. It makes everyones days a lot easier and fun. Hopefully the world has better images for it.

    But remember it’s everyone else that comes up with what is fashionable. Not us. Unless you’re Pascal….

  32. Yea It’s pretty amazing to see how this industry is involving. I’ve seen many nasty jobs by retouchers and some that are insanely awesome. I have a friend that uses this retoucher, Bianca Carosio, I believe one of her links is http://www.modelmayhem.com/photoretoucher . She’s on my great retoucher list unlike many in this digital revolution, HAHA!

    Interesting posts..

  33. I think it’s worth pointing out that the concept of retouching isn’t a modern thing. Since the earliest days of photography, there have been retouchers modifying photographs. They used to charge much more because a lack of technology required better craftsmanship. Instead of photoshop, they were working directly on the negatives. Many of the legendary photographers ( i.e. Edward Steichen, Helmut Newton, etc) were the product of great retouchers. The biggest difference is that they couldn’t afford to rely on it as a crutch because it was so expensive.

  34. I think the art to great retouching lies in leaving what should be left. Just because it can be done doesn’t mean it should be done. In most cases these days, I have to say that on retouchers webstes I prefer the original to the retouched version. It really should go unnoticed.

    Too much important information is stripped from images.

    Also, lastly, It is a labour intensive task, and I think the price needs to reflect that.

  35. “for high end fashion and beauty the client will book a retoucher before the photographer… (jaw hitting floor) are you kidding me?”

    Assuming that there are so much wanabe (for cheap) photographers on the market now, and that clients reduce their budget, well actually yes, they’d better invest into a good retoucher to fix the horrible work :).

    Well, I actually left France because I was losing so much assignments with magazines (Stuff, Maxim…) these past years. We, french people, experienced the economic crisis with the Franc to Euro currency change years ago (and it’s not going any better).

    It happened that Graphic designers and Digital artists in general, who have no more work with webdesign, invest in basic digital camera and do a stunning digital work on their crappy photos…

    Can you call them “photographers” ? I don’t think so. Do they sell their photographs for cheap and regular photographers are getting out of job ? Yes they do.

  36. I may help you.

  37. I’ve never seen this, and I’ve been around a while. Still, it might be true in other world cities perhaps but I’m not sure it’s endemic just yet.


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