How Much Retouching Is To Much?



Since Photoshop, and other editing software, became readily available there has been a steady stream of complaints about over retouching from the media. Most of the complaints come from photographs used in editorials and advertising, such as slimmed down celebrities and models. Documentary photography and photojournalism hasn’t been free from this controversy either. Many photographers have been in hot water for combining multiple photos and passing them off as reality. Also many of us have probably seen photos of friends and family where there skin has been smoothed to the point of looking like plastic.


So what is too much retouching? The answer to that question is greatly based upon what type of photography we are talking about. Something that is within orthodoxy for fine art photography would be seen as heresy in photojournalism. For example compositing, or combining multiple photos into one finished image, would be acceptable, and even common, in fine art photography but would be forbidden in photojournalism. This would become a gray area in nature photography depending on what images were combined and how.


When determining how much retouching is acceptable we have to decided what type of image we are dealing with. Is this image supposed to be an accurate representation of real life or not? Documentary and photojournalism should look as close to real life as possible. Fine art can look like just about anything and does not have to be an accurate rendition of the subject. Most types of photographs fall somewhere in the middle.


The following conclusions are what are generally considered acceptable by the photography industry as a whole when it comes to retouching. I do not think that just because most people in the photography industry agree that some kind of retouching is okay that it then makes it okay. For example if the majority of the industry decided it was okay for me to Photoshop my head onto some buff guy’s body and put it on an online dating site that wouldn’t be acceptable just because the majority in the industry agreed that it would be.


For the type of portrait photography that I primarily deal with, seniors and families, we want our subjects to look rested and healthy. Essentially the average senior and family portrait photographer wants his or her subjects to look like themselves on their best day. When retouching we go by a rule called “The Two Week Rule.” If something was there two weeks ago or will be there in two weeks we keep it but have the liberty to reduce it. If something wasn’t there two weeks ago or won’t be there in two weeks we get rid of it. For example a mole or birth mark, which has been there for over two weeks and will be there two weeks in the future, we may minimize or reduce, but we would not fully remove. A scar or pimple, which wasn’t there two weeks ago and won’t be there in two weeks, would be removed.


Senior and family portrait photography does allow more leeway in some aspects of retouching. For example, adding unique textures, compositing for creative backgrounds, and even face swaps in family photos are all fair game. Unnecessary skimming down and overly aggressive skin smoothening would be unacceptable though.


Unlike senior and family portrait photography advertising, editorial, and celebrity portraiture doesn’t have an easily rule like “The Two Week Rule” to follow. High-end retouchers, who work on celebrity portraits for the covers of Vogue and the like, can spend over eight hours doing intricate pixel level retouching. Probably the most controversy has risen from these types of images. Unlike your typical family portrait or photojournalism the line is not as cleanly defined as to when is too much.


Many people will complain about how these images are trying to promote that all people should look like these celebrities. I don’t deny that many, mostly younger girls, are discouraged by these images if they view them as a standard of beauty. If these images are viewed as such it is problematic, because in reality no one looks like the person on the finished cover of Vogue. It is fake. People have taken someone most of society considers attractive then they have spend thousands of dollars on the world’s best make-up artists, hair stylists, wardrobe stylists, photographers, and retouchers to make them look even better. If we see the same celebrity in real life they won’t look like they did on the magazine cover.


The argument over whether or not this type of retouching is acceptable or not will probably go on for a very long time. I’m not going to attempt to solve the issue in this short article. Something to keep in mind is these images are not meant to be documentary photography or photojournalism. They are not accurate representations of reality. They are highly produced images created to get you to buy a product or magazine and should be viewed as such.


Photojournalism and documentary photography definitely has the strictest rules for retouching. This is supposed to be as accurate to real life as possible. Compositing would be unacceptable. Most global adjustments, retouching which affects the entire image, would be allowed. For example turning and image black and white or fixing exposure by darkening the entire image would be acceptable. Dodging and burning, selectively lightening and darkening parts of the image, is a bit of a gray area and may or may not be allowed depending on how much it changes the image.


There is a lot of gray area in what is allowed in nature, wildlife, and landscape photography. Even film landscape masters like Ansel Adams spend much time in the dark room getting his prints perfect. Local retouching, retouching that effects a specific part of the image compared to the whole, is almost always acceptable. For example intricate dodging and burning is allowed. There are some times when combining multiple photos may be allowed and times when it is not. If several images are taken at the same location on a tripod with varying exposures, and then are later combined so that there will be details in the lightest and darkest parts of the image this is generally accepted. On the other hand, if the same scene is photographed but an animal or sky from another image at a different location is added this would not be allowed. Compositing for tonality, getting detail in the lights and darks, is okay but adding things to the scene is generally not allowed.


In fine art photography anything goes. You can pretty much set your own rules here. Some fine art photographers may want to only shoot using film and never touch Photoshop where as others may do series with tons of compositing. As long as you are consistent you are good.


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