As I’ve been working on my Self-Portrait project, I have begun to wonder: is retouching lying? And, if so, how do I feel about that? Today’s post is just a simple musing. I’m not here to tell you what you should believe. I’m just exploring an idea because ideas are meaningful. I believe, as a photographer, digital artist, and content creator, I owe it to myself and all of you, to at least explore my ethical questions. Why not include you in the thought process?
The above image was not retouched. I felt it told the story I wanted to tell as it is.
Essentially, retouching is the editing of an image to correct issues such as skin tone, blemishes, imperfections and the like using healing tools, dodging (lightening), burning (darkening) and frequency separation (a technique that separates skin colour and skin texture). You should know, that every retoucher’s idea of what constitutes a blemish or an imperfection is different. One size, or in this case, tool, does not fit all.
One retoucher may feel that scars and moles should be removed always, where others feel they should be removed if they are a distraction from the story your image is telling. And then some feel it depends on the intent of the image. Beauty and glamour images tend to be the most heavily retouched where creative or personal portraits tend to get a great deal less. They aim for a more true-to-life feel.
I’m currently watching Nino Batista’s ProEdu Tutorial, Advanced Skin Workflow. His goal is to even skin tone but keep the texture and he often removes larger moles but his work is in the beauty realm. I’m sure many of you have seen the results of bad retouching. We don’t want plastic faces. Nino works with gorgeous models and his retouching is incredible. My subjects, including myself, are not the stunning models Nino works with. Why bother with retouching at all?
I believe in learning and building a toolbox of useful tools. As any good mechanic will tell you, you might not always need a tool, but it’s good to have when you do. I want to have every tool available to serve my clients. Understanding how retouching is properly done, by professionals like Nino Batitisa and Pratik Naik, also helps me understand what can be done. What is possible with these tools. This knowledge then informs my decisions on where I take an image.
As a portrait photographer, I want you, my client, to look your best. What you don’t realize is that the camera often sees more than you do. So began my struggle with “To Retouch or Not To Retouch.” For my clients, I aim to have them look like they would on their best day. My process has been to reduce dark circles and remove blemishes that aren’t typically there. I occasionally even skin tone if it looks splotchy.
Before I started making self-portraits, I was eager to learn how to make you, my client, look your best. I discovered a few things when I started my project that were surprising.
Good lighting can make your skin look amazing, but sometimes it can exaggerate features. Dark circles and bags under the eyes can sometimes look much darker and scarier in the exposed image than they do in real life. Not to mention, these issues are not always present. We don’t always have blemishes or patchy red tones on our skin, but sometimes we do.
To highlight what I’m saying, I’m going to show you the before and after of two images I’ve made of myself. I will then explain some of the reasons why I decided to retouch them as I did.
The theme for this image is Trust. I’m trusting you with my inner light. The magic of my heart and my mind. I want my skin to glow with that light, but the luggage under my eyes is shocking! Are my bags normally this prominent? Is this what people see every day? On the left, I look like a slightly haggard middle-aged woman. On the right, I think, I look years younger! So, is the retouching lying?
I shared the edited version of this in The Art of Self Portraiture Facebook Group and asked if other self-portrait artists retouch their images. The responses were varied! Some used to, and don’t anymore. Many do very minor retouching and others will heavily edit to suit their story. The original image has dark eye circles, weird forehead creases, and blemishes on the chin. Do they help tell my story or do they detract from it? These are very small things, but they dramatically change the picture! Would you have noticed these changes if I hadn’t shown them to you?
Side Note: If any of you have tips on getting rid of the dark circles under your eyes, I would be so grateful to hear them!
One of the members of that Facebook group replied with this quote from Pablo Picasso when I asked if retouching is lying:
“Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”
While I was looking to confirm that Picasso did say this, I came upon these quotes by him that moved me as well:
“Art is not the application of a canon of beauty but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon. When we love a woman we don’t start measuring her limbs.“
“Art is the elimination of the unnecessary.”
Some photographers struggle with the idea that they are artists. I am an artist and photography is my medium. Do I see myself as the images on the left? No. I see myself as the images on the right. That is my truth.
Well, that’s an interesting question. I believe that if retouching is used to completely change a person so that they are virtually unrecognizable, then that is a lie. But maybe it’s the lie that works for your story. I don’t feel that it’s a black and white situation. However, I do feel that our beauty standards are unrealistic and not nearly inclusive enough. It’s interesting to note, that beauty standards have changed a great deal over time. You might find this article on the history of beauty standards interesting: https://www.scienceofpeople.com/beauty-standards/. Take me back to the day of Marilyn Monroe, please! This topic is so massive on its own, I won’t delve too deeply into it, but know that it’s something I think about.
So, do I think that retouching is lying? In some cases yes, and in others no. It’s a massive gray area that needs consideration on a case-by-case basis. Overall, this exploration has taught me that I need to have meaningful discussions with my clients about their feelings on the subject. It isn’t something I should assume everyone wants to be done. And it isn’t something my clients should expect. Communication is key here. Let’s work together to create something you love.
As for my self-portrait work, I’ve been told that this exploration is all part of the process. If it suits my story, or the goal I’m seeking, I will retouch. In regular life, I will do my best to be healthy and happy because that’s where the real beauty is. So, as I mentioned before, send me your beauty tips!
Graduation is rapidly approaching, if you’re looking for creative and dramatic grad portraits, reach out. I’d love to help you bring your vision to life. I also do creative and conceptual portraits for individuals, couples, and families. Let’s make magic together! You can reach me here: Contact Page or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.