Choose a fine retouching recipe for your photos

Tip 30 for Better Shoots by Heidi Rondak

“The Post-Production 101”

PART A.2: Choose a fine retouching recipe for your photos

If you’ve read the last article you might already be curious to see what’s on the photo editing menu, so you can instruct your retoucher what to do on your recently produced photos. To take up the cooking allegory from there, we’re going to look at the process as if adding spices and herbs to a dish. This is an essential step in the kitchen but it has the potential to mess things up if you don’t have the resources to go back and change the original amounts of ingredients. What may be done when cooking is rarely the case in terms of photo productions: reshooting a photo that couldn’t be edited satisfyingly is most certainly much more expensive than changing the ratio of liquids in a saucepan. Looking at the editing processes this way, adding spices and herbs should be considered carefully while setting reliable foundations during the photo shoot already. To give you an idea about the real possibilities you have in post-production, this article is going to list the most established and successful adjustments that can be undertaken, for example in Photoshop. Knowing the controllers will also give you the ability to see the crucial details that need to be arranged properly on the spot when you go about the photo shoot. To prepare you for future shoots even better, in the next article, we’re going to have a look at the things that should be fine-tuned there rather than during post-production. 


Spice up your photos with
a decent amount of…


… Skin Retouch

Editing skin is like walking a tightrope. While there are different techniques and their usage is certainly a matter of taste, it’s also about constantly taking decisions on whether to remove or leave a pore or a crinkle and what this does to the bigger picture. Even experienced retouchers fall overboard here sometimes, realising they’ve done too much and need to take back some effects. Another aspect to consider carefully is the way highlights and shadows are placed or enhanced, as this is at risk of changing the original light composition. The secret to great skin retouch is that it’s invisible, yet vital. It should underline and carefully polish the model’s individual features without screaming PHOTOSHOP! 

Generally speaking, under reserve of every skin and photo type requiring their own individual approach, the first premise of skin retouch is to preserve, refine, or even add structure. This can just be achieved when the make-up is done providently enabling the retoucher to accomplish something like a virtual skin transplant. Most editing techniques rely on copying “healthy” parts of the skin onto areas where there’s something to be removed. But that is not all. In fact, skin structures always vary from area to area which makes clear why every step requires the skill to identify related skin and make the result look natural. In concrete terms, pimples, wrinkles, and single hairs can be removed easily if there are areas around which look alright. The more the skin is covered, e.g. with make-up, strands of hair, tattoos, accessories, or even light or shadow patterns, the harder it gets to remove or work around them if needed and to find good sample skin areas for that purpose. 

The second premise in photo editing is to preserve or even enhance three-dimensionality. This is done by adding contrast – with light in the first place and with brightness adjustments in post-production. And here, the photo type is decisive, setting the framework for what can or can’t be done by an editor, also affecting the possibilities there are for structural edits. While repairing the skin, the overall image is likely to lose contrast and get brighter because, mostly with any skin type, darker spots are getting removed. The retoucher then re-injects shadows and lights to return to the initial idea of the photo and even reinforce it. Through understanding the existing light’s characteristics in the image the subject can be softened or sculpted credibly, e.g. when diminishing eye circles or emphasising muscles. However, when someone’s asking for a different light situation, this forces the retoucher to literally paint it themselves as there is no basis for it in the photo. Leaving aside the fact that you might give the retoucher a hard time by ordering this, most certainly, much of the artless plasticity you might have had before will be lost in the result. What I’m trying to say is, basically, that contrast shifts work best if they’re oriented towards the original photo rather than changing it completely.


… Hair Retouch

Hair is most probably the hardest thing to get right in photos – not only for the editor. To understand why that is, let’s look at hair more objectively. Hair is a conglomeration of thousands of fine and motile hairs which can particularly step out of the line on the one hand, but also function as an overall pattern shaping the head of the model on the other hand. In photos, the reflections on the hair reveal characteristics of the light, and its movement (when the hair is long enough) can tell us a lot about the present dynamics, e.g. disclosing whether there’s wind involved. Hair is, therefore, a complex three-dimensional structure balanced between sharper details and blurrier areas. You can probably see where this is going, right?

Like mentioned under “skin retouch”, the goal of the editor is to maintain and possibly improve existing structures, not to blur them away. When it comes to hair, this becomes even more important – and difficult. The structures consist of fine lines and breaking them requires adding new ones because otherwise, the hair will appear to have spliss – at least in the photo… As opposed to skin editing where the structure is mostly dots (pores) on a surface, hair is more delicate as it has a direction. A head full of stray hair can, therefore, require hours of removing messy strokes, while keeping the damage to a minimum and eventually adding neat hairs to the pattern. It’s out of the question that a great editor is able to turn a photo of frizzy, dry hair into a shampoo advertisement by pressing every button and working night shifts. However, when it comes to fashion imagery extremely glamourous hair is rarely required and this limits the techniques the retoucher can use. In both cases, the hair stylist’s work on set is determinative of the severity the retoucher is facing in post-production.

