When does digital retouching go too far ?

post production

We ask much is too much?’in the world of professional editing

Digital image manipulation tools are becoming more powerful, more accessible, and more prevalent than ever before. Photoshoplatest release, CS6, boasts several new features that will push that industry even further.

In today s world, magazine covers and advertising imagery are known for the drastic retouching of models to achieve an idealized version that only barely reflects the reality of the original photo shoot.

This method has become so pervasive that italmost expected with most commercial imagery.

General audiences tend to view fashion magazine covers in the same way they view Hollywood summer blockbusters. They suspect their eyes are being fooled and what they are seeing isnreality, but it sure is pleasant to look at and people seem happy to pretend it s real.

Whether or not these images should be digitally retouched at all is almost beyond question at this point. It would be difficult to find an industry professional who would eschew the idea of cropping and basic colour correction of a photograph. To leave a poor white balance uncorrected or not crop out a distracting background element at the edge of the frame is just bad form.

At this point, the digital retouching is doing no more than a make-up artist or lighting director could have accomplished before the shot. Does it really matter if that work is performed before or after the shutter button clicks?

A step beyond that is the cloning - out of distracting elements or skin blemishes that are not a normal part of the modelcomplexion. The majority of photographic professionals accept this as a routine part of the post - production process.

Group shots are notoriously painful for photographers, especially if they involve children. Somebody always blinks or looks away at the wrong moment, and they invariably pressure the photographer to hurry up and finish the shot so they can go on with their non - group - shot lives. So if a photographer has a shot where one of the subject s eyes are closed, but the next shot has them open, is there really any harm in swapping out those eyes to get a shot where everybody looks good? Can t the same idea be applied to smiles, hands, and hair, too?

So, where does retouching stop being helpful and start being deceitful? At what point does the enhancement become an illusion? Itan important question that every professional photographer will face at some point.

post production

Katelyn James from katelynjames.com, a highly talented wedding photographer whose work can be found in publications such as The Knot, and Richmond Bride, has a practical approach to her limits on retouching. She allows much of it to be dictated by simple logistics. "I realized when I first started that if I did anything other than cover up blemishes, I would be setting myself up for a massive amount of editing work in the future. Instead of altering a brideshape in post - production, I began teaching myself how to pose brides in a more flattering way.”

It s reasonable that photographers are more comfortable crafting their images with their cameras than with their computers. But what about the other side of that coin? If somebody makes a living out of retouching photographs, would their perception of the acceptable boundary line be a little further out? Tomasz and Krzysztof from the House of Retouching (www.houseofretouching.com) respond. a few advertising sessions we were asked to do ’. After we retouched to a higher level, they still wanted more, and then more, so we came to an illustration, not a photograph, something we would never show in our portfolio.

think that this situation is a perfect example on which we should ask why retouchers are the ones being blamed for making illusions... Retouchers are just a tool, an artistic tool, yet only a tool. If we weren t asked so frequently to take off 30 per cent of the persons weight, would we? I don t think so."

Looking at the question from the side of a professional retoucher sheds light on a few other interesting aspects of the dilemma. Tomasz and Krzysztof wonder about issues such as copyright conflicts.

If a photographer submits a shot to be altered, and a gifted retoucher spends hours crafting the image to fit a specific vision, or even pulls in so much from other photos in the series to the point where the final image is more collage than photograph. Who should hold the copyright on that final piece? The retoucher or the photographer?

The overly - airbrushed look is finding less and less acceptance throughout the industry. The audience has caught on.

Skin should look like skin, not plastic. Even retouchers themselves embrace the shift towards a more natural skin appearance. According to Tomasz and Krzysztof, retouching is much more difficult and time-consuming, so it helps the retouching industry by eliminating people who do not know where the limits are and what techniques to use."

While the industry is growing, changing and evolving, it becomes apparent that the tried-and-true mantra of photographers to it right in - camera  is still alive and well. The true believers of that school of thought view retouching as merely an enhancement tool, and their work shows their dedication to the classic principles of the photography medium.

Then there are other photographers who view the retouching process as another means of accomplishing their vision. The term crafters  seems more appropriate here, as these photographers may even go so far as have a retoucher attend the photo shoot to give advice for obtaining shots that will aid compositing in the post - production.

 Tomasz Krzysztof

Does this approach advance the industry with its ability to craft images that would be impossible through ’photography? Or is it an advancement that forsakes the roots that the industry was built on? In all honesty, it s neither.

The advancement of technology, both in retouching and the cameras themselves, has expanded the market to the point it can contain both. They may never agree fully on the path, but both are aiming for the same destination - spectacular I photographic imagery.

Retouching - detection software?

Should public - facing images that have been digitally altered be labelled as such? Should the amount of alteration be weighted, measured, and scored? According to an article published by the New York Times on 29 November 2011, researchers at Dartmouth University are proposing software to do just that. They are developing a tool that would distinguish the amount of retouching performed on an image and grade the changes on a scale of one to five. Viewers would then have a better way of judging if the beauty model they see in the photo is truly as thin and glamorous in the original image as she is on the glossy magazine cover.

The work is in response to photolabeling proposals that would categorise images as either altered or not. This would not account for how much retouching is performed, or whether it was changed!

Classical retouching?

There s a general idea that photo retouching is a modern invention, brought about by the advent of digital photography. While it s true that today s technology has made photo manipulation exponentially more accessible and widespread, it s a false notion that it brought about its genesis. Photo alteration has been in existence almost as long as photography itself.

At a basic level, before the days of digital media, photographers and film developers would process the film negatives in a dark room. This wasn t a simple, mechanical process. It involved tools and processes such as burning, dodging, and colourised washing all with the intent of altering the appearance of the photograph. Ideally these alterations were performed to enhance the photo to meet the photographervision. That in itself is the heart of retouching.

The website www.fourandsix.com is dedicated to photo forensics and uncovering the truth behind photo - based hoaxes. The site hosts a gallery referred to as Photo Tampering Throughout History that traces back the long and colourful history of altering photos all the way back to 1860, a very longtime before Photoshop! In the example included here, a famous shot of U.S. president Abraham Lincoln is revealed to be a head swap with another photo of an entirely different politician!

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