Portrait Retouching - The Good, The Bad and the Truly Execrable

This is not a screed against portrait retouching.  Whether you retouch portraits is entirely your business and to some extent, the business of the model. It is a screed against laziness while acknowledging truth in advertising.

Great retouching is an art.  It takes a lot of time to be consistently good at the process and while the tools have become easier to use, technology, however good still is really only a type of brush for the artist.  I am a decent retoucher on my best day, there are lots of people who have put in more time, built more skill and do a way better job.  My frustration lies in the illusion perpetrated by an increasing number of software providers that their product will give you perfect portraits or make you an expert retoucher in minutes.

As Heinlein wrote a very long time ago, TANSTAFFL - there ain't no such thing as a free lunch.  I admit that I have downloaded trials of some of these commercial packages and in every case, they are all very much like using a cannon to go after a rat.  You will get the rat, but you will also leave at least one large smoking crater behind as well.

Take a close look at the images in the ads.  To credit the vendors, the ads are accurate.  Where real people have blemishes, pores, zits, bushy eyebrows, dry lips, yellow teeth, yellowed eye whites, facial hair, ear hair, nose hair and myriad other alleged sins of existence, the retouched photos have none of these things.  Unfortunately they look like they've been retouched with driveway brush and bear little resemblance to the real person.

Every human is critical of how he or she looks in photographs to some extent and we all have some foible, however minuscule that we believe shouts from the rooftops, that we would prefer was never seen nor heard from ever again.  A great retoucher can make the adjustments to manage these things without making the model look like a reject from Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum.

Our cameras and lenses are very good, and as a Hasselblad shooter, I have had models cringe when they see the RAW proofs because the camera does actually capture everything.  Proper lighting will always help, but dependency on retouching software should never be a given.  In a series of tests with multiple iterations of these "perfect" retouchers, the tool acts like a #4 trowel, hurling corrections measured in gallons when subtlety is all that is needed.

It's ok to remove minor flaws, it's not ok to make your model look inhuman or not like him or herself, UNLESS that's what you are being paid to do.  If that's the outcome these global retouchers will save you tons of time because they are cannons to the rat.  However, if you want to produce really exceptional portraits of people while not morphing the model into a mannequin, invest in yourself and learn to retouch with grace and subtlety.  There are numerous resources available, one example being Scott Kelby's Light It, Shoot It, Retouch It book.  It's not the only choice but if you are looking, it's an excellent place to build skills.

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