Pretend there is no Photoshop

Tip 31 for Better Shoots by Heidi Rondak

“The Post-Production 101” 

PART A.3: Pretend there is no Photoshop

As already mentioned in the last tip article not everything is advised to be done in post-production because it might change the ambience or authenticity of your photos. Hairstyles, for example, look their best when they don’t need to be touched up digitally at all, and fiddling about with the eye make-up might even change the facial features of the model and make them look weirdly alienated. With these two examples as appetisers, in this article, we’ll go further down the road and discuss the art of shooting your photos wisely and from a minimalistic post-production perspective – as well as how you can apply this wisdom in five areas.

 1. The Model & Make-up

Choose a model with the exact right features

Ideally, the face of your campaign embodies your brand and collection perfectly, so the choice of model is crucial in the first place. Thus, if e.g. a model that you’re interested in is tattooed make sure you agree with the symbols and like the idea of exposing them on your photos. If their tattoos or other features are not your cup of tea, there’s nothing wrong with your taste – after all, they should represent your target group. It’s just essential to book a different type of model then: a face and body that won’t be changed into someone else artificially. As we live in an era when authenticity, body positivity and representation are becoming mainstream, human manipulation is highly criticised, at least when it doesn’t look credible. Therefore, be advised that preserving the model’s features, and even underlining them won’t only spare the editor a lot of work but also your brand will profit from not being one of many that are morally disputable.

Have a perfectionist make-up artist

Speaking of manipulation, you might be wondering if the work of a make-up artist can be considered that. To be precise, of course, it can. However, from a photographer’s point of view, using make-up makes sense very much because it is also a matter of how the light shapes the model’s face and reflects from it (Tip No. 18). Furthermore, as long as the make-up artist knows what they do, with their work they mainly provide a groomed look which is desired by the majority of society – remember: your campaign is meant to advertise for a lifestyle that your customers are dreaming of (Tip No. 1). Sometimes, if provided in your concept (Tip No. 21), the artist might add further elements that underline the portrayal of your products, like coloured eye shadow, body paint, glitter, or others. This definitely requires advanced skills and precision – and so you should check the first image results thoroughly in order to detect possible asymmetries or blunders. Yet, when the make-up is worked out well, there won’t be much to add, remove or correct in Photoshop, and if indeed, it should be about slightly refining the skin. Having this in mind as a goal for the make-up which is done on set, you can instruct the artist to touch up and correct the make-up before shooting all the photos. And thus, you lower the risk of a post-production make-up change which could mean a change to the model’s facial features. But why are some areas in the face so delicate when it comes to retouching them? The reason is that almost every pixel contributes to the unique look of the model, especially around the eyes. A failed eye make-up, and the correction thereof, can result in a model who wouldn’t recognise themselves anymore because some crucial structures will get lost. And your target group will likewise notice some sort of subtle distortion – even without knowing the model personally.

Why you need a flawless manicure

If you’re keen to display a model with a neat appearance, which I don’t doubt, the fingernails are an important factor too. Make it a routine to take a closer look at them, ideally in the casting process or at least in the morning of the shoot, together with the make-up artist. Similar to the choice of which make-up would look good on the model the status quo of the model’s fingernails set the agenda for the manicure that is necessary and the decoration that is reasonable and possible. In the rare case of discovering ill-kept hands, they can be treated to look overall agreeable in the raw material of the shoot already by giving them a proper manicure. This is a plus in the post-production process because fingers and nails are full of details which are fragile picture elements and vulnerable to destruction by blur or spot removal. If the plan is to apply coloured nail polish this may cover problematic parts like irregularities on the one hand but on the other hand, when done hastily, it can also add exactly that. In any case, nail polish creates further reflexes and possibly extra edges to the fingernails. From the editor’s point of view, these add-ons mean that the sample areas are more narrow and it can turn out harder to copy and paste flawless pixels onto areas with deficits, especially when the hands are in use holding other complicated structures or overlapping with them. In other words, there are again many lines in the play that need to be preserved and corrected and they are especially eager to disclose manipulation. Inaccurately applied nail polish, therefore, has the potential to demand lavishly corrected edges and if retouching accidentally blurs them, the effect may look like the opposite of well-groomed. Of course, you won’t see this in the delivered photos because professional editors will work on these parts of the image until they look right. However, blemishes on the fingernails repeat themselves in every image and can increase the workload in post-production enormously. Conversely, regarding the fingernails and nail polish, giving the manicurist enough time to work very exact and facing them with the challenge of perfection, as may be necessary, your photos will come out of the post more natural, more beautiful and more quickly.

