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What makes a great retoucher?

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Old 08-11-2008, 12:33 AM
iganatz iganatz is offline
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What makes a great retoucher?

My name's Adam Sanders and I'm one of Box Studios' senior artists. Occasionally, when our name's in the press, I poke around the internet to see how people are reacting to the story and that's how I ended up on this site tonight. The opinions I'm writing tonight are my own alone and do not represent Box in any way. Though it had nothing to do with Box, I found a thread that was recently sealed that made me sad: I can't imagine why someone like this 'HughSteenk' felt a need to post such a vitriolic screed on a site which obviously exists as a pleasant community in which hobbyists and aspiring artists can share ideas and improve their skills. Believe me, he does not speak for anyone in the industry but himself. Our community is small and needs to be constantly replenished with new artists and his post was obviously not helpful in any way. I felt a need to respond with some advice and hopefully some constructive criticism.

The saddest thing about his bitter screed is he's actually made some excellent recommendations that will be justifiably ignored by the people he's offended: "...Use a tablet. Get your monitor calibrated and do it regularly. Go to the museum. Look at high end magazines. Take a drawing class. Analyze light. LOOK at people. Get away from the computer. Take a photography class." These are all good ideas for anyone who wants to fabricate imagery, whether you just want to restore old family photos or you want to pursue it as a career. Nothing is more important to a retoucher's development than a passion for and familiarity with photography. Studying images by the great masters, observing how light works around you, and making pictures for yourself are the best immersive environments you can place yourself in.

If you frequent this site, and you're not a pro offering advice or instruction, you probably fall into one of two categories: hobbyist or aspiring retoucher. A lot of advice applies for both; people are always asking for technical advice in the hopes of finding shortcuts, but Henny Youngman covered that one way back in the day ("Q: Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall? A: Practice."). Q: What's the best way to retouch skin? A: Depends. The toolset remains the same, but the image always dictates which combination of myriad techniques you will use. It's pretty much always a combination of the clone tool, healing brush, dodging and burning, and color brushing. But which tools will you flip back and forth between the most? The combination of techniques used for a strongly backlit image would differ from those used for an image frontlit by two soft lights. Professional retouchers aren't being cagy when they don't respond directly to your pleas for technique, the sad truth is the answer to most questions about something as subjective as retouching and printing is 'depends on the picture...'.

Now if you're a hobbyist, you have the luxury of time. You can spend decades developing your skills. But if you really want to do this for a living, you need more intensive practice. I don't care if you live in the most rural backwater in the world, you have a friend who is a closet photographer. Get together with this person, put together whatever cash you can spare and buy a camera and some lenses together. There's lots of good used stuff on eBay. Find or create interesting lighting situations. Place your exhibitionist or drunk friends in your compostions. Let your friend shoot like a maniac and you print all of his/her work. That's the best advice I can give anyone. You'll have enough work to keep you so busy, you won't even realize how much you're improving daily. Also, go out and look at some fashion magazines. Good ones. W and Italian Vogue and Self Service and the like. Why? The fashion business is where most of the great artists ply their trade. It's also the business that demands the best retouching and printing. Pull out the pictures that touch you in some way and as you finish your work, look at those photographs against yours and critique yourself. Why is this image more successful or interesting than mine? Is my contrast a little too harsh? Are the skintones breaking a little? Are the colors on this side of the image overpowering the colors on the other side? Do I like it that way? Oh, look at that electrical outlet I left on the backdrop, my eye keeps getting drawn to it... That kind of self-reflection is incredibly instructive. Important traits for retouchers are patience and discipline. You must have the discipline to tell yourself when a picture's not right and needs more work, and the patience to deal with your own mistakes. Know what I often do when I'm just not feeling a story or campaign I'm working on? I start from scratch, regardless of how much work I've put in. I tell myself: that's just not working, I need to look at this with fresh eyes, and return to the source. That kind of discipline will impact your lifestyle for sure. Putting in 14 hours instead of going to that awesome concert hurts sometimes. But if you really want to be great at something, you need to make sacrifices, I don't care what you choose to do for a living.

