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Advice from NYC retouchers

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  • Advice from NYC retouchers


    I have a few questions for any experienced New York City retouchers out there. (or anyone who has been working in a commercial big city environment.)

    I'm about to change direction in my career and head towards retouching. I've been working in the commercial photo industry for a few years now in New York City and have come to understand it up close and personal. Being a fine artist, I'm not digging the commercial aspect of my career, however. By the time I get to work on my own fine art stuff, all I see are ads, and it's burning me out. It's like the having writers-block, for a visual artist.

    I do, however, love working with Photoshop. I took an advanced Photoshop class over at the School of Visual Arts and have learned a lot about retouching, both there and in the studio at work. I've been practicing a lot and have a few questions about starting over as a retoucher in New York City...

    1) I need to build my retouching portfolio. I have been working mostly in a still life studio and have plenty of shots to work with. But I don't want to limit myself to just still life. Any advice for obtaining images for a well-rounded portfolio? (ex: high end beauty, music industry, cover art, etc.) Someone told me he uses Adobe stock through Bridge. Has anyone else done this?

    2) I'm just not sure where to go with my portfolio and how to market myself as a beginner with no big-house experience. I've found New York to be a tough city to get one's foot in the door with no insiders to help. There are just so many people with more experience than me going for the same positions. Does anyone have any back door experience you could share?

    One thing I do know is that starting over is hard, no matter how I go about it. Any tips or stories anyone could share would be helpful in getting me pumped up and ready to go.


  • #2
    Re: Advice from NYC retouchers

    My first question is are you trying to land a full time gig or contract?

    As far as marketing yourself, I would promote your fine art education and background. Photoshop can only do so much, it is the person driving that makes the difference and not just technically. I am a firm believer that the best retouchers are artists as well technically savy. If you are unable to see in your mind what something would really look like, you won't be able to reproduce it in PS and if you can see it in you mind but don't have the technical knowledge of PS the result is like a kindergardener with finger paints.


    • #3
      Re: Advice from NYC retouchers

      Ultimately I would like to stick to contract work. But if landing a full time gig means I gain experience, then I'm all for it.

      I know what you mean by needing fine art skills. I didn't mention it before, but I actually started off printing in dark rooms and also used to retouch by hand (I used a real airbrush and photo paints) That was only about 10 years ago. It makes me feel sad to think about it. The guy who trained me said I would be his last trainee. He retired and I picked up Photoshop and a digital camera. The dark room in the back of the studio is now knicknamed the den of depression which just collects dust now.

      Anyhow, I entered the world of photography in the middle of a major evolution and am trying to get caught up. Students who entered about 5 years after me were fully exposed to digital photography, while they just mentioned it as an afterthought when I was in school. Go figure.


      • #4
        Re: Advice from NYC retouchers

        Find an ad agency with a retouching department in house. There is a lot to be learned from the standpoint of color, file preperation, workflow and dealings with art directors. There is often an enormous amount of retail that goes through an agency and you can refine your current skills doing these smaller, less involved jobs and pick up a plethora of new ones by the sound of your current experience/skill level. You might also find that your fine art background is given more weight. It's commercial, but it may be a good starting point.

        In regards to doing people, I would do a craig's list deal targeting new photographers and offer to do them for free. This way, you get images that have been published for your book without the stress of doing it 'right' nor huge deadlines. People are an art into themselves and taste goes a long way. There are a plethora of people who call themselves retouchers who know a boatload about photoshop, etc. but can't retouch themselves out of a box or just have really bad taste. You may wish to seek employment at a lower end place that offers retouching = something in conjunction with digital capture, or at one of the mega labs like Dugall.

        In building your book, do it right. Standard NYC books are 11 x 14 and contain 30-50% before and after work. Make sure your prints perfect. This is your portfolio, no 'nice' stuff - only the very best. If you are unsure, kill it.

