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The Only Proven Way to Master True High-End Retouching

Zahar is a high-end retoucher who has worked with Vogue, Elle, Bazaar, and other magazines. His commercial clients include some of the biggest names in the industry, such as Dior.

Photographer Turned Retoucher

Zahar's own journey started off in photography. He started at high school and found it to be a rather magical thing. Capturing his family and friends, he progressed in his career. Many post-production artists start their journey this way, as post-production is an art few are aware of. Zahar was unaware of post-production at that point.

He was lucky to join a photography company — not as a photographer but as a writer. He didn’t have a camera, so writing was pretty much all he could do while staying in the industry. He wrote different advertising texts and managed social media. Zahar recalls these days as a time when he managed to meet new people and grow his network of creatives. It is crucial for every photographer to have a strong friend and acquaintance circle, as those are the people who will help you out in your journey. 

Desiring a career change, Zahar quit his job on good terms but was depressed for several months. At some point, he opened up Photoshop and tried a simple technique: dodge and burn. Zahar shared his work on social media and got an overwhelmingly positive response. Photographers liked his art, and he got the boost that took him to the next step: high-end retouching. 

Few post-production artists start off wanting to be in that role. Photography is a concept that is larger than life; there are infinite ways to make money within photography. From Zahar’s example, I would encourage photographers to always keep exploring their art, industry, and most importantly, themselves. Zahar found his passion simply because he had an open mind.  

Hard Work and Consistency = Elle Jobs

One of the biggest jobs Zahar had was for Elle magazine, not by scale or pay, but by significance. It was indeed his first Elle international project. Getting there is quite simple, he says: hard work and consistency.

Having worked with Zahar as well as other post-production artists, I can relate to that. As a photographer, I need to have consistent results for my editorial and commercial work. Professionalism is indeed about being able to produce the same exceptional level of work every time without exception. Consistency and exploration result in defining a style that is recognizable and fun for you. Yet, consistency isn’t about the brush you use or the way you remove dust on backgrounds. It’s about your philosophy as an artist. It is also about what you consider to be beautiful.  

Post-Production Is Therapeutic 

Zahar tried himself in a variety of areas: photography, art direction, styling, makeup, and even modeling. He quickly found that post-production was the most fun for him and chose it to be his ultimate career path. For him, it allows collaborating with creatives worldwide while also having time for his individual creativity. Indeed, as a post-production artist, he can work with any photographer in the world. Nonetheless, the process itself is largely controlled by him. Although when starting, out he would do exactly as photographers told him, he moved on to putting his own @justlike_magic touch.

Ultimately, he loves retouching because of how calm and therapeutic it is. 

Good Retouching Takes Your Ideas to the Next Level

In a different article, I wrote about the importance of retouching. Yet, there was some negative feedback on it, mostly from photographers who didn't understand the value it brings to them. While that depends on who is working on your images, a good post-production artist can enhance your images beyond what's imaginable. Having worked with Zahar for a while now, I am still blown every time I download the files. They are far beyond what I could think of and quite frankly, much better. At his level of professionalism, he is able to read the image like a book and know exactly what it needs. 

Zahar believes that post-production artists can help make photographs, visions, and ideas real. 

Learning Retouching: From Real Pros Who Know Aesthetic

Perhaps some of you are interested in learning to retouch. There are plenty of courses online that may offer some solutions and tips. However, it is vital to know that what you’re learning is relevant. When starting out, Zahar managed to connect to fellow artists and learn from them. Moreover, he used Deviant Art to find inspiration. It is crucial to learn from working professionals in the industry. In fact, it is best to find someone doing what you want to be doing and learn from them. While there are large retouching academies, I personally found that they have little to do with what is the industry standard. Sure, the techniques are advanced and the end result is different. But retouching is far more than just cleaning the skin and changing shape. It’s about the aesthetic. The same exact raw file would look very different in Elle and Glamour. Vogue is in a league of its own.  

What You and I Can Learn From Zahar

I learned a great deal from Zahar, not only about post-production but also about aesthetics. He confesses that he is still a learner, as any humble professional should be. What he does know and pay attention to is aesthetic. His free Instagram masterclass is not only about technique but also about aesthetics. In my photographer's opinion, aesthetics is the next step. The best analogy I can give is learning light and then using that light to create different moods. As with everything in the professional world, just knowing a technique won't get you beyond your local camera club.  

