Retouching: the image tamer

Published:  December 17, 2010
Sam West
Retouching: the image tamer

Words: Sam Williams-West

If you’re looking for a fun way to procrastinate you should check out It’s been around for a while, but it’s still a great place to kill a few minutes and cast your eagle eye over some unintentionally hilarious commercial photography retouching mishaps. My personal favourite is from an Emma Watson fashion shoot, where much time has been spent in post-production painstakingly smoothing out the image, but in the process the retoucher seems to have accidentally made her look like an amputee. It just goes to show that a good retouching job really can make the difference between applauded success and spectacular failure. With this in mind Desktop had a chat to three post-production experts to find out how (and how not) to get the best results in the editing room.

Schick. Image courtesy Urbanmonk.

Schick. Image courtesy Urbanmonk.

Jonty Rumbold


First up is Jonty Rumbold. Rumbold heads the boutique printing and fine art studio, Urbanmonk. When he started out he worked as a photo-lithographer with a trade in what was then called Electronic Origination – Prepress. Back then retouching was done on film, and simple Photoshopping procedures would take days to complete, so he’s well-schooled in the importance of attention to detail.

According to Rumbold there are four main pitfalls retouchers can fall into if they’re not careful. “I think the most important thing to know as a retoucher is to know your limit – how far to take an image,” he says. “The second pitfall is that while technology is improving, the deadlines for commercial jobs are not! More often I am finding that the time to craft an image is getting less, as are the budgets. So retouchers can fall victim to rushing a job to meet a press deadlines and quality may suffer. The third would be a serious lack of print knowledge – press requirements and colour management – so instead of singing, the image croaks and falls short of client expectations, and finally, poor or lazy masking and image editing techniques.”

Sydney Writers Festival. Image courtesy Urbanmonk.

Sydney Writers Festival. Image courtesy Urbanmonk.

Rumbold suggests that in order to ensure we don’t fall into the same traps we must remember that capturing the image is just as important as enhancing it. “Study light, do a colour management course, keep your images looking sharp, clean and don’t use the bloody rubber stamp tool to clone. That’s a dead give-away… There is more to Photoshop than you think – the tools and filters are merely instruments you need to scratch more than just the surface.”

Once you’ve unlocked Photoshop’s full potential Rumbold says you can get the best results and have a lot of fun with any project. “I like creating and colour is my thing. It’s like peeling back layers to reveal something quite unreal,” he says. “I am quite lucky in that I get to be creative every day, well almost creative every day. The long hours can be tricky to deal with at times, and I often find myself sitting in the studio at 2am longing for the coffee shop downstairs to open.”

So how does a typical job play out during the hours at Urbanmonk? “Generally, the concept comes to us usually via PDF. We ascertain which elements are being photographed, which we will need to recreate, if any 3D is required, the time it will take to do the entire job, proof requirements, how will this job be printed etc. A quote will then be furnished to the client after which, once approved, we begin to weave our magic. Mostly this is done in a stage-by-stage process so the client is kept in the loop with a work in progress to make sure we are taking the correct creative direction. Some jobs require less intervention and experience is the winner here. Once we are happy with the job, the client approves proofing and a short time later they are staring at a hard-copy at the agency to make final comments, alterations or to approve it. After that comes file deployment and depending on where this image will print and to what ink specifications, we generate from our master RGB file various CMYK print ready files.”

Still, Rumbold says, all that work means nothing unless the finished product gets the message across. “I think any retouched image that looks great and conveys strong communication is a job well done. My most rewarding retouching project was for the Sydney Writers Festival a few years ago. It cleaned up on Award night, and the idea from the creative team at Saatchi Design was killer and most of the imagery was illustrated – I have a series of these prints for the walls in our studio and I still smile when I look at it.”

Jonathon Eadie

Electic Art

Jonathon Eadie is the managing director for Electric Art. He founded the company in 1993 and since then it’s grown to be one of Australia’s leading creative retouching and 3D specialists. With a recent expansion into America underway, the company is going from strength to strength. But with such widespread access these days to programs such as Photoshop, I ask Eadie what the expert retouchers at his studio really bring to the table to keep his clients coming back for more. “I think specialists in any area will always be rewarded, except maybe in a category that is outdated,” he says. “Our audience, the general public, are rapidly gaining their visual eyes and what they would accept last year is now considered inferior. So it’s only with 100 percent dedication to one craft that we will keep wowing the public. And to do that, we need to constantly be on top of our game and raising the bar.”

Olympus. Image courtesy Electric Art.

Olympus. Image courtesy Electric Art.

According to Eadie, the best way to get these sorts of results is to be methodical in your work. “Work backwards is the best way forward in my opinion,” he explains. “Imagine the final file and then take it apart in your head, and also don’t believe them when they ask you to experiment. If their client has approved a layout, then that is exactly what they want. We also often use 3D to pre-visualise retouching. It can provide a great base for the photography to sit on and can also give the retoucher clues on the missing reality.”

Striving to envisage a missing reality is all well and good, but on a practical level it takes a lot of expertise and a swag load of equipment. “A whole range of software can be used,” he says. “As I said earlier, we use 3D software a lot even if it’s a retouching job. We also shoot stuff here at Electric Art so there can be up to five pieces of software used in one job. Like the Rav4 job done late last year, for example. We used Maya, 3D Sudio Max, Photoshop and a program called Dicomed, which is an old paintbox-type software that’s particularly good with fine detail, plus conversion software for the shoot.”