Which brings me to my next point: maybe you aren't interested in living in New York or London or any other big city for that matter. If you're a hobbyist, you can live anywhere but if you want to make your living pushing pixels, you're going to have to be near a hub of humanity of some kind. Maybe you live in Missouri and you're not willing to move to NYC, but you could move near commuting distance from St. Louis and find the guy who's printing all the great local artists' work and get a gig as his assistant. Get a job at a printing company in your area and do prepress work as long as they also afford you the opportunity to do some retouching as well. Make a deal with a local wedding photographer to gain experience while you contemplate your next move. On the other hand, if you do want to go to a big city, there are plenty of opportunities for serious people. However, no one's going to pay relocation fees for an assistant. Save up enough cash to live off for a while, or do what everyone else does when they move to the city: get some crappy job while you pound the pavement. Hopefully, you'll eventually get a job as an assistant at a retouching studio. It's a lot of wax on/wax off stuff: repetitive tasks like cleaning files, cutting masks, cropping images for layout, etc. but it's the proving ground. While you're working on those files, take the opportunity to study the layer structure that the artist you picked the file up from created. Why did she do a curve, then a selective color, then a color balance? Look for logic in the approach. You'll begin to understand why they build the files the way they do. Then, after you've waxed that fence often enough, you'll find yourself capable of basic defense (Karate Kid, anyone?). If you show the ability to focus, accomplish those mundane but critical tasks without error, and learn from what you're seeing and doing, you'll move up.

Another point: when interviewing or showing your portfolio, don't ever purport to be more skilled then you are. Your prospective employer needs to know exactly what they're getting. Your skill level will reveal itself your first day on the job. If you've exaggerated your abilities, you come off as both underskilled for the position you've taken and disingenuous. I'd much rather have a very junior person with passion, a strong work ethic and a refined aesthetic on staff than someone who's not able to perform at the level they've claimed to be at. When you go into that interview with a small skillset but the ability to articulate your passion for photography and printing you make yourself attractive to any prospective employer.

Practice, practice, practice. Be patient. Eventually, you'll begin to feel better about what you're doing. Believe me, the day will come when a photographer will wrap you in a bear hug, thrilled with his imagery, ready to show it to his audience. I don't care if that audience is your extended family or the crowds at MOMA, it is the most rewarding moment for any printer. If you want it, you'll get there. And don't let any self-important jerks tell you otherwise.

Warm regards and good luck,

Adam Sanders
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Old 08-11-2008, 12:39 AM
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Ziaphra Ziaphra is offline
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Re: What makes a great retoucher?

Adam, I stand up and applaud you. This world needs more people like you. Thank you very much for taking the time to write that up, it holds some very sage advice.
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Old 08-11-2008, 01:09 AM
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The Baron The Baron is offline
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Re: What makes a great retoucher?

Excellent words. I fall into the category of enthusiastic amateur photographer learning to retouch. I have taken great advice from this site, but havn't yet uploaded as I am not ready. Maybe soon.
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Old 08-11-2008, 01:17 AM
HuBBa HuBBa is offline
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Re: What makes a great retoucher?

One of the best posts ive read in a long time =)

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Old 08-11-2008, 02:50 AM
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Iconogenic Iconogenic is offline
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Re: What makes a great retoucher?

Very valuable stuff from top to bottom. Thanks, Adam!
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Old 08-11-2008, 05:51 AM
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Diego81 Diego81 is offline
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Re: What makes a great retoucher?

best advice ever. Thank you for give us the inspirationals words to keep it up and don't surrender on this competitive pixel touchups world.

Ones again.
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Old 08-11-2008, 06:26 AM
SilvaFox SilvaFox is offline
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Re: What makes a great retoucher?

"Bear hug"? From a photographer?

Great post Adam. Thanks.

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Old 08-11-2008, 11:00 AM
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SteveB2005 SteveB2005 is offline
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Re: What makes a great retoucher?

You have provided some inside info that all the members here can benefit from. It's a real U-turn from what HughSteenk's opinion posted although some of the points he made are certainly valid. In fact I honestly couldn't stop laughing from reading his post and I think he could run that as a cynical act and open for Larry The Cable Guy and hit the comedy circuit. Perhaps it's the way he delivers the goods which is questionable to some readers.

And just a few days ago, I made reference to the Pascal article in the May issue of The New Yorker and made an inquiry on where we might examine some of his before/after retouching work. But fine post.
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Old 08-11-2008, 03:17 PM
danielcohen00 danielcohen00 is offline
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Re: What makes a great retoucher?

Great advice!! I am an aspiring re-toucher and haven't been doing this long. These posts give me great inspiration and its great to hear people supporting the industry.

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Old 08-11-2008, 05:57 PM
dweekley dweekley is offline
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Re: What makes a great retoucher?

Bravo Adam!
Thanks for taking the time for your post.
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