Case Study: Retouching Photos, Art or Science?


Retouching photos wasn’t always a hot trend amongst designers but in the same time, this activity wasn’t ignored, lots of designers and photographers being very passionate about it. There is no mistake saying that retouching photos is at the crossroad of design and photography, as web design is at the crossroad of design and programming. Of course, logo design is at the intersection of design and branding and so on.

The fascinating aspect of retouching photos is that, in my humble opinion, it is the most subjective type of work realized by a designer. When making websites or logos, there are some basic rules, but when you retouch photos there is nothing more than the common sense and the talent of the designer. Despite of this aspect, retouching photos is, undoubtedly, like a drug for the passionate. Willing or not, retouching photos is a combination of art and science. This association is flattering for the experts, but how could a beginner embrace a career in retouching photos? Should he be an artist, a designer or just a very good user of Adobe Photoshop? How could someone learn a special kind of art?

The good news is that no one was born expert in retouching photos, all of us was at a moment a rookie that wasn’t sure about what should he do next. The bad news is that everyone that realizes an income from retouching photos worked hard and sacrificed many nights only to become more competitive.

Retouch Photos Case Study

The delimitation between art and science is very superficial and no one may clearly draw the separation line. In spite of that, I insisted in making a clearer separation; I don’t have precise evidence, but, according to my humble judgment, it really works. So, it’s about science when you ask questions using “what” and “which” and art when you ask questions using “how”. It sounds weird, but I will present my deduction and I believe that the majority of you will get my point. From my point of view, retouching photos may be divided into three periods.

#1. Determining the type of project

The designers ignore this aspect and it’s a very BIG, BIG mistake. It’s true that you don’t effectively work and everyone wants to be productive but don’t fall into this trap. Being hasty doesn’t implicate saving time. A better approach is to let the “science part” determine the type of project. Retouching photos is an immense field and each project has its particularities. There are various types of projects: some images simply need some editing and nothing more (e.g. removing the backgrounds of the products from an online store), others need special improvements (e.g. retouching photos for a wedding album) while other images should be totally transformed (e.g. transforming the face of a good-looking girl into a zombie). Of course, there are many others in between situations; in this case it is better to rely more on “science”. Once you established what should be retouched, instantly the next question appears: “how to do it?” Well, here “art” takes the stage. Definitely, this is a very uncertain realm and any advice is relative. The single universal valid advice is to keep working and get inspiration from other talented designers.

#2. What should be retouched

Once established the general framework, the next stage supposes to establish which components should be modified. Of course, the pronoun “which” lets you know that we are talking about the science. Yep, at this phase the designer delimitates which aspects must be modified and which not. This is very simple to do: simply duplicate the image to retouch and mark the parts to modify. Not rocket-science, but very efficient. Here is very common a fundamental mistake: even if you can do a specific thing, it isn’t equivalent that you should do it! Yeah, the beginners, especially, fall in love with a specific technique and use it everywhere possible which isn’t good. Keep in mind, if you can, it doesn’t mean that you should! It is about the “science” to determine what should be modified, the “art” consisting in how to effectively do it. To better understand the matter of “art”, you may compare the retouching of pictures with the situation of a producer. You have the know-how, the actors (in our case, the pictures), the screen-play (in our case, the duplicate image where is marked what should be modified) but all these are in vain if the producer doesn’t have the brilliancy of adding all these “ingredients” into a great movie. I hope you got the point!

#3. Which commands and effects should be used

This aspect is mostly art related: you have the commands and the effects to apply, it’s quite probable to have some studies in the design field, but you should know how to use each one. In retouching photos, it’s extremely rare to use just a single effect/command, therefore the combination of these is the real secret behind a good retouching.

I am sure that amongst the readers, some of them are experts in dealing with images while some are still at the beginning of the career and quite probable, after reading the post, they are in doubt. Well, there is still good news for them: yeah, everyone is able to become a very good expert in this field. The secret recipe is simple, but not very easy to accomplish: practice a lot and get inspiration from the most experienced. In order to complete the post I added here some examples to prove the beauty of retouching- I am a big lover of “Before and After” type of images, so I allowed myself to present some of them. Study carefully the tips above and enjoy the images below!

Retouch Photos Case Study

Retouch Photos Case Study

Retouch Photos Case Study

Retouch Photos Case Study

Retouch Photos Case Study

Retouch Photos Case Study

– Written by Daniel –

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