Retouching by definition alters the ‘realness’ of an original image, women’s magazines in particular have been heavily criticised for using such ‘enhancement’ to help sell increasingly unrealistic body images. The same criticisms have never been levelled at Electric Art’s work, but I was still interested to hear Eadie’s thoughts on the ethical issues surrounding the retouching industry before he had to go. “I’ve never been happy with that kind of retouching and we don’t really do it,” he says. “However, a photo isn’t real either, it’s a replication of reality. Remember the original darkroom – photographers always played with images there too, it’s just that now we can do more. I agree it can go too far and besides the subjects and images looking horrible, they can cause serious issues in the community. There needs to be [some form of] measurement to watch this and for it to be policed. As for who is to do this, I don’t know.”

Birdman portrait. Image courtesy Electric Art.

Birdman portrait. Image courtesy Electric Art.

Jonathon Eadie’s retouching tips:

  1. Where applicable have a pre-production pro nut out exactly what is wanted and how it can be achieved. Then once you start the image clean-up, remove any messy little visual distractions or unwanted elements.
  2. Enhance – sculpt the image with colour and tone to bring out the important areas in individual elements and to control where the viewer’s eye travels in the image overall.
  3. Compositing – make sure the image components share similar properties, the most important being lighting and perspective. If these don’t match your workload goes up and the quality of the result goes down. Other things to look out for are differences in scale, distortion (e.g. from a wide angle lens), grain, sharpness and colour between separate image elements.
  4. Use a reference when possible. If dropping elements into a new scene, take note of the lighting, shadows and perspective in the original scene and use that as your guide.
  5. Play with the grade of the shot – crunching the blacks, adding a cross curve or a bit of desaturation are all very quick steps to do but can make a marked difference in the final look of the image.
  6. Use fresh eyes. Take a break for a few minutes and see what your first impression is when you see it again. This is a great way to find the parts of an image that jump out as not quite working. Other ways to get that first impression effect are to flip the image, do a proof or ask somebody else to see what they think.

Todd Riddiford

CI Studios

Todd Riddiford is the post-production manager at photo production andhigh-end retouching specialists CI Studios’. CI Studio retouchers handle everything from simple deep etching and colour adjustments to complex full-scale image manipulation and 3D rendering assignments.

When it comes to retouching Riddiford is quite clear on what separates the good from the bad and the ugly. “A great retouch job is one where you don’t notice or see the retouching. If the image has a sense of realism, even if it’s a totally unreal situation that’s being depicted, then that’s good retouching. I always love to see images where, even as a retoucher, I have no idea how they created it. And there are always images I see where I think: ‘Damn, I wished I’d worked on that’. It’s always a great collaboration though – good concept, good photography, good art direction and good retouching.”

CI Studios

Scaffold head. Image courtesy CI Studios.

According to Riddiford, it’s when people start trying to do too much with their retouching that they run into problems. “I think the most common mistake is to add extra elements into an image without paying much attention to the original lighting, ignoring the angle, direction and the shadows,” he says. “The other major pitfall I see is pushing the retouching of an image too hard, creating something that looks far too fake – it’s actually pretty easy to overwork an image to the point where it just looks wrong.”

Getting something looking right is the name of the game, but with everyone’s definition of ‘right’ often being completely different, I ask Riddiford what has been his most rewarding project to date. “I think my most rewarding project would have to be the Airbourne album cover,” he says. “While it may not be my most technically proficient job, it was one where I had the freedom to experiment a little, add my own creative touches, and have fun with it. At the same time, it was a job where I felt that the brief from the art director (Ben Couzens of GPYR) was absolutely nailed. It was somewhat of a personal project for him, and I think the photographer (Christopher Tovo) and I also had a fair investment in it, as it was an album cover, and something that would be around for a while, not just a press ad that might run for a few weeks and then disappear. We all wanted to produce something that looked cool and I’m really happy with how it ended up.”

Airbourne. Image courtesy CI Studios.

Airbourne. Image courtesy CI Studios.

Todd Riddiford’s retouching tips:

  1. When comping a job together be aware of the lighting of the
    various elements. The correct highlights and shadows can make
    or break a job.
  2. An overall treatment or grade above all of the layered elements
    can really help tie everything together.
  3. Layer Masks can be the most powerful thing at your disposal in
    Photoshop, learn everything you can about them, how they work
    and what you can do with them.
  4. Subtlety is sometimes the best approach. Don’t try and overly
    change an image, just enhance it. Retouching can rarely rescue
    a terrible image, as one of my lecturers was fond of saying of
    Photoshop: ‘Shit in, Shit out’.
  5. Be realistic with timings, don’t over promise. While we all need
    to work to deadlines on most jobs, the image is going to suffer if
    you hammer it out just to meet a deadline.
  6. Save, and save often.

Thumbnail image Insure Simply. Courtesy of Urbanmonk.

From Desktop magazine.

3 Responses

  1. Dan

    Wise words from 3 of the best. But I still use the clone stamp tool so I must be bad.

  2. There’s nothing wrong with the clone tool…It only gives bad results if used poorly. And since when is it called the “rubber” stamp tool?

    Interesting article nonetheless…

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