Monday, March 3, 2014

How Much Is Too Much? A Discussion on Photoshop Editing {Dallas, TX Portrait Photographer}{Dallas, TX Retouching}

Our pastor gave a talk the other day about honesty.  While he didn't mention Photoshop or editing software specifically, his message somehow got me thinking about the work I do in Photoshop.

I was in the middle of planning a special photo event for an upcoming Oscars Viewing Party and had given a new name to my Deluxe Retouching package in honor of the event.  My Hollywood Retouch (a.k.a The Digital Diet) was getting rave reviews.

"Get the full-on star treatment!"  A little nip here.  A little tuck, lift and pinch there.  What lady in red carpet attire doesn't want that sort of treatment, right?

But, as I listened to our pastor speaking, I began to question myself in new ways.  Are the edits I do in Photoshop honest?  Is my retouching process promoting a lie?  And, if not, is it ever acceptable to bend reality for the sake of enhancing a person's natural beauty?

After much thought, I've come to the following conclusion:

I don't know!

What I do know is that it's very much a personal decision to make.  It's not a decision I can make for you. And, it's not a decision that you can make for me.  And, in my photography, it is often times simply a job I am hired to do.

"Can you remove that scar on Johnny's cheek?"

"Sally spilled chocolate milk on her dress in the car on the way over to our session.  Can you fix that?"

"I meant to lose 5 pounds before we had our pictures taken.  You'll make me look thinner, right?"

"George always squints in pictures.  Can't you open his eyes up a bit in Photoshop?

Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  And, Yes.  Of course I can.

But ought I?

My clients aren't the only ones with Photoshop on their minds.

Can I be brutally honest with you?

I retouch almost every single picture I post of myself online.

There.  I said it!

Confession made.

I used to give the excuse that I have to retouch my pictures.  After all, everything I post online - as a photographer - is a reflection of my work.  Right?

But, the truth is much simpler than that.


Is it dishonest?


People get moles removed.  They get their teeth straightened.  They get hair transplants when they show signs of balding.  Then there's fake fingernails and false eyelashes, and liposuction and botox.  We make alterations to our physical appearance all the time.

And perhaps that was my pastor's point.

Where's the truth in our society?

That's a great question!

But, I get why people do it.  And it isn't anything new to American culture.  Beauty treatments have been around for centuries.

BUT, digital cameras have not.  Photoshop has not.  And that makes temporary enhancements to our appearance all the more prevalent - and I might even argue necessary.

Necessary?  Why necessary?

I'll tell you why.

With modern technology, we photographers (everyone really) are armed with cameras that capture IT ALL. Every pore.  Every blemish.  Every detail is captured in unbelievably sharp accuracy.

Did I mention that there is absolutely no forgiveness when taking a picture with a 21 megapixel camera?


But, trust me.  It's all there!  21 megapixels worth of detail.  Truth staring back at me through a backlit 30" monitor.

Dark circles under the eyes caused from lack of sleep, dehydration, and food sensitivities.  Check!
Fine lines on my brow and around my mouth from natural aging.  Check!
Deep furrows between my eyebrows indicating an overly intense personality.  Check!
Skin tags on the nose and under the lower lip and lower left eye lid.  Check!
Loss of elasticity in the neck and chin.  Check!
Caked makeup on my neckline.  Check!
Long lashes that are not my own.  Check!
Red eyes and puffy face from product and food sensitivities.  Check!

The camera doesn't lie, folks!

But, here's the comforting reality of it all...

Most people are much less sharp-sighten and far more forgiving than even the cheapest of cameras and lenses.

(Unless you are a photographer.  Ahem... We have been known to edit people's faces in our sleep.  And I know you cell phone peeps have about 20 actions saved on your phones for uploading and editing pics.)

All kidding aside, with this in mind, I honestly do see retouching as an opportunity to give people a favorable glimpse of themselves.  I want my clients to see themselves as their loved ones see them.  My husband doesn't know what I'm talking about when I point out my flaws to him.  And, as long as a person's true beauty shines through in the editing process, I love knowing that a good edit helps to solidify someone's self confidence in new and powerful ways.

So, what is my editing process?

Since I obviously DO edit.

I'll get to that very shortly.  But before I do, I want to explain why I've chosen to use pictures of myself (taken by my handsome husband) instead of using another person's images. 

I've recently decided, that unless I have client approval, it is not kind to share before and after retouches of them online.  I've come to believe that this is a private process.  And, using clients as my models for a before and after photoshop lesson, doesn't honor that privacy.  Especially since I'm demonstrating the Digital Diet.  This post isn't just about enhancing a person's eyes.

