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Why I Always Work With a Retoucher as a Professional Photographer

Fashion photography is a team effort. You just can’t be the photographer, makeup artist, stylist, retoucher, assistant, and a whole crew by yourself. But how much should you outsource? Most photographers are happy to leave makeup to a dedicated specialist, but when it comes to retouching opinions differ. Some claim that retouching is solely the photographer's job as no one can convey the exact vision, while others choose to trust a professional. 

Fashion Photography Is a Team Effort: The Pictures Depend on It

Fashion photography is reliant on a good team. If the makeup artist is bad, the whole picture is ruined; the same goes for the model, photographer, and even assistant. Truth be told, my best work was done when everyone was at their top. One of the key topics I discuss with photographers I coach is, of course, how important it is to work with a team and be a team player, not a team captain. This starts at creating a mood-board, then goes on to have a shot list that details the vision, light, styling, and makeup. This allows a crew of 10 people to all be on the same page on what’s happening and what goes where.

Communication With the Team Is Crucial at All Stages, Including Retouching

On a pre-production level, it is easy to communicate the vision. Just ask the makeup artist what their idea is, see where they are going with it, and discuss from there. It is also quite easy to correct in most cases. The same applies to anything else in the pre-production stage. By the time feet hit the ground on set, everyone should know what’s happening. Once the images make it to the post-production section, however, it can become increasingly difficult. While some have a clear vision of the end, others like to explore the possibilities in post-production. This starts at color correction and ends at altering the image completely in Photoshop. 

Retouching Is a Dedicated Job and a Standalone Craft

One of the beauties of post-production is just how many possibilities it offers to photographers. Is the light slightly off? No worries, it’s easy to remove or add necessary shadows. Did the stylist butcher the ironing? Easy fix too.

Some joke that even Photoshop developers don’t know the software inside out because of how much it can do. Funny because it’s true. To truly master the art of working in Photoshop, one must put a lot of time and effort into it, not just look at YouTube tutorials each time a problem needs to be solved. 

Model @mirinkoli

Agency @annelise_arieli @facemodelmanagementhungary

Makeup: @karinajemelyjanova

Retouch @justlike_magick

Styling: @nagyemesestylist

A Good Photographer Isn’t Always a Good Retoucher

Being a good photographer and retoucher is quite difficult, especially if there are a lot of assignments to get through. At some point, one must make the call to either be a photographer or retoucher as to be a master at either one must learn extensively. Think of retouchers as film lab technicians; they know the nitty-gritty of post-processing. You just need to specify what you need and have that done for you professionally to a high standard. The notion that to be a great photographer one must also be a great retoucher is wrong; many beginners suffer from this. 

Here are some reasons for which I hire a retoucher for most photography assignments:

1. In-Depth Knowledge of Retouching

As I mentioned retouching is a standalone craft that requires many hours of practice. High-end retouchers are up to trends on what retouching is popular now. For example, at the time of writing, minimally retouched natural-looking skin is the trend. They also know extensive techniques that allow the image to be the best it can be. They also have experience with difficult composites and other jobs that seem impossible at first glance. Having outsourced retouching, I noticed an immediate increase in the quality of my work. Now, every single image in my portfolio is retouched by someone else. All jobs that I do are sent off to a retoucher to fine-tune to my spec.  

2. Saves Time

A good retouching job is at least one hour per image; often, it’s closer to two. Some beauty images can take up to four hours to finish. You can imagine how long it would take to get a 10-look beauty editorial finished, right? That’s a lot of time that can be spent shooting, marketing, or making vital connections in the industry. By not having the burden of images to retouch, I personally can focus on producing work, writing articles, as well as helping other creatives. 

3. Allows Focusing on What’s Fun

I don’t enjoy staring at an image for hours in Photoshop and fixing every hair, nor can I see as much as someone passionate about retouching can. I strongly believe that a lot more money can be made doing something fun. I am most productive when work doesn’t feel like work. When doing retouching, I tend to procrastinate simply because it is not fun and feels like something unproductive and boring. On the other hand, when it comes to shooting planning, production, and photographing I am excited to do it. By outsourcing retouching, I am not only able to get more images out, but I am also able to focus on making work not feel like work.  

How to Find a Retoucher

I get tons of emails from various retouching, clipping, and batch post-production companies offering their services. However, I am sad to say that most of them are not good enough. Sure, they are a much more budget-friendly option, but the quality and attention to detail suffer from that. The retouchers I work with, for example, Retouch Concept, Zahar Bakutin, and Oleh Slinko, have all done covers for household fashion magazines and retouched major ad campaigns done by world-class photographers. For me, this is a quality label that shows a high standard of work. If they’re good enough for Vogue, they're more than good enough for me. Although I have yet to shoot a Vogue cover, by working with the best of the best, I am pushing my work to that high standard by hiring people of that caliber.  

Hair& Makeup @karinajemelyjanova 
Styling @nagyemesestylist 
Model @polgar_tunde_official 
Agency @silverchicmodels 
Assistant @marthonmarcell 
Retouch @justlike_magick 

Don’t Fool Yourself by Outsourcing Everything

While it is great to outsource work that is best done by a professional, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have to know a single retouching technique. While you may not have as much practical experience, you must know what’s possible and what’s not. That way, you are a much more well-rounded photographer who can accurately estimate for a job or come off as an expert in the field. To give a simple example: although I never did makeup, I know the theory of it to be able to talk to a makeup artist on a much more sophisticated level. 

Closing Thoughts

Outsourcing is a great way to save time. After all, it is the only resource that is non-renewable in our lives. Hence, by delegating time-consuming tasks to other people that enjoy them, you’re able to have more fun and be a much more excited photographer. Once art is not exciting, it is much less creative and can feel like a waste of time, something that I’d avoid like the plague.  

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4 Comments

Barry Strawbridges's picture

Some things obviously makes sense. You can't do everything in photography. The real questions are

"How much are you spending on having your images retouched?"
"Is it billed per image, hourly, or per project?"
"Is my volume of shooting and placements occurring at rates where deadlines can't be met unless its outsourced?"

If a photographer are doing fashion/ editorial/ beauty/ commerce at an extremely high level with consistent placements in publications, it likely makes sense. That photographer can afford it. If average ol' photographer, doing this on an enthusiast level, they likely can't afford it.

I think this article should have an addendum that addresses that.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Hi Barry, I see and understand your point about this. However, I don't think that one must be working at an extremely high level(very subjective term) in order to hire a retoucher. Affording a retoucher is relatively fair enough, as there are plenty of options for each price point. A high-end editorial retouch will start at $30 per image. As fashion photographers, we don't want to have repetitive work so paying a high-end retoucher to edit 5 photos with the same outfit is useless. I think a good retoucher really bumps up the quality of images and the investment is worth it as the only thing that matters is how good your photos are.

Robert Nurse's picture

I do my own retouching. But, it's not my favorite thing to do in photography. I don't hate it. I just rather be in the studio or on location. If I were shooting for jobs, I'd have everything retouched because it's a cost I can pass on and one that will deliver far better results than I could.

Rob Sheppard's picture

Thanks for this. I love doing fashion/beauty shoots but am rubbish at retouching, don't enjoy it and frankly don't think I would ever pick up the skills to do it well ;) Most established photographers I have met over the years either have their own retouching team or outsource to trusted retouchers. I've previously sent the same image to 2 or 3 retouchers to assess them, and then used the best on future shoots.