Inside the Strange World of Retouching Fashion Photos

Jessica Schiffer

The fashion world is well known for its use of beautiful photography, whether thats in an editorial spread, for an Instagram campaign, or even on an e-commerce site. The industry would be at a loss without all of this amazing imagery, as it’s crucial for everything from conveying a certain mood to selling a product. Although much of it looks effortless, there’s actually a lot of work that goes into making these photos so amazing, and we have skilled photo retouchers to thank for handling it all.

Not only do these experts know Photoshop like the back of their hand, but they’re also privy to all the secrets surrounding fashion photos, like how does everyone’s skin look so damned perfect? Or their abs? Or, even, the way a dress flutters in the wind? Having been curious about the whole process for a while, we reached out to a retoucher with ample experience editing fashion photography for well-known brands and publications. Below, see what she revealed about the hush-hush gig!

 

What do you look for (or at) first when retouching a photo?

“It depends on the type of imagery I’m working on. If its for beauty, I look for any imperfections that arent a normal part of the subjects face: a zit, bags under the eyes, etc. I’ll also look for stray hairs that may have gotten stuck to lipstick or in an eyelash.

If its for fashion, I’ll first do a scan of the entire photo and then look for areas that look less than flattering. Sometimes the camera really does put on 10 pounds, depending on the angle. Next, I’ll check out how the clothes are fitting. The clothes are often clipped and pinned to look tailored to the subject, and that can create bunched fabric around the waist or any areas that are being pulled. I like to make sure everything looks as natural as possible while still looking as flattering as possible.

What would you say are the most commonly edited areas of a fashion photo?

Definitely the slimming and shaping of the body and clothes. After all, fashion is about the clothes, so you always want to make sure they look their best on the subject.

What are some surprising/unexpected ways that clothing gets retouched in a photo? And how about for bodies?

I dont know that anything is super surprising anymore, with all of the exposure there’s been around retouching. Removing undergarments from a slightly see-through garment is pretty common, as well as eliminating a stray bra strap or panty line. There can also be a lot of "comping" when clothes dont fit properly or the subject is wearing an incomplete sample piece. [Ed. note: This refers to compositing an image of the fabric onto the original image.] There is definitely a lot of zooming in on details and liquefying them to make cheaply sewn seams look more expensive. Zippers are often straightened too.

What has been your strangest experience or request as a retoucher?

There was a time when I retouched for a fashion company during swim season, and one of the models decided not to remove the hair from her bikini line, so I had to go in and do a detailed removal of all the hair for every single swimsuit she modeled. That was something that never would have crossed my mind until it happened.

How long, on average, does retouching a photo take? 

It can take anywhere from five minutes for a quick fix to two hours for a more intensive job. On rarer occasions, it may take three to four hours, but on average, it takes about 15 minutes per image. It really depends on the usage (online or print) and how much needs to be done. It really takes a lot of teamwork on the actual set to minimize the work that needs to be done in post-production: a good photographer who knows how to light their subject, an amazing hair and makeup team, and a wardrobe stylist who knows how to properly clip clothes can make all the difference.

Is it easy for you to tell now when photos have been retouched? What signs do you look for?

Personally, I like subjects to look as natural as possible. I can easily tell when a photo has been retouched—I notice it on billboards when driving, every time I open a magazine, and pretty much everywhere online. It can be anything from a misplaced leg (that one drove me nuts on a major billboard featuring a celebrity a few years back) to the obvious elimination of skin folds on areas that bend. I can tell when a waist has been taken in too much, or the under-eye area has been smoothed over way too much. I also notice when a clothing pattern has been poorly replicated, but only because it’s what I do for a living and I know what Im looking for. The best retouching goes completely unnoticed.”

 

What are your thoughts on retouching fashion photos? Sound off in the comments!

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