Deconstructing High-End Beauty Retouching
Part I: The Problem With Representational Post-Production
Having worked closely with thousands of students over the last decade, the most common obstacle I’ve witnessed practitioners encounter in the advancement of their retouching skills hasn’t been caused by a limited understanding of software tools, commands or functions.
The most significant factor in holding students back has been a fundamental lack of appreciation for, and comprehension of, the impact both cognitive and mechanical procedures play in determining the quality of any pictorial finish. This is caused, in no small part, by the very nature of photography itself and largely dictated by how we view images.
Why photography prevents us from better understanding retouching
We tend to evaluate photography in terms of its surface qualities, as a finished pictorial artefact. Students of retouching commonly approach the act of visual problem-solving in a similar manner, emphasising the representational above all else. Elevating the peripheral effect to this status generally doesn’t compel retouchers to refine their understanding of the complete retouching process.
It affords them little insight into the ideal Tiered Retouching Model, which emphasises an equal balance of quality, speed and flexibility; heightens the retouchers value sensitivities; and promotes a more cohesive awareness of the process beyond the technical. A tiered approach is not only concerned with the finish. It factors in which edits to make at each particular stage, how subtle or varied each edit needs to be, how one edit interacts with another, and how all of this impacts upon both the finished image and the editing work-in-progress, the process itself. Understanding this process is vital for both post-production practitioners and photographers alike.
The real secret to becoming a better retoucher isn’t so much that you’ll continually discover newer, superior techniques being revealed to you as your skills increase. The reality is that, at it’s core, one could make a fairly persuasive argument that there are a fixed number of scalable, fundamental principles to photographic post-production and, once you’ve learned these, you’ll be able to confidently approach and overcome any number of pictorial problems of varying degrees of complexity.
It’s a given that modern technologies will continue to grant us seemingly newer editing abilities, access to higher resolutions, more granular control, more intelligent algorithms and vastly more complex colour models. Until photography however, at least photography in so far as post-production is concerned, evolves beyond the act of mark-making on surfaces both chemical and digital, the only editing factors that truly matter will be edges, surfaces, tones and colours. Four considerations. Make that three if you’re working in black and white.
The real secret to becoming a better retoucher is encouraging the development and refinement of your ability to confidently visualise, interpret and analyse values, and understanding that it’s these skills, above all else, that will both inform and advance your mechanical efforts, not the other way around.
The real challenge is in finding a way to achieve this.
How photographic representation affects retouching presentation
Ironically, it’s actually more difficult to learn these insights, despite the wealth of learning options currently available to us. We now have access to more information, both in terms of detail and volume, regarding other practitioners working methods than we’ve ever had. However it’s commonly presented in a manner that emphasises the representational above all else. Essentially, we’ve never been so well equipped with knowledge of how we can overcome any number of pictorial obstacles with our software while simultaneously being so unaware of why we should. Seasoned practitioners know that once a retoucher develops a heightened comprehension of the why, it feeds back into the how. Without that understanding however, ones working process often becomes ill informed. This is how bad habits begin.
So how can we strengthen our comprehension into the why of retouching? The most common approach is to turn to evaluating finished work, as it’s available to us, for further insight into the retouching process. The problem is, we really only get to evaluate finished work these days through a very narrow lens. It’s most commonly presented to us in it’s final state, stripped of all context to the un-retouched original. Occasionally, we get a chance to view it in a before and after comparative state, which is a deceptive method of display.
If we’re lucky to have any understanding of the process ourself, we can also attempt to evaluate the work in a slightly more insightful manner. The problem with this is we’re only going to be able to interpret our insight as defined by the comprehension we already have. This can be useful for those who have been practicing for years, but it’s value as a learning aide plummets for those who have already started building their workflows on top of those frustratingly common bad habits.
Additionally, these methods of evaluating retouching don’t afford an insight to anyone beyond the domain of aspiring, enthusiast or professional practitioners. We now commonly interact with hundreds, in some cases thousands, of images every day. The benefits of understanding and interpreting retouching, in terms of how it interacts with photography, how it modifies the message communicated by photographic imagery, how it feeds into the very act of looking and seeing, even at a basic level, are significant.