Don’t Hustle, Have Fun With It

To anyone who is inspired to try retouching or perhaps take their work to a new level, Zahar would suggest to be mindful of yourself and take it one step at a time. From his own experience, health is the most important thing. Overworking is the opposite of creativity and can lead to dark places. Oh, and meeting deadlines doesn’t hurt, but that’s true for all creatives. 

Images used with permission of Zahar. 

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16 Comments

Jan Holler's picture

With all due respect to the really good retouching, but this, "Zahar tried himself in a variety of areas: photography, art direction, styling, makeup, and even modeling." almost made me stop reading your article any further. A real multi talent he is, isn't he? After reading 20 times that name in this short text, I had enough. I like your style Illya, but this here is an exception.

Wonder Woman's picture

This type of editing also has societal impacts, as it leads people to believe these looks are achievable in real life.

kellymckeon's picture

My wish, and I know the world along with the beauty industry will bury me for stating, is that women stop using makeup. Women are morphing into characters based on industry influences, when they are really quite beautiful, just the way they are.

Young girls today don’t stand a chance in discovering their true selves because we are endlessly pushing perfection, makeup and flawlessness in their minds and surrounding visuals.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Do we take this a step further...?

Should women never cut or style their hair?

Should we never pose a woman to enhance how she looks on camera - instead just plonk her on a stool and be done with it?

What about those who have less perfect skin than others - would they feel worse off because their skin isn't as flawless... or maybe it just isn't so good today? Maybe we ban exfoliating, or getting out teeth fixed, (so dental work only for absolutely essential teeth).

Clothing makes a difference to how a person looks - so maybe everyone should wear the same... but what if it doesn't suit them?

The lighting we select changes a person's face. Makes it more sculptured, thiner, fatter, wider, better jawline, smoother skin - so we're cheating just as much with that.

The second we put someone in front of the camera, we create an illusion that isn't real. I find those who decree that retouching is bad, or that women should stop wearing makeup, will be happy with other image altering devices or approaches. (And let's not forget the men too).

You're going to need to overcome thousands of years of human desire to change their outward appearance - either to fit in, or just for fun. And then we're not the species that we've become.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

No, not everyone is into that mobile park look. Sorry about that.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

LOL! This coming from someone with a Wonder Woman profile pic.

Wonder Woman's picture

I am Wonder Woman.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Retouching has little to do with any of the things you mention.

Makeup can't replicate a good retoucher.
It can be faster and more economical to gently retouch hair than constantly adjust for every frame.
Lighting and exposure has nothing to do with retouching - you're confusing that with "fixing."
I don't need to colour time with digital.
No one is redressing the models with retouching, but if there's a need it is can be cost effective to do in post.

As is often the case, photographers confuse requirements and desire to do extensive retouching with an inability to shoot great photography. Photographers have been retouching and adjusting since film was invented - nothing new here, and certainly it's no reflection of levels of skill.

When I shoot headshots, I'll shoot with the retouch in mind. So my lighting will be exactly what I want. My exposures will be accurate to 1/10 and my colours will be spot on.

But I'll worry less about stray hairs or requiring a makeup artist to keep revisiting, because I know these can be adjusted later. Not because of laziness or lack of skill, but because these details can often reduce the creativity or flow of the shoot.

Making generalist comments that allude to skill levels are flawed.

Lee Christiansen's picture

But your comments don't allude to style - they attempt to measure skill and talent towards the myth of "getting it right in camera"

It is entirely possible to get it perfect in camera and still require retouching. You are talking about two different things as if one replaces the other.

Indy Thomas's picture

Retouching has been around since the invention of photography. A good photographer DOES work to get the best possible result in-camera. However the client demands certain results.
You can go on all you want about "getting it right" but no camera removes the blemishes or grades images.

The client wants looks these days that no camera delivers. Local contrast corrections, LUT looks/presets and then plain old blemish removal must be done in post.

The 70's had a lot of work on 35mm that was delivered in OOC form but again, that was the desire of the AD to present the gritty look of street/casual photography. Otherwise it was off to the retoucher for perfection.

Lee Christiansen's picture

So pray tell us - how would anyone have applied a LUT to film? Your contrast would be partly selected by the type of paper you used. In older times, sharpness wasn't as good as it can be now, and you were only judging at the size of the print - we can judge better than that now.

You seem to think that "youngsters" need to fix things in post, but the older brigade doesn't need it. Nonsense...

And you seem to mistake retouching for "fixing." What a shame because if your photographic creativity stops at the shutter button, then you're missing half of the process.

The argument is akin to the "I shoot JPEG because I never beed to adjust," or that true photography os only on film - and then we all ask how you get that perfect 1/10 exposure, overcome lens distortion, have perfect control over all ambient light and just how do you make a model's skin so good when all you have is a softbox.

And of course the argument about getting it right in camera, (a phrase that should be banned), ignores how certain modifiers create a lighting patter which is perfect for the style but awful for conveying good skin quality. Good lighting...? Which is it? Sometimes we have to choose our battles.

Perhaps your post production skills don't stretch to retouching - that's fine. But don't assume that people who like, insist or do it, are making up for youth, studio experience or ability.

In my opinion, people who stop at the shutter button are just those who've decided that it will just "do" and rarely explore the possibilities afterwards.

Yes you have your opinions - but they have so many holes in the logic that I fear there is more empty space than thought.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Ha you're funny. I truly have never met anyone so desperate to prove his worth by naming a few basic terms, (which are not relevant to the discussion).

Yes I can debate them if you'd like - but with 25+ yrs as a Director of Photography with international credits on broadcast, advertising etc and with about as much in commercial stills shooting for the biggest blue-chips - again internationally and for advertising campaigns and the like - and having shot film and digital... I'm not quite sure what you're intending to achieve with all your prostrating of CV's in a combative way - but I've earned my photographic stripes.

As to "my generation." I'm in my mid 50's, so grateful that you think me so youthful, but again your insistence that a younger generation doesn't know what you know is both insulting and narrow minded.

I've done adjustments in the darkroom - it was tedious, but I can be more precise with a Wacom pen, and I can be more accurate. In short, it does the same job but sooo much better.

I'm guessing you've never physically buffed a negative like the true talents of yesteryear when they retouched. Instead you know your limitations and stick to simple darkroom stuff - maybe you farm it out, who can tell as we never see your efforts - all we get is the "I am great" mantra.

Some of us do indeed conjure magic. I'll not be so bold as to to assume mine would be so magical, but I can wield a meter, handle a beauty dish and I know my stuff. My images look good enough for well paying clients without needing them fixed, but at least I have the ability to improve them further whereas you have to stop at the button press.

Interestingly I've not seen a single soul side with your weak arguments. So either you're the sole genius here, or well... the opposite.

Te reality is that you have a narrow vision, a bias that thinks only age can do it properly, a fear of us seeing your work - and a need for attention because presumably you don't get that in other walks of life.

I engage because I find you an interesting specimen - one which challenges normal behaviour, and one that amuses us all to see how daft your thought process can be. But on reflection I, (and I'm guessing most here), would prefer an ignore button.

For a person who professes creativity, you certainly have a sad lack of vision for the craft.

But even my patience wanes after a while. You've had your attention, but no more from me here. I've leave it to the others to ridicule your thoughts - which is what you crave, isn't it?

Indy Thomas's picture

I didn't have problems. Because I sent the quality trans to the retoucher.
They did masked dupes and assorted other brain breaking work.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Yep, still need retouching, though. If you're not doing it, It's not as good as you think it is.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Ah... but he always thinks he's as good as it can get... :)

Tony Clark's picture

I can appreciate the level of editing but I come from a different perspective, I started my career in the early ‘90’s when I saw images from Peter Lindbergh, Arther Elgort, Sante D’Orazo and Patrick Demarchalier to name a few. The images could be slick highly produced but were mainly minimal hair and makeup and I thought represented true beauty. I thought that Gilles Bensimon’s images for Elle were the most highly produced during that period, his all white lighting technique inspired my studio work a great deal but Peter’s book, Ten Beautiful Women set the standard for me. As written earlier, less hair and makeup then get it right in camera and I’m happy.