When the topic of photo retouching comes up, it always begins and ends with an assumption: It's bad for women. It's someone screwing up and badly attaching Demi Moore’s head onto the body of a runway model (deleting her thighs along the way), or a brand making a point to forgo the process entirely, like when Aerie kept stretch marks and cellulite on its lingerie ad campaigns. But for the most part, you don’t notice retouching, because good retouching looks invisible. Which means that you probably also haven’t noticed the dramatic shift in the industry over the past 15 years: Retouching just isn't so bad for women anymore. If you're feeling skeptical at all, hear them out:
“We think models and people are beautiful the way they are naturally,” says Linn Edwards of Feather Creative, a post-production studio that’s representative of a new guard of retouchers. That philosophy — that women are beautiful, just as they appear — might seem contradictory for a business that’s literally based on the idea that images need to be manipulated before they’re “done.” But, Feather Creative, along with a growing demographic of mostly young, mostly female retouchers, believe that smart, specific changes can highlight a person’s individuality, not erase it.
“We try to retain character. ‘Imperfections’ are what makes us beautiful,” says Edwards. Instead of reshaping, shellacking, and airbrushing women to look more like model versions of one another (thin, tan, young, and tall with shiny hair and clear skin), the retouching trend today is more focused on making sure you see individual quirks, without distraction. Doing that involves its fair share of deletion and manipulation, no doubt, but it’s a marked shift away from what you might assume professional retouchers are hired to do.
Of course, seeing this in action will make this all make more sense than explaining it. Below, we’ve asked Feather Creative to walk us through what makes an image "good for women," what makes it "bad," and why retouchers are still a necessary part of positive image-making.
First, Some Background:
Let's start with the raw, unretouched image. Looks pretty good already, right? That's not an accident. An image, straight from the lens, is 99% of the way there because of the group of professionals who worked to ensure this was so. In this case, the model Selah Fong's hair and makeup were professionally done. A stylist made sure that the wrinkles in Fong's shirt and pants were minimal. The photographer positioned Fong in the sun, and her surroundings just so to make sure the lighting and composition were balanced.
"A call time could be at 8 a.m. and they may not start shooting until noon," Edwards states. "It takes hours to do makeup, hair, and style the clothes. Sometimes they have a manicurist on set to just do the nails. It's not an automated process, it’s very hands-on." But if you look at images all day long for your job, a few things are going to be wildly annoying: "There's stuff in the background — those leaves," notices Salma Khalil, Edwards’ partner at Feather Creative. "There’s a little shadow that was a stick. The light and colouring need to be played around with." The photo is also backlit, which means Fong's face is in the shadow, whereas large sections of her body are in direct sunlight.
There's also the twisted belt and lopsided belt buckle. According to Edwards, retouchers oftentimes spend more time on clothing than bodies: "If the shirt comes untucked, or if a pant leg doesn’t fall exactly the way a designer intended it to, that’s where retouching comes in." Khalil also points out that the clothing available on set is usually samples lent out by fashion brands, which typically come in one size. That means that stylists and retouchers have to fake a good fit: "Shoes will be too small or too big, and models' toes will be hanging out, or there’s a huge gap in the back of her heel. Once, I was working on a photo of a shoe — and between the time we shot the shoe and when the product was coming out, the brand decided to add patent leather to it. We had to invent patent leather out of thin air."
But before we show you what Khalil and Edwards do best, we have to show you an image you're probably familiar with: The "bad" one.
What "Bad" Looks Like
"We did a lot to this image," says Khalil. "We erased marks on her face and lightened her chin and lips, and we also shaped her arm and removed any marks on that. We went too far in removing darkness under her eyes. That’s something we typically leave, because it's literally the anatomy under your skin holding your eyeballs in place. When we see images like this one, it looks too airbrushed, or too much like a mannequin instead of a human with skin, and bones under their skin."
You probably associated retouching with airbrushing, and that's because before digital photography existed, airbrushing was literally how photo editors would touch up images. By painting onto photos with a spray gun, retouchers would effectively make skin — full of pores, wrinkles, freckles, bumps, and lines — into a surface as smooth as paint. In 2017 terms, airbrushing is the Flower Crown filter on Snapchat — fun to play with for sheer entertainment, but not quite human-looking enough for your headshot.
There's also the obvious matter that the "after" pic reshaped Fong to be at least four dress sizes smaller. "We reshaped her, made her waist skinnier," says Khalil. Edwards adds, "We pushed her hips and waist in and removed any semblance of rolls that would naturally be there because she's leaning. We went too far on her waist and her arms. We reshaped her chest, too." Along with warming up and lightening the overall colour of the photo (which accounts for the difference in Fong's skin tone), the "After" image of Fong looks like the Uncanny Valley version of the real her. If this seems drastic, it is. Feather Creative would never take on a client that requested this sort of retouching, much less pursue this look themselves. But a decade ago, this was standard practice for magazines and advertisements.
"About 15 years ago, Gisele Bundchen and J.Lo represented the 'ideal' woman’s body, from women’s magazine to Victoria’s Secret. It was more of a lean, fit, busty, tall, and tan model," says Danielle Swift, also of Feather Creative. Even today, there's still a push toward hiring models who have hourglass figures — especially if they're not a size 2.
We spoke to a former photo director of a major women's magazine about his experience with retouching (he asked to remain anonymous, because he still works in the industry — we'll call him Mark), who expanded on the dangers of a cookie-cutter "ideal": "Sometimes, we took a different body and attached it to a head. It’s a secret of the industry — it’s called a headswap. You’ll take the 'best' body and the 'best' head from a different frame. It’s dangerous when young girls are looking up to someone on a magazine cover, and we depict a body that’s literally not possible."