        Don't use stock and don't use friends' photos unless they are top-knotch. Keep in mind that having a good book may get you in for a couple of days freelancing, but not being able to perform, doing things too slowly or having to be told everything to do isn't going to get you to stay. Really know retouching or don't sell yourself that way. Interning is a really good way to learn. Find out if any of the houses need someone to cut masks and prep files for the seniors. Best way to learn.

        Good luck.


        • #5
          Re: Advice from NYC retouchers

          I was in your same position not to long ago. At the time, I was a fine art photographer working a secretary job to support my craft. I was very skilled in photoshop because of the bizarre nature of my photographs, but i never thought of using it to make money. I had met my now ex boyfriend, and he was a photo retoucher for mens fitness, and a freelance photo assistant. He gave me one pic to work on, and was amazed at the results. Sooo I went looking on line for pictures i could do to ad to my portfolio. I also posted an ad on craigslist asking for people to donate some pictures. After i had about 6 samples. And felt confidant in my abilities. I went to and contacted as many photographers as i could. Sending them an e mail that went something like this: "Hi, I came across your portfolio on line and really love your work. I am a freelance retoucher, looking to gain more work but i need to build my portfolio. I have the skills, but i dont have access to the pictures i'd really like to be working on. I will do a picture for free, to show you how i work, and if you like what you see, then we can discuss future work together." Well it sounded better then that, but u get the idea.

          Nobody likes to work for free, but if you dont have the pics to prove your abilities then your screwed. it took me roughly 4 months to get everything together and now im working steadily with a cool photographer. I still need more clients...its always good to network with other retouchers/photographers.

          PS my bf was no help, so i didn't have that can do it without knowing anyone, you just got to practice and network a bit. e mail me if you want to talk further

          [email protected]



          • #6
            Re: Advice from NYC retouchers

            Some pretty solid advice so far. Ant brings up a good point about taste; I've done some retouching that I don't show because the taste is questionable.

            I would recommend for the portfolio to have finished files (and I would recommend that most should be before and afters) ready to go for about 200% of the volume of your physical book, then tailor your book to the client/photographer/studio that you're showing to. Vary the styles as much as you can: break them up into genres in your head, and organize your files on your computer to fit these genres. Crossing genres is good, but creating a piece from scratch to showcase all of your skills is often a mistake. Kitchen sinks are rarely sexy. I disagree about making your book just like all the other 11x14 black portfolios with scratched overlays...we've all seen that, and a good way to stand out from the pack is to make your portfolio reflect your personality. Keep the image count down, though. Essential to quality retouching is skill at editing, and 30 pieces in your book is very off-putting, and makes it clear that editing is not your forte.

            When presenting your book, don't launch into a diatribe about how hard the image was to work on; keep your cool and wait for questions, or keep the descriptions to a minimum. The work should be able to sell itself.

            Definitely highlight your fine art background. It may be coincidence, but almost every really talented retoucher I've even seen had either a strong interest in art, or fine art training.

            Best of luck to you.


            • #7
              Re: Advice from NYC retouchers

              Originally posted by Little Fisher View Post
              Ultimately I would like to stick to contract work. But if landing a full time gig means I gain experience, then I'm all for it.

              Hey, who wouldn't, but that's not for you right now. Your goal is to be able to do a lot of different things really well pretty damn quickly, because, after all, time is money. For you, your boss, and his client. Figure it out. If the retouching house charges X an hour to Big Time Client for retouching work, he needs a bunch of people in a room doing it for about 1/3 of X to make a nice living for himself and his salespeople and his wife and kids and...........unless it's given away for free, as some do.....

              And, after all, medical insurance is expensive, so find a full time gig with benefits. Above mentioned mills are a great start. The more work, the better, right now for you. Actually, the more work the better throughout your career. The learning never ends.

              NEVER look at something and think it can't be done. Because there's somebody with a Mac down the street who will figure it out. And he/she isn't resting on his art degree. The client could give a damn. He just wants it done right and on time, with a smile and a wink.


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