Advertising photography has always presented the viewer with a fantasy, a flawless, idealised framing of a product as it might appear at its most desirable, carefully posed and painstakingly lit. To some this is art, to others a willful, even damaging distortion. But how unpolished should advertising and fashion really be, and how much of a role does Photoshop actually play?
In recent years, retouching as a practice has found itself under increased scrutiny for a number of high profile errors, providing ever more regular content to a number of (frankly hilarious) websites that exist to shine an unforgiving light on the oversights of the terminally overworked, or catastrophically underskilled retoucher. Most of these mistakes are harmless, a missing leg or a spooky floating hand, remnant of a subject otherwise erased.
The examples that have drawn the most ire, and are responsible for ‘Photoshopping‘ becoming a source of such controversy, are frequently cases of extreme body modification, taking below just one of countless examples from 2015 in which singer Zendaya called out some bizarre liberties taken with the Liquify Tool:
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Had a new shoot come out today and was shocked when I found my 19 year old hips and torso quite manipulated. These are the things that make women self conscious, that create the unrealistic ideals of beauty that we have. Anyone who knows who I am knows I stand for honest and pure self love. So I took it upon myself to release the real pic (right side) and I love it😍😘 Thank you @modelistemagazine for pulling down the images and fixing this retouch issue.
The overwhelming consensus of opinion in the comments is ‘this looked a lot better before’, and they’re absolutely right of course. Quite apart from the skin tones being way too hot, the figure reshaping has taken impetuous leave of all artistic and anatomical sensibility.
Knowing as a professional not to haphazardly slim down a woman for no reason goes hand in hand in this case with another great rule of thumb; don’t drastically alter the subject of a portrait (particularly not a celebrity). If someone removed something as characteristically recognisable as Robert DeNiro’s mole they’d be roundly mocked, yet we’ve reached a point where with alarming frequency female celebrities are reshaped and moulded into an arbitrary ideal.
Already in 2016, actor and writer Lena Dunham has publicly asked magazines to leave her body shape alone; when asked why, “…maybe it was the fact that I no longer understand what my own thighs look like.”
In that particular instance, Dunham issued an apology when it became clear that the magazine itself wasn’t responsible, the edits had taken place somewhere between the shoot and the magazine buying the shots, presumably by, or at the behest of someone who thought it was a perfectly normal thing to do.
Case after case such as this has led to calls to ban, or like France, regulate the use of Photoshopin fashion and advertising. It shouldn’t have come to this.
The problem with ‘banning Photoshop’ is that what we do, when applied with competence and professionalism, at its best helps to create beauty and artistry, and at even its most functional is often a necessary step in remedying common issues between opening the shutter and sending a file to print.
A photograph is not a perfect record of how an object looked at that moment, it’s simply a record of how light from that object was perceived and captured through an artificial lens.
One of the problems we face when preparing photography for print, is that a photograph is not a perfect record of how an object looked at that moment, it’s simply a record of how light from that object was perceived and captured through an artificial lens.
The details preserved in medium or large format, particularly in terms of contrast and sharpness, are far in excess of the detail perceived directly by the human eye. This is well demonstrated in a recent social media post by my good friend and Retouching Academy chief extraordinaire Julia Kuzmenko McKim:
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50% Canon 5Ds capture of @lauraclairegude's amazing eye with the magical @vladamua liquid touch on Cintiq 27QHD = I am in heaven 🦄 #latenightediting #Cintiqretouching #WACOM @wacom #beautyretouching #beautifulskin #liquidgold #goldenmakeup #gold #RApanels #retouchingacademy @retouchingacademy #losangelesbeauty #losangeles
That’s at just 50% zoom, and after personally handling countless commercial images over a decade I can say with certainty that there are details in everything, including human skin, shot with good glass and sharpened for print, that rarely look great.
This is an effect exaggeratedly demonstrated when you see how focus stacked macro photography of a beautifully colored beetle produces a fascinatingly detailed image.
It isn’t that the richly enhanced, pin-sharp topography of the human skin is unpleasant to look at that provides us with a problem; in fact anyone who works regularly with portraits shot with high end lenses can tell you it’s distractingly interesting. Every pore, facial hair and grain of make-up is brought into stark relief, and as it is with the beetle it’s easy to marvel at those details. Nature up close is a beautiful and fascinating thing, as an artist, as a human being.
This of course, is not what advertisers selling a lipstick shade want you to be studying as you stand by a six feet high poster at the bus shelter. They want their product to be seen, framed in the most beautiful way possible, without distractions. And that’s a fair thing to want.
Post-production is only a very small part of this whole process, and a particularly vital one with time constraints placed on photographers and their teams; in most cases it simply isn’t feasible to reposition every creased collar, or errant strand of hair before each one of hundreds, if not thousands of exposures across several looks. By the time the perfect pose happens, there has likely been a lot of movement to hamper the work of the stylist and makeup artist, making our role a crucial one.
There will be a bunched up suit jacket, a creased dress or an awkwardly posed foot. Altering these in post-production just gives us more flexibility in creating a beautiful shot to best show off a product. There’s an element of fantasy and that’s no bad thing, fashion and advertising photography is unequivocally an art form, and has been so long before post-production software existed.
None of this is to say that we don’t have a responsibility, there is a larger social issue at play, and one which we should be mindful of.
It is ‘extreme’ retouching, particularly abuse of the Liquify Tool and ‘de-ageing’ that draws media and social media criticism, and rightly so. Severe body reshaping without artistic merit is a facile and amateurish approach, an approach which most professional retouchers learn to recoil from along with the haphazard blurring of skin.
Working freelance in this industry has given me the privilege of working both on-site and remotely for some of the big names in advertising on a regular basis, and believe me when I say that ‘overdoing it’ is not what they’re interested in, certainly not in light of recent backlash.
Restraint in post-production isn’t just an admirable artistic choice anymore; it has become lauded and desirable. Even if you have no interest in the social issue, your business brain needs to be telling you to be on the right side of the trend, and that trend is toward a more natural, more authentic output.
I worked on a short educational video for Dove’s ‘Self-Esteem Project’ in London in 2015, a small project that highlighted the excesses of retouching in Photoshop in a conspicuous minority of cases, and although it was great fun to go completely overboard, I stand by its message.
It is our job as retouchers to enhance and enrich a photograph, never to destroy the integrity of its subject.
This article originally appeared on Retouching Academy, and was republished with permission.