Speaking of stray hair, when it comes to single wisps standing out against the background, the preconditions are usually better. In most cases, even a detailed background is more hard-wearing, offering the retoucher more flexibility to find hair-free sample areas and paste them onto intrusive hairs. Diffuse and monochrome backgrounds are even more workable. The latter (and only the latter, if you want the job done properly) even provides the possibility to knock out the background completely (more on this, see below). 

Notwithstanding the above, two factors of retouching hair are both easy and effective: Thanks to a tool that liquifies the picture, allowing to push around the pixels, an addition or decrease of hair volume can be achieved satisfyingly. Moreover, by adding more highlights, a well-groomed look can be increased to appear lush.


… Item Removal

Living in a world full of cars, bicycles, advertising and so on, it’s likely that sometimes, when shooting on location, unwanted objects creep into the picture. Though, even in the studio, there can be footprints or dirt on the floor, or e.g. fashion labels shamelessly sneaking in and gaining visibility. If they’re not removed, all these subjects may steal the attention of the model and make the photo appear amateurish. The methods to get rid of them are similar to those cleaning out skin, however, the number of possibilities are depending on how much image space they take, whether they are isolated or crossing lines (even shadows), and the impact they have on the light situation. Needless to say, as a rule, smaller and less remarkable items are easier to be removed because the sample area around them can be small too. Yet, everything visually touching the meant-to-be subjects are influencing the edges and shadows of the latter. This means that after the removal, reconstruction of the subject’s edges is possibly required and adaption in terms of colours, brightness and shadows may need to take place. As a consequence, the level of difficulty is determined by both the removed and the remaining subjects unless there are, by chance, other images from the shoot that offer the missing puzzle pieces.

Having this in mind, when it’s foreseeable but inevitable that an unwanted item is interfering, the perspective and therefore the position of the item in the photo can be crucial to the editing process. To give an example: if you tell the photographer about your dislike of a certain fire hydrant, they will try to photograph the model from an angle that isolates the unwelcome thing. Concerning objects that can be removed manually, when in doubt, it’s recommended to think twice and possibly shoot variations with and without, for example when your set is being designed with props.


… Background Replacement

White and shadowless backgrounds are mainly used in product stills, for example for online shops. Whereas people photography is most notably used to evoke human emotions it’s more intuitive to see the model in a more natural context instead of e.g. plain colours that lack drop shadows. However, in some advertisements, the stylistic device of replacing the background may be underlining the sales message. Ideally, this must be defined early enough before the photo shoot in order to elaborate on the right setup for cutouts.

When removing the background, the greatest challenge for the editor is to keep the details near the edges of the hair intact while filtering out the pixels of the background. Since there are more and more software functions for this, with photos in the right preconditions, this should be done quickly. But for the programmes to work well, the images need to be sharp right up to the edge of the hair and there must be a certain contrast between the background and the subject. This principle is used in films with green and blue screens. In photography, there’s no reason not to work with colour as well, yet oftentimes a white background is a choice for this purpose.


…Fashion Correction

Comparably important as correcting the skin where it is needed is the optimisation of the clothing. After all, it is the product that is going to be sold and as to that, it should look its best in the pictures. Like I described in tip no. 19 (hire a fashion stylist and your products will look their best), the presence of a stylist is a necessary factor when it comes to giving the outfits their best look. However, depending on the materials and shooting circumstances, some pieces remain unmanageable, for example when the fabric crinkles easily or the clothes simply don’t fit the models well. In these cases, to a certain degree, post-production can take over and fix the critical areas. But there are certain levels of difficulty which you should know to be able to decide wisely what to leave to the retoucher or not. If your products are plain-coloured and smoothly structured, these are lucky preconditions for a traceless removal of almost any flaws in the styling by retouch. A missing button or misshapen silhouette are usually fixable as well.

On the other hand, considerably troubling in the retouching process are all fashion pieces with sharp, or complex patterns like checkers, stripes, ornaments, etc., or very fine structures like ribs. Unwanted crinkles on surfaces like this, or when an effect called “moiré” occurs (evolving from certain angles of the light and camera), can constitute major challenges to the editing process that bear no proportion to the time saved during the shoot not fixing the clothes or repeating the shot. Even more problematic are badly tucked shirts as they require complete reconstructions of the to-be-straight surfaces. This combines the difficulties described in ‚hair retouch‘ with those of ‚item removal‘. While the patterns need to be preserved or enhanced where they are hidden due to a crinkle, the latter also leave behind shadows on the edges (e.g. between shirt and pants). As you can imagine by now, correcting patterned, wrinkly, and badly-styled looks, that are possibly even showing moiré effects, represents the supreme discipline for a retoucher.


