What's the Big Deal?
Who determines what is aesthetically pleasing? It was not long after I began learning the techniques of skin retouching that that question began to percolate in my brain. Do you know how straightforward it is to remove a blemish in the skin? Do you know how easy it is to manipulate shapes? When is it okay to do so? Why does anyone care? Should you care?
I thought it would interesting to dive into the wonderful world of retouching as a break from the senior portrait tips. Most people have an opinion on skin retouching. It has a bad wrap. I think the criticism is both well placed and unfair considering society's standards. Let me explain.
What is it?
Retouching is the application of certain techniques, usually done in Adobe Photoshop, to enhance an image and remove distractions. Most images that are used commercially have been retouched in some way or another. In the realm of digital photography, it is an optional part of the process to convert a raw image into a final product. The other day I edited out the license plate from a car, because it was a distracting element in the image. Besides some photographers, I don't think the majority of consumers care about edits such as that. The presence or absence of a license plate in an image is pretty neutral as far as changing the world goes. The subject of this blog post does not pertain to those types of edits. Rather it deals with a subset of retouching that modifies the skin or body to make it look better. When it comes to skin retouching, blemishes (acne, scars, freckles, etc.) are removed and the skin complexion is smoothed out to make the skin look clear. The goal is to improve the appearance of the subject in the image.
Where is the Controversy?
Retouching edits reality and the reality it creates is decided by the retoucher. Every time that they click a mouse button during the process, the image changes, and the person editing has essentially made a statement about what they believe is aesthetically pleasing, beautiful, or handsome. The resulting image will display the end results of those images.
Below are some images of female subjects with perfectly smooth skin. I did not take these images and thus have little knowledge about how much retouching occurred. They all have makeup applied, which is essentially the physical analog of what this blog post is about, so the level of retouching in the image was probably less to achieve the result displayed. The final image (right or bottom) is most definitely the result of significant image retouching in the skin and eyes. It looks airbrushed. Notice that in all of these images not only are there no blemishes, but the complexion is perfectly smooth. It does not look like normal skin.
So here is the rub. From a global perspective, when we only show heavily retouched images throughout the world, people start to form their concept of what skin should look like based on a fiction. Of course, only showing images of models with a certain body type does not help the situation either. (I have not even addressed the fact that one can change the shape of a person using Photoshop). At the local scale, unrestrained retouching can send the wrong signals to the subject being edited. They are a real person and may be affected by the decisions made during the retouching process. For example, if a mole is removed from the face of a woman in an image and she sees the image, she will be delivered the following message, "You would be prettier without your mole." How do you think she would feel? Probably a lot more self-conscious than before. Also, though images in this blog post have involved only female subjects, this whole business applies 100% to male subjects as well. As a man, I can tell you that we are human and deal with body image problems just like the ladies.
So Retouching is Bad Then, Right?
Not so fast. Take a look at the cover image, which I have shown again below. It is an image of a beautiful young woman with lots of freckles and two clear pimples. For illustration, I have retouched this image in two different ways. It is shown below three times. The first image is before any of my retouches. The second image is after removing the pimples, smoothing complexion, and applying a little bit of a technique called dodge and burn to make shadows more pronounced. The third image I purposefully retouched too much to make a point.
Let's focus on the second image first. Have standards of beauty been set to an unrealistic degree? Definitely no. Do you think the woman would feel bad about herself if she saw that the pimples were removed? Most likely not. Chances are that if the image were capture a week before or a week later, they would be gone anyway. So I believe that these edits were perfectly reasonable. They maintained the integrity of her appearance. In the end, an edit of this sort may very well boost the confidence of the subject because it allows them to show off their skin when their are no temporary blemishes.
Let's focus on the third image now. I removed almost all of the freckles on her face, added some shading to give some definition to her cheek bone, saturated the color in her lips and gave them a bit of a shine. Is all of that okay? Not in my opinion. The woman in that image looks fantastic, but it is not the same woman from the original photo. Without the freckles that are a defining characteristic to her skin, her identity has been changed. I believe that this was the grave error made here. The shading on the face and adding color to the lips is the same kind of result that would be achieved with the application of lipstick or blush. If the subject was not wearing makeup, like in this case, it seems inappropriate to add it in very noticeable ways during the retouching process.
How Much Retouching Is Too Much?
We have arrived at the million dollar question. As I have alluded to earlier, I believe that too much retouching is when the permanent features of the face are changed in the image. That is my opinion and it is not the opinion shared by everyone. Some people believe that even the removal of acne from the face is making a very normal skin characteristic seem unacceptable. I understand the point but don't think it is a perception shared by everyone. If you want to read more about that topic, there is a very interesting article available at https://www.slrlounge.com/retouching-acne-photoshop/ worth reading.
I also mentioned in the previous section that some of the shadowing and coloring made to the face are no different than what might be achieved with makeup. Because that is well within the societal norms, I believe it is reasonable in the context of retouching as long as it does not completely contradict the subject's preferences/use of makeup.
I would be remiss not to mention that the appropriateness of retouching is also dependent on the type of photography that is being practiced. In this post, I have been discussing the world of portrait photography. What is acceptable in portraiture is not acceptable in other other genres of photography. For example, a photojournalist who is trying to document a specific moment in time should not retouch their photos. How would you feel if someone manipulated a photo before submitting it to a newspaper for publishing? That certainly rubs me the wrong way.
Where Do You Land?
I hope that at this point you are informed about what skin retouching is, why it is a topic of discussion, and that it is not necessarily an awful thing if done with a subtle hand. There is no doubt that the limits of acceptable retouches vary from practitioner to practitioner and viewer to viewer, like so many other things. How do you feel about it?