How Much Editing is TOO Much Editing

We're all familiar with the controversy over the last several years about models' photos being severely edited for their appearance in magazines. Usually for female models these edits include removing "excess fat," enhancing breasts, removing fine lines and wrinkles, fading under-eye bags, increasing neck length, resizing eyes, and other measures to enhance beauty. For men typical editing might include, excess fat being removed, muscles enhanced, six-packs added or enhanced, skin-tone evened, chin strengthened, and grey hair reduced.

The typical reasoning behind magazines, billboards, and other high-profile images being re-touched or "shopped" in this way is to bring the model closer to "ideal."

One of my favorite videos illustrating this effect is the Dove production showing a relatively plain female model being transformed to "ideal" beauty by makeup, lighting, and eventual manipulation in Photoshop.

This blog was inspired by discussion on a recent episode of The Grid, a webcast for photographers. There has been recent talk about Congress's legislation, the so-called Self-Esteem Act which would require the labeling of "heavily-Photoshopped" images with a disclaimer noting that fact.

These factors led me to think about how I go about retouching the photos we do at 29k Productions. My philosophy has always been to "tell the story" of the person in the photograph, to tell a little about that person's personality, likes, dislikes, etc in each image and help you get to know that person a little better. This is best done at the time the shutter clicks. There are no worse words in the English language than "I'll fix it in post."

At the same time, every photo we've ever taken and given to a client or displayed publicly has been "retouched" in some way. Quite simply, when I take a photo, I always underexpose it by just a bit beyond what I want the final product to be, and use the flattest possible contrast settings in order to give me more detail to work with when I do get the photo loaded onto the computer for its final touches. Initial corrections will be bringing the exposure up a tad to where I want it to be, increasing contrast in the correct areas of the photo, and tweaking the color balance to bring out the natural colors I prefer in my photography. This is all done in Adobe Camera RAW. I then import the image to Photoshop and start the nitty gritty of a "retouch."

Most retouching I do for 29k simply involves the removal of temporary blemishes like acne, scabs, errant hair, even whitening teeth. I'll often even out skin tone if it appears blotchy for some reason, and decrease the amount of redness in the face where necessary. I'll even enhance a highlight or reduce a shadow to hide a little fat or other imperfection that wouldn't be noticed in real life. All of this is to bring out the image of the person we see in real life, the person I met at the beginning of the photoshoot. These kinds of things are enhanced by the fact that we're freezing the person's image in a photo, and features we otherwise would completely disregard in real life become the only thing we can focus on in the photograph. I consider it my duty to really try to show the person as he or she appears when we're in a conversation together.

Periodically, I'll receive requests for more extreme changes to photos. A client will request I remove moles, braces, wrinkles, decent showings of fat, or other more permanent features which could be considered a part of that person's identity. This is more of a grey area for me, because we have moved beyond bringing out the real person everybody sees in the photo and started re-defining the person him or herself. I'll always perform these kinds of changes, but I do like to have a discussion with the client to ensure this is a change they really want to have made, as it removes a permanent or semi-permanent feature about them.

Finally, there are major changes. These are the ones we're used to seeing on magazines. In this level of retouching, we're creating miracles of weight loss, breast enhancement, age reversal, and muscle toning. We're performing the work of doctors by straightening teeth, doing tummy tucks, face lifts, and otherwise creating a complete fantasy only loosely based upon reality. Why, yes! I can make a size 20 woman look like a size 6. But I'm not going to do it without an extraordinarily good reason. Certainly, I can make this 60 year old man look like he's 40. But I don't consider it appropriate to do so. In a fit of vanity, I once took a photo I had of myself when I was about 250 lbs, and "fixed" it until I appeared to have the body of a gymnast. It was great practice in the art and techniques of Photoshop. But it was entirely fake, an unreality, and one of the photos I am least proud of. Sure, I look amazing in it, and while it gave me a vision of what I could look like after losing weight, it also gave me a false feeling that I could never work hard enough to achieve that goal. Unlike my intentions, it didn't motivate or inspire me to get there, it just brought me down. I simply do not support over-doing photo retouching, and I draw that line at presenting as reality that which is no where near reality.

To be honest, image retouching has been going on for thousands of years. Classical artists certainly disregarded certain aspects of royalty when they were doing paintings. You didn't just paint a king or a pope as 300 lbs, when there might be an axe in your near future if he is dissatisfied with the results. Some of our most iconic Civil War photographs are known to be "faked" as there is evidence of the photo crew literally dragging bodies around to make for better pictures. Color timing for analogue film and prints is another time-honored method of "shopping" images. Quite simply, imaging has always been a bit of a lie to enhance reality and create the exact image the artist needed. It is no different today than it was then, just the tools have changed.

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