And, before anyone says anything, I realize that it may have been better to post Before pictures of myself without makeup on.  But, if you think about it, how many of my age-appropriate, female clients are showing up to their sessions without make up on?

Not a one!

Besides, this gives me the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.  My friends want to see my Oscar pictures, and I want to share the work of two very talented Stonebriar Mall Nordstrom employees.  And one very efficient hairstylist from Toni and Guy - just upstairs.  Bella gave me a killer makeup application.  And my friend (and client) Cindy hooked me up with the classiest outfit from dress, to shoes, to jewelry.  And, Kelly, she whipped this hairstyle out before I could bat an eye.  All of these ladies deserve a shout out! 

Besides, I've rarely felt prettier!

Speaking of makeup...

I strongly believe that the right makeup application can cut a photographer's time in Photoshop dramatically.  Proof in point: the above picture was not retouched - other than exposure, color and clarity enhancements.  Belle was able to cover all my sun spots and most skin imperfections with a meticulous, very well-done makeup application that still looks natural and classy.  

Yes, my face was touched up - but NOT in Photoshop.

Not yet!

Likewise, great fitting clothes in the right color paired with the right accessories go a long way to enhancing your natural beauty.  That's why every client who books a session with me receives a free wardrobe consultation, if requested.

I know several of you are reading this hoping to get my step by step process for my Hollywood Retouch. I'm afraid I don't have space in this post to cover that process in much detail - especially since each image requires different techniques.  I will, however, provide a basic workflow for my Standard and Deluxe Retouching processes and point you in the right direction toward a couple digital diet tools.

. . . . . . .

Before I continue with this post.  I do realize that most bloggers have ended their posts well over 400 (or more) words ago.  Sorry about that.  I tend to be long-winded!  So, grab a cup of coffee or hot tea and settle in for a while.  I'm just getting started.

. . . . . . .

Back to my workflow. 

I'll start by telling you what NOT to do.

NEVER intentionally over-expose an image in an attempt to mask fine lines, wrinkles, and imperfections. This China-doll approach, while popular by many novice photographers, spells disaster for printed products.  
Take a look at what the image looks like when the highlights are blown out:

As you can see, the wrinkles ARE much less noticeable.  But, so are the skin tones and the natural skin colors.  While this might look fresh on screen, this will look very unprofessional in print.  There is absolutely no detail in the highlights of this image. And, that, my friends, will SHINE through as ugly white blobs on a professional print.  I know.  I've received prints like this.  It literally looks like ink is missing in those highlighted areas.

Our clients deserve better than that!

Make it a point to learn how to exposure an image properly.

So what DO I do?

Assuming I've nailed the exposure...

Let's get to it!

Here's how I approach the editing of most files.

1. Download the file and Open in Camera Raw within Bridge.  

This is where I adjust color temperature, exposure, fill lights and blacks.  That's it!  For this image below, I obviously needed to bring the exposure slider down to reveal the natural skin tones.  And, thankfully, since this image was captured in RAW format, there was enough information there to recover.

Ah, that's the me I'm used to seeing in the mirror!

2.  Next, Open the File in Photoshop.

For a client order, I do one of two things at this point.  I either apply my Standard Retouch (for desk prints and reduced resolution files) or my Deluxe Retouch (for wall portraits and full resolution files).

While the perfectionist in me itches to apply the Deluxe Retouch to every single file, I have learned the hard way that it is simply not cost affective to spend lots of time editing smaller print/file products. Retouches are simply not as noticeable in these smaller sizes, and the lower price of these items do not allow for the additional time spent on our Deluxe Retouch services.

3. Once I open the image in Photoshop, these are the steps I take for my Standard Retouch.

Adjust Levels and Color
*Be sure to color calibrate your monitor before approaching color corrections.

Remove any obvious (easy to address) Scars, Spots or Blemishes.
*Always discuss with your client before hand what they want addressed and/or left alone and remind them you spend minimal time addressing this category for desk prints and reduced resolution files.

Lighten Dark Circles Under the Eyes.
*Be careful not to remove the darkness that defines the lower eye lid.

Enhance the Catch Lights in both Eyes.

Sharpen the Image.
*Most photographers agree that sharpening should be your very last step.  

Save the File.
* I advise working in smart files and saving both as a jpeg (for print) and an unflattened PSD file - saving each step in your retouch process in a separate layer.

Here's what Steve's original blown-out image of me looks like after I've applied my Standard Retouch:

Below is the same image after I've applied my Deluxe Retouch (minus the Digital Diet):

Most of the changes are difficult to see in this size image (more proof for why we only offer this service with our wall portraits and full resolution file products).  The enhancements are made to the eyes, teeth and skin.  