2. The Fashion & Styling

Ensure a close-to-perfect fit

We all know that body shapes differ and accordingly, some clothes fit a person just right while others need a few adjustments. In my Tip No. 19 we’ve discussed the function of a wardrobe stylist: steaming, ironing, pinning and clipping the pieces, tying ribbons and tucking borders, taking care of how the material is arranged on the model, and correcting how it falls and moves when it’s worn, not to mention how the looks are combined in the first place – all these measures help to show your fashion in its best version. And for these tasks, it’s required to have a way with clothes and an eye for detail on the one hand, but also enough time on set and ideally an assistant to step in when there are more than two hands needed. Conversely, when there is an overload of work for the stylist – which probably means that everyone else is under time pressure too – there may be deficits in the way the clothes are styled some of which are going to be difficult to edit in the post when discovered too late. Furthermore, it is, sometimes, a matter of taste more than competence whether everyone else likes the proposed styling solutions or they need to be reconsidered. When any flaws are pointed out to the stylist, this is a good sign, actually – whether they are concerning oversights or a vague gut feeling telling you that this is not right yet. It reveals your and your team’s presence of mind to really care and judge what you see from a more distant point of view. But to ensure a better outcome, step no. two requires patience with the stylist because now they have to come up with ideas against their first intuition or their own taste and expertise and whoever was the critic is in charge of constantly evaluating the new outcome. While this sounds stressful, it is actually an ideal case and it’s preserving you from compromising later: a constructive consultation, therefore, goes back and forth until the look is styled satisfyingly and in a way that there won’t be anything to worry about in the post-production. All in all, the presentation of your fashion is realised by your sharp eye and the wardrobe stylist’s skills to shape it well. It shouldn’t be put in the hands of post-production, because there, you can’t have everything.

You might want to know, why not? To understand this, imagine the following scenario: while you are sipping your coffee and chatting with someone on set, the stylist is tucking in the model’s shirt before the look is photographed. You have a quick look at the images and approve that they look great – but because there had been a hair change beforehand, you’re mainly paying attention to the new hairstyle which appears to look alright. After the shoot, during the selection process you realise that according to your brand’s guidelines, this shirt is not supposed to be tucked but hanging loose. However, there is 20 cm of fabric plus the border with complex stitching missing in your photo for they are hidden behind the model’s belt. If you’re flexible to accept the photo as it is anyway, fair enough – but in many cases, such a mishap is close to a disaster, while unfortunately, there’s not much to do about it in post-production. As a matter of fact, not even the best retoucher will be willing to literally paint a missing quarter of a shirt back in Photoshop if they don’t have an alternative photo providing the missing piece. Ergo, the only way to get it right would be a re-shoot. Needless to say, the effort and cost of organising another shoot with the exact same conditions are exorbitant compared to the simple act of paying attention and asking the stylist for correction in the first place.

3. The Light

If you like the picture you like the light

You don’t have to know a lot about light except for the fact that it creates the picture and gives it a certain character. Even before you go about commenting on the hair, make-up, styling or the model’s pose – basically, when looking at the first light test in the morning – you should be able to tell whether the image is pleasing you or it seems to be lacking a certain something. In other words: when it comes to rating a photograph, all your indescribable feelings are probably based on the light’s properties. This being said, communication between a non- and professional on light can be delicate and challenging, yet it’s important to try and find a satisfying setup. Taking your gut feeling as an indicator that something isn’t quite right about the photo you can analyse the model’s face and other objects in the picture in order to figure out how they are shaped and if you like what you see. By giving this information to the photographer and their assistants, the latter can translate it to whichever light modification is necessary to re-create a more agreeable image. So, in contrast with giving exact commands, as you would about styling details, it is just important to take in the overall appearance every time there is new lighting. This is, for sure, easier said than done considering that previously, I advised you to pay more attention to the details…

So what if you missed out on this step because your main focus was to bring the stylists’ and make-up artists’ work to perfection? Is a retoucher able to fix those uneasy feelings you might have about the images after the shoot? The answer is yes and no. As explained in the last tip article, three-dimensionality can be enhanced with Photoshop by working out highlights and shadows, respectively increasing the contrast. Furthermore, it’s possible to control the brightness of selective parts, for example, to lighten or darken the background and make the model pop by this. These measures can work miracles and make a boring photo look premium. However, optimising the contrasts can’t save a photo if it was lit badly or against your vision. If the light was set up in front of the model the lack of shadows most certainly creates a pretty flat-looking face and image. This can be a style but if you’re keen on the opposite, namely more plastic images, you’ll have to act on it and tell the photo team to change it on the spot – and not complain about it to the editor afterwards. Otherwise, they would have no choice but to grab the brush tool and start painting. Yet, after all, you wanted photographs, right?