Here's the thing: Fong is beautiful in the unretouched photo, and she is beautiful in the after photo. But is she more beautiful? Depending on how you answer that question, you might not be able to find work as a retoucher these days — and that's a big difference from before.
"Photography has been around for 200 years. Digital photography has only been around 20 years. It still hasn’t found its solid ground yet," reminds Edwards. "When digital photography came of age, and people wanted to push the limits because you could do whatever you wanted with an image in Photoshop. But now, going so far is out of vogue."
So, how about the "good" after shot?
And Now, The "Good" Version:
"The current trend of retouching mimics analog photography," says Edwards. "Salma and I met in 2003 at Pratt, and got our graduate degrees in fine art photography. We mostly worked with film." What that means, practically, is removing some of the harshness of photos taken with sophisticated digital cameras to more accurately reflect what our naked eye sees. "Cameras are getting sharper and sharper, and they pick up so much more detail than what we can typically see," says Khalil. "It’s great for bags and products and jewellery, but it’s not so great for skin. Post-production is fighting that."
Natural also means not reshaping a body, under no conditions. "We will clean up temporary marks like indents left from a sock or smudged makeup. If her hair is blowing across her face or her clothes, we’ll find another shot where the hair was blowing in a different direction and make a composite using different photos. We’ll change that kind of thing. But, we always leave permanent marks like moles, freckles, and the shape of someone's body and face," says Edwards. It helps, too, that more people are on board with body diversity: "We’re starting to see a trend toward more body and racial diversity in terms of who gets cast on shoots. What Refinery29 is doing with the 67% Project is filtering to other brands. It’s becoming more of a trend to represent a wide variety of skin colours, shapes, and even ages." And, that means leaving rolls, cellulite, and wrinkles on bodies where they belong.
So what did they change? They cleaned up the background, sharpened the print on her pants, and exposed the image with Fong's face as the centre to correct for the backlight. "It’s removing things that would distract your eye from focusing on her face — that’s the focal point of the image," says Khalil. Sometimes there will be a glaring piece of glass or gum on the ground, and your eye will go to that. We’ll remove that to make it compositionally neater. On location shoots, there will often be people in the background gawking at the shoot. I’ve removed those people."
But, Feather Creative put the most time into getting the colour balance just right. "It takes hours to get the colour just right. It's not just pushing a button, like you do on Instagram," says Edwards. Above, that means adjusting the green on Fong's shirt to look exactly like it does in real life. It also means making sure that Fong's skin tone looks as close to how it appears under natural light.
The issue of skin tone is a tricky one. Get it right, and no one will notice; get it wrong, and you open yourself up to charges of racism. "Some magazines have changed black skin to being a lot lighter — there are definitely examples of it," Mark claims. Skin can look shades different inside, outside, in the shade, when it's cloudy out, or when there's a flash — and those differences are magnified for skin tones that fall in the middle of the range, like Fong's. "If you’re putting someone by a window or on a beach — that light can make you look lighter. If you put someone under direct sun, it’s going to look a lot different than inside or in the shadows," explains Mark. But even if skin-lightening is unintentional, the result is still as damaging, which is why modern retouchers are hyper vigilant about matching skin tones, and making sure checks are in place so mistakes don't happen.
"Millennials can smell bullshit from a mile away. There’s accountability now."
"We build into our timelines time to do quality checks and quality control reviews," says Edwards. "We try to have at least two to three people look over each image. Accountability is the only way to prevent botches, and at the end of the day, we’re accountable for the images our studio creates." Feather Creative works with the photographer, the stylists, brands, art directors, clients, and the subjects themselves to make sure the end result is exactly what clients want. Interesting, celebrities are some of the biggest sticklers about making sure their bodies are left alone: "Celebrities are very careful about images, and [concerned] that it won’t look like them," Swift reveals. Mark supported the celebrity claim: "You rarely got feedback from celebrities — it was more the 'real' people we shot [asking for retouching]. You'd be surprised how many people would say, 'You’re going to fix my arms, right?' I had a publicist of a super-major celebrity who joked, 'If I see this retouched, I will come for your job.' Her client was known for her natural beauty. If we had touched her photo, I would have been fired."
And it's not just clients and celebrities who act as a check to retouchers. It's us consumers, too. "Millennials can smell bullshit from a mile away," says Mark. "There’s accountability now. In the past, it just wasn’t on anyone’s radar." And now that we have access to retouching tools on our phones, we're much more savvy about what bad retouching looks like. We're also more used to seeing images created by women, for women, of women — and that expectation on social media has affected hiring practices on set: "Women are playing a bigger role in how they are represented in images we see. That's a result of social media," says Edwards.
That's the best part about this new wave of retouching; that it's catering to a female gaze, and not the male gaze. Your favourite photo of your mom, your sister, your best girlfriend, and your daughter are probably not what Bill O'Reilly would pick. It's no surprise that all the members of the Retouchers Accord, an organisation dedicated to spreading honest, authentic retouching practices, are all women, including Edwards and Refinery29's cofounder and executive creative director Piera Gelardi. Feather Creative is part of a growing movement of image creators who are committed to this new style of retouching, in which personal quirks and unique features are highlighted, rather than hidden.
"We try to be conscious of putting out a body-positive message," says Khalil. "Fashion photography and art influences how consumers think about themselves. We’re used to seeing rolls, cellulite, and wrinkles on bodies as natural. Here's hoping one day, all young women will think about them as valuable and beautiful."