… Model Slimming & Stretching

The subject-matter of super thin and tall models is in fact completely overhauled with the increasing awareness of the need for body positivity and its importance for the fashion industry. This is a desirable development that is likely to go further in the near future and therefore making the steps of artificially slimming and stretching bodies in Photoshop redundant. Thus, it is sometimes the fashion itself that needs to be reshaped in order to appear as intended by the designer. The good news is that this is no problem at all! With the function mentioned under ‚hair retouch‘ that mobilises the pixels (liquify), the edges of the clothes can get narrowed or widened as you wish and even unpleasant bumps can be removed through this. Especially, when it comes to posh suits and such, this is an important step to perfect the pieces to look super sleek.


… Colour Grading & Contrast Adjustments

When everything goes well during the shoot, apart from a little skin retouch, a bit of colour management and contrast adjustments should be the only necessary editing to your perfect photos. This is usually even done on the spot, e.g. with the help of programmes like Capture One or Lightroom, handled by the digital operator. They are taking care of the incoming files produced by the camera and, if you’re interested to know more, you inform yourself on the job of the digital operator in my tip no. 23 (book your storybook team).

The reason why the colours and contrasts should be managed so early in the process is due to their importance for the workflow: generally calling it a “look”, the photo team can manifest their vision of the imagery to already make it tangible during the shoot. This is mainly done for you, the client. Conversely, it allows you to put in a veto and have the team either change the colours to your satisfaction from the start or, if needed, their light setup, etc. Ultimately, if you later change your mind, or the colour look needs to be refined eventually, this is always possible in post-production too.


… Colouring Fashion or Items

When your collection contains several pieces that are identical in terms of shape but have different colours, it is tempting to save the time and trouble of photographing all of them. In e-commerce, it can be reasonable to just colourise a shirt due to the number of products on the shop page and, therefore, on set. Changing the colour tints is mostly practicable, as long as you wish for a similar degree of brightness in the result. However, having a white shirt turned to black or vice versa is accompanied by having to deal with completely different light situations on the fabric itself. While bright colours reflect the light, dark colours are more absorbing, which means that you won’t have enough structure to be enhanced on the re-coloured, brighter version.

Unless there is no other possibility, or e.g. your marketing intends to work with GIFs in which the model’s shoes are constantly switching colours or some such, there’s reason to consider working with diligence and have differently posed results for every piece in any colour. However, it may be the case that other subjects in the image need a change of colour done in post-production, either because they are not exchangeable, or when combined with logos, typography, etc. the colours turn out as not matching. Therefore, this section is to let you know that changing colours in the editing process is, in fact,  possible and most qualified for doing so are the colours that are more vibrant and well-illuminated – think green screen…


… Special Effects

As for special effects such as dramatic landscapes or weather conditions rendered with CGI (computer-generated images) or taken from other image material to be inserted into your pictures, this requires an experienced specialist. Apart from the ability to adapt the image elements and lighting accordingly, they can also give advice regarding how to shoot the photos in the first place. It is not very usual that these kinds of special effects are used in fashion photography and, therefore, they are usually not in the repertoire of retouchers in the branch. The use of CGI is much more typical for e.g. film covers, gaming, etc. Yet, in the future, this might gain importance in the fashion industry as well, depending on the development of trends within virtual spaces. Nevertheless, if you wish for special effects already now, make sure to find an expert to realise them properly.


… Item Integration & Collage

A lighter version of “special effects” is the creation of simpler collages without the aspiration of adding overall lighting to all elements contained. It can, in fact, be intended to grant visibility to the method of collaging, like already implied under “background replacement”. The skill needed for the two sorts of edits is basically the same, yet, creating a collage may require a more creative approach and understanding for composition. On the other hand, when trying to credibly integrate an item that wasn’t in the image from the start, as long as it was photographed in the same light situation and the image quality is high enough, inserting it into the photo stays a merely technical task – a challenge that an experienced editor might accept.

Are you a fast or slow food lover? 

As you can see, the editing process is an important part of the production with the potential to redefine the look and feel of your photos. However, there are different retouching styles between which you should be able to distinguish before you hire or instruct a retoucher. Like in the food service industry you can choose between quantity and quality – fast food or slow food. The differences lie in the amounts of ingredients (as listed above), the price for the service, and most of all, the resulting “health” of your photos. Because every photo requires careful consideration and its own condiments in the post, high-quality retouch is about a more organic approach of doing less, although the right steps that emphasise your imagery. Quantity-oriented editing, however, is usually running the same scheme on every photo, usually adding too many unnecessary ingredients and as a result, harming the authenticity and ambience of the original photo. Eventually, this might result in misrepresentation of your fashion. Hence, the best advice that I can give you here is to have a close look at the retouchers’ portfolio and other photos in general, preferably images that represent the level of naturalness that you are looking for in your project. From there you can point out to the editor exactly what you want in terms of retouching degree and style. After all, we all eat with our eyes first! Bon appétit!


If you enjoyed reading this article, or you found it helpful in one way or another, I would love to know (reach out)! You are also welcome to support my work and writing by donating whichever amount this is worth to you. I will thank you with lots of telepathic love and more interesting journal entries. Cheers!

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