Imagine if we could only understand or appreciate the act of reading if we were writers ourselves. Writers may have a heightened awareness of the complexities of a given text, but anybody that can read can consume, understand and appreciate it. Even with a generally solitary act like writing, where the creative process occurs separate from the consumption of the finished piece, the manner in which the text reveals itself to the reader can grant non-writers the opportunity to witness the creators thought process unfurl as they progressively engage with the narrative as it’s presented to them. Photographic image consumption doesn’t present us with the same opportunities regarding retouching. Because of it’s very pictorial nature, we engage with it in a radically different manner. It would be like if we condensed every narrative rhythm, beat, cadence and dynamic from an entire text into a single word, then encountered that word in an instantaneous impulse, with all of the subjective experiences that word conjured reverberating after.
That nature in which we engage with photographic images, and by association, the manner in which we are most commonly able to evaluate photographic post-production, is sadly the biggest barrier to becoming more aware of the process of post-processing. We never really get to see the process of editing stripped of it’s context to the original un-retouched image. It’s not common to present retouching, by it’s very nature a photographic act in a way that allows viewers to evaluate the work on it’s own merits as a photographic act, and to reflect on how much of the final presented image has been modified, in what manner it’s been modified and to what extent it’s been modified. We evaluate beauty retouching on the final merged composite state of the image, or in regards to before and afters, which are a misleading way to assess beauty retouching.
When presented with a before and after comparison, the initial foundation value we’re presented with tends to set the standard of how we respond to the subsequent value. I’ve explored this very tendency in hundreds of lectures and presentations. When presented with the retouched after first, viewers tend to be more critical of the un-retouched before state.
With the same image and presented first with the un-retouched before photograph, audiences become more critical of the retouched after. Either way, a before and after comparison of retouching is generally presented for shock status more than anything else, and does not represent the process of modifying pre-exisiting optical gradients in an accurate or thorough manner.
While I’ve previously discussed both the detective and depictive qualities of more traditional photographic post-processing, and how they relate to the act of photography itself, one would do well to become more aware of these, in relation to the modification heavy approaches of beauty retouching, to gain a more thorough insight into the extent of the entire image editing process.
Evaluating the beauty retouching process with finished beauty retouches
Let’s use two finished retouches to explore how these qualities impact upon both the final image itself, and to evaluate how accurately they convey the beauty retouching process on it’s own merits. Firstly, its important to highlight that both of these images were completed for the sole purpose of being used as instructional aides. Their finishes are not necessarily representative of any kind of ‘universal’ or specific commercial standard, however the approaches used to finish them are. In their finished state, they should not be viewed as depictions of the aesthetic standard anyone else should set out to replicate, or the only kind of pictorial finish other retouchers should be able to recreate. If the un-retouched raw files were given to 100 different Creative Directors, they would likely be completed to 100 vastly different aesthetic and graphic standards. Additionally, they have not had any kind of global or grade-dominant colour adjustments applied.
Beneath the finished, merged composite surface, what we’re looking at here are two discrete retouching approaches being applied to their respective un-retouched raw files. While both of the images display a similar range of depictive qualities, and both fall firmly into a relatively well established beauty aesthetic, the approaches I implemented in regards to retouching them varied significantly. Despite their fundamental differences, the two approaches have been applied with the purpose of achieving the same end goal: simply, a standard high-end beauty finish. The final images share an aesthetic consistency and, with all the modifications merged and visible, I’ve attempted to complete them to a similar pictorial standard while utilising the different approaches, tools and methods.
Both approaches utilised a Tiered Retouching Model. In so far as just the retouching is concerned, the first image utilised an approach that favoured micro-adjustments, with a heavy emphasis on spot alterations, micro-transition modifications, relatively small brush radii and surface value sampling. Surface value sampling relies on the separation of surfaces into positive and negative values, and emphasises the replacement of negative values with pre-existing positive values. In the hands of a skilled practitioner, micro-adjustment retouching affords the retoucher a much more natural finish due to it’s re-use of natively occurring variation. The second image utilises a significantly more heavy-handed macro-adjustment approach, which leans more prominently on whole surface adjustments, macro-transition substitutes, comparatively larger brush radii and surface value replacements. Replacing native surface variation foregoes any pretence of reusing positive surface values at all, and simply substitutes entire pictorial elements with artificially constructed values, resulting in a much less natural finish. Due to this, a retoucher utilising the surface value replacement method is generally required to spend more time refining and balancing their edits, in order to achieve the most transparent finish possible.