4. The Vision

The B in “Client Brief” stands for Budget / What you spend is what you get / Well begun is half done

The three titles might already explain it but in other words: tight is not right. If the vision of your future photos includes a certain background or location, specific props, or else – unless we’re talking about a dragon or other fantasies – a green screen and great photoshop skills won’t be enough to make those things look a hundred per cent real in the final result. If you’re, in fact, thinking of compositions of the type “movie cover” you will definitely need a CGI expert rather than a regular retoucher, respectively the work of both combined, and then the dragon might become reality. At least on your photos. Whereas, for less dramatic images you’ll need to start the machine and do research, organise, and pay for the use of proper objects to actually built them in the shoot. The benefit of capturing reality in photos rather than constructing it digitally – even when it costs more effort and money in the first place – is not only the close-to-zero risk of odd-looking and therefore traitorous shadows, and shifts in light or colour, it’s simple and very obvious too: you’ll see the result immediately which is giving you the opportunity to tune it better. There’s less strategy and no imagination required – you can enjoy your pictures shortly after they’ve been taken and at the bottom line this means a whole lot more fun on set! Lovely, isn’t it? 

But isn’t a green screen super practical giving you more flexibility after the shoot? When it comes to photography, the answer clearly is no. What is true for film can be of disadvantage for photography. While in film shots need to be planned very precisely and there’s much more surrounding to consider and design around the protagonists, photography oftentimes just hints at the world that it portrays, independent of the factors time and movement and their directions. Inversely, the very significance of a photograph as a documentation of reality and particularly its stillness raises the viewers’ awareness to detect falsifications – provided that they pause to really look at it – which you probably want. Another hitch of green screens is the coloured reflections on the model or objects that are close to it. Unless a giant studio is at disposal and the model stays very far away from the screen (which, by the way, has to be even larger then), in the editing process, these reflections will require elaborate colour corrections beyond the actual background replacement. De facto, shooting with a green screen may be more costly than buying the right backdrop, travelling to the right place with the whole team, or having a sophisticated set built up. Otherwise, using green screens on a tight budget, or because of that, might be in the end effect, synonymous with your whole work and aspirations flopping completely.

5. The Details

Bust your own laziness!

If you found the previous paragraphs convincing and your hands-on mentality is now thriving, in the following, you’ll find a couple more suggestions on how to put a lot more love in your shoots. But for those who struggle with their laziness, every time you hear yourself saying (or thinking) “we’ll fix that in Photoshop”, that is in fact a great indicator to have whatever it is corrected right away. Especially, when it comes to the fashion itself, the complete and repeated removal of wrinkles seems to be a Sisyphean task and is therefore sometimes passed on to the retoucher. However, avoiding digital reconstruction isn’t only a dream coming true for the editor – it’s actually the safest way to guarantee that your fashion is represented well in the photos. The same applies to the removal of label tags, threads, etc. and by extension other unwelcome objects surrounding the model. If you remember the scene in Game of Thrones containing a Starbucks cup, you probably know what I mean and from now on you’ll keep your photo set neat and clean.

Consider the hairstyling as the supreme discipline

Even more important is the right styling of the hair because, as mentioned in the previous article, even when it’s done diligently, the retoucher intervening with the hair too much can still result in suspiciously wrong, unnatural, or at least less modern images. Considering the current trend of edgy styles which is probable to stay with us longer (given that diversity and personality are more and more included in fashion imagery and advertising) perceived imperfections are in fact intentional. This requires a lot of dedication by the hairstylist, yet random-looking strands of hair can’t be conjured up by a retoucher, so having it done on set, after all, increases the number of photos that you can really choose from in the end.

Notice the model’s hand poses

To forge a bridge to the beginning of this article and give you the ultimate inside tip: keep the model’s hands under review and if they constantly roll their fingers up or just don’t pose with them aesthetically, invite them to be more mindful of that and keep correcting them. Beautiful hands in pictures don’t only come from great manicures but the overall composition stays and falls with how the person’s hands are brought into action. Mainly, it’s a beginner model’s thing to not pay attention to their hands. However, even experienced models sometimes forget to consider this detail in their pose. Unfortunately, it’s not possible, by no means, to change any hand positions into more pleasing ones by the post and because this is usually a repetitive mistake, once revealed, you’ll need to focus on the hands throughout the whole day. 


Photoshop and other photo editing programmes are, of course, excellent tools to give your campaign or other pictures the final touch and remove certain flaws. Nevertheless, it cannot replace any of your team member’s tasks completely or change the appearance of the model. With diligence, a good schedule with enough time for every single step, a bit of patience and the will to perfect all the details you can eventually save time and even money in the post-production, plus your images will most probably look more natural, authentic and breathtaking.


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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