What Is Image Retouching?

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TLDNR KEY TAKE AWAYS

  • Retouching is an important part of the photographic process. No matter how great the photographer is, images need some work.

  • For business headshots you want your images to look natural and not over retouched

  • Retouching is more than just cleaning up skin and removing blemishes, it has to do with the overall look of the image as well.

  • Not all photographers take the time and care needed for great retouching and many outsource their retouching to cheap “retouching farms” where the results are not good.

What is retouching?

I’m often asked this by clients. Photo retouching can mean different things to different people. In the context of a business headshot it usually refers to cleaning up skin and anything that detracts from the image (stray hairs, clothing wrinkles, etc). But there is much more to the retouching process than cleaning up imperfections.

First let me say that retouching comes down to personal preference. What one person may consider not enough retouching another person may think is overboard. My goal with retouching is for people to look real. To do that takes time and care with the images. Each image is retouched by hand and not put through a largely automated retouching process. These days many photographers outsource retouching to a "retouching farm" where you can get an image retouched for less than a dollar. And the results show.

Retouching in an important part of the photographic process. Most professional images you see in magazines or online were retouched in some way. Good headshot retouching has nothing to do with making people look younger, skinnier, or not like themselves (although that is possible). A great retouched image is one that you wouldn’t even know was retouched. The goal with great headshot and portrait retouching is to make people look natural and like themselves, but on their best day.

When you look around at many business headshots you will usually see what I consider bad retouching. The person doesn't look natural. Their skin looks fake and waxy. Their eyes or teeth are hypnotizingly white. Their skin tone is over saturated (although playing with color and skin tones when done properly can be a good way to give an image a unique look, see below). It makes me cringe. A good retoucher knows when enough is enough.

Examples

Below are a couple before/after images (the images should be transitioning from one to another in your browser). With the first image on the left you can see there wasn’t anything drastic done but the overall difference is noticeable. Some of the deeper wrinkles were cleaned up as well as some skin blemishes, patchyness and stray hairs. It would have been easy to go overboard and try to smooth out his skin to the point of ridiculousness and remove every single wrinkle on his face, but that would have looked fake and would have taken away much of the character in his face. With the second image on the right I wanted to show what can happen if you go too far with retouching on a business headshot. With the image on the right the skin is pristine and smooth. This is the level of retouching you’ll often find in advertising where they want everything to be perfect. I do not recommend this for a business headshot. Although, I do have some clients who care more about skin perfection than realism so if you prefer that, I can do it.

 


There is more to retouching that just clearing up skin and brightening teeth. Retouching also has to do with the overall look of the image; The color, contrast, highlights, and shadows. Every image is unique and can have a look that fits the image or the style/brand of the subject.

Here are some examples of the same image, with different looks applied. There is no right or wrong look. It can be whatever works best for the image or the style you like the best.

 Deep Green
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 Deep Warm
 Deep Green
 Deep Blue & Warm
 


When comparing photographers while trying to decide who you want to do your business headshots, make sure you examine the final retouched images on their sites. While these won’t be high resolution images you can really look closely at, you can get a good idea of how good or bad the retouching is. Take a look at the work on my site and you'll see images that were retouched with care to make them look great.

 
Jeff Singer