There are equal amount of pros and cons with both approaches, and the methods favoured by retouchers generally come down to personal preference. Some practitioners will not only prefer the finished pictorial qualities of one over the other, but find they can utilise the tools and methods faster; that the value shifts one approach makes over the other align more closely to their own unique value assessment, interpretation and intuition; or one approach affords them more flexibility during the revision process relative to their professional outcomes. As always, there isn’t a universally better or correct approach, and most professional retouchers will seek to master variations of as many different working methods as possible, so that they are best able to overcome the broadest amount of workflow obstacles for the largest given set of circumstances. A modular workflow serves this purpose.
While I’ve gone to great lengths to stress that there truthfully is no strict Universal Standard when it comes to the finished qualities of beauty portraits, universally there are thousands of individual interpretations regarding the desired pictorial outcomes. These interpretations will shift due to hundreds of varying social, cultural and professional variables, but I am a firm believer that there are significant amounts of identifiable overlap across the many varying points of view. For example, it’s not a stretch to claim that the main focal point for beauty portraiture is generally always going to be the surface of the subjects face. Depending on the brief at hand, other elements such as hair or accessories such as jewellery or glasses may nudge their way into the frame of view as well, but very rarely will they become the dominant feature, relegating skin surface to a lower priority.
To many non-practitioners, the end goal for beauty retouching is commonly classified along the lines of simply smoothing the skin, but this is overly reductive. While on the surface (no pun intended), the pictorial motivation of retouching can often result in smoother looking skin (amongst many other qualities, ideally), for practitioners the main focus of the beauty retouching process should always be on both macro- and micro-variations in the pictorial surfaces and edges of the file. Generally the goal is going to be either:
- reducing the contrast of micro-variations in the edges of the file, and/or
- creating more flattering transitions in the surface gradients of the file.
What constitutes more flattering is relative to the file at hand, and will depend largely on a range of factors, including:
- Image aesthetics
- Commercial purpose of the image
- Subject gender and/or age
- Depictive optical qualities (lighting, composition, pose, makeup)
- Social/cultural considerations
- Client/subject input
So for example, the approach required for a photograph of a subject with a very matte looking skin complexion is going to be different for a subject with a very glossy, high-key reflective complexion. Retouchers are still dealing with both the edge micro- variations and the surface macro- and micro-variations, but the pictorial qualities of both matte and glossy surfaces and edges require the retoucher to both think through, and work through, two very different sets of problems. Further to that, surface and edge qualities shift between positions of the same element, so the surface and edge qualities of the skin directly under the eyes are very different to the surface and edge qualities of the skin on the forehead, which differs greatly to the jaw, and again shift when contending with the cheeks, and so on. If a retouchers goal is transparency above all else, then the main consideration of any tool, method or approach used to achieve it should be that it mimics as closely as possible the pre-existing detective and depictive qualities of the pictorial element being edited.
Keeping all of this in mind, we can return to the two images from the beginning of this section, to see just how few, if any, of these considerations are apparent when viewing a beauty photograph in it’s final state. A photograph, no matter the subject or intended aesthetic style, is representational above all else, as both a pictorial artefact and in regards to the manner in which we view it, and that includes all post-production baked into it’s final form. We really have no way of understanding any more about the photographic process of photographic post-processing, and how that might affect the finished image, the work-in-progress image and the photographic act of capturing the image itself, before any digital post-modification even begins. Most importantly, without any further insight into both the modification process that runs parallel to the finished modifications we can gain little insight into how to identify, read and interpret photographic values and the impact they have on our own aesthetic standards and goals.
All of these shortcomings are a barrier to developing a more sophisticated insight into the process of retouching, in turn obstructing both practitioners from learning more flexible, modular or tiered post-production approaches, and non-practitioners from developing a more relevant pictorial vocabulary. Additionally, modern beauty photography as it’s most commonly presented is the biggest obstacle for aspiring modern beauty photographers to refine their craft. Before and afters don’t help either, as they are simply a testament to the pictorial division between two vastly different states. They’re like being given the first instruction and the final instruction from a set of navigational directions; it’s of alarmingly little use to us to when all we can see is where we begin, and where we end.
So how can we move forward? How can we overcome these obstacles and become better viewers, better translators, better interpreters and better practitioners of contemporary digital photography? And how can we adapt any insights we might uncover into the modern digital process to aide us in revisiting and reevaluating photography, as both practise and artefact, from it’s analogue opitcal and chemical origins? In an upcoming part II of this series, I’ll present the first of two methods we can use to analyse modern beauty retouching, on its own merits, to help us overcome these barriers and along the way, uncover a surprising insight into the very heart of photography itself.