Photo Retoucher : A New Breed Of Artist

Photo Retoucher

There is a new player in town, and he’s called the “Photo Retoucher”. With the advent of digital photography, images captured by digital cameras are increasingly in need of “editing” work before it is suitable for publication use. The question is – Is this new element in the whole photographic equation a necessity?

This whole thing started with I was approached by several photo retouchers on Model Mayhem and iStudio, offering to edit the images that I captured for a fee. They charge anywhere from USD10 to USD50 per image. The wonderful thing is that most of them don’t even reside anywhere near me, not even in the same country… So everything has to be transferred via internet. Would I have done it then?…

History Lesson In Image Editing

Historically, there has always been a retoucher for the finished images. However, this person is a free-hand artist, not some sort of a computer whiz-kid. Back then, computers had no place in the photographic equation at all.

This original retoucher works on the actual film itself, the transparency, over a light-box. And there was no fancy work involved, just colour tint, a very fine brush, and a steady hand. Their work is to patch all the visible imperfections on the actual film. There was no such thing as modifying the background, removing pimples, or erasing the double-chins. It was  as basic as it could be. And only free-hand artist with the steadiest hands need apply. And most importantly, there was no “undo” if something goes horribly wrong… Remember, you are working on the original copy.

Digital Photography Revolution

As recording of images shifted from film to memory cards, soft copies of the captured photographic images made it easier to be worked on computers Image editing softwares begin to make their presence felt in the photographic industry.

Suddenly, “editing” the images became a “requirement” for all images resulting from the photoshoot itself. Every individual images selected for use was to undergo the editing process. An image isn’t considered “ready” for publication use until it has undergone some sort of editing.

From Chemical Darkroom To Digital Darkroom

It was then when photographers tasked with the image capture had to go back to doing the photo finishing work. Not a whole lot of learning curve. After all, they would have already mastered all of the darkroom techniques in an actual darkroom. Dodging, burning, superimposing, masking, multiple exposure, using different grade papers for different contrasts, the whole works. The experience came from getting your fingers wet by actually working with the developers, stop-baths, fixers, and whatever toners that you wanted on the finished product.

Now all you have to do is apply the same techniques onto the digital equivalent of the darkroom – the image editing software. The biggest player in the market, and also the de-facto image editing software is Adobe Photoshop.

Adobe Photoshop CS6
The De-Facto Image Editor – Adobe Photoshop

Photographers just had to learn how to apply their expert hands-on techniques from the darkroom on the computer, using keyboards, mice, and probably some sort of track-pads. Easy, right?… Well, it was easy, until they started splitting hair…

These days, the post-production work is referred to as “photo finishing”, and not “photo editing”. The “editing” part now encompass a whole new section altogether. No longer are adjusting the brightness, contrast, saturation, hue and unsharp-mask considered “editing” anymore.

These days, the word “editing” means removing the blemishes from the face, changing the colour of the backdrop, adding an additional person to a group photo, erasing a person from a group photo, nip and tuck the double-chin, stretching the crows’ feet off the edges of the eyes, heck, even cutting the subject out from the original image, and pasting it into another image altogether.

Birth Of The Photo Retoucher

With all that complications, and a very steep learning curve of mastering the use of a computer, and then the image editing software itself, many old school photographers prefer to simply stick to what they do best, capturing stunning images, and leaving the post-production work to the artists who specialise in the editing work.

These photo retouchers are by no means photographers themselves. They may know a little about capturing images (who doesn’t these days?), but they most probably don’t know how to coordinate a commercial shoot, communicate with the art directors, stylists, make-up artists, models, or even the clients themselves. But they are good at what they do – taking the reality of the captured images, and making them into abstract art that are demanded by the clients.

But with computers getting more affordable, and with an increasingly connected world via the internet, young whiz-kids are absorbing the creative skills like a sponge to water. Some of them even develop themselves into a whole new category of creative artists too.

How Is This All Affecting My Photographic Business?

I believe in handling the whole process myself, from image capture to image delivery. If I do that, then I am in control of the whole situation.

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 14.15.02

Of course, there are photographers who couldn’t really be bothered with all the back-end work, preferring to outsource it to the photo retouchers. They could be too busy capturing images for clients that they don’t have the time to do all the nitty-gritty work. But that will also mean that they have no full control over the final output.

Being ultimately answerable to the client, if things don’t turn out right, that means the photographer will have to go back to the photo retoucher who did the work, and have them redo the whole thing again. And that is a whole lot of wasted time, wasted effort, and not to mention the possibility of being billed again for additional work.

Being an old-school photographer myself, I always believe in doing the majority of the work before I trip the shutter. That way, I will only have minimal post-production work. And for those infrequent demands for special effect works, I still prefer to do it myself. I may not be as good as the specialist photo retoucher, but I definitely am able to do what little special effect work on my own. Unlike me, the photo retouchers can’t work without any image input from photographers.

My Advice For Photo Retouchers

Thanks for your offer, but I don’t think I’ll need your services. Go look for photographers who are burdened with too many shoots that they can’t afford to do the post-production work themselves. You may be able to earn a decent living there. And may the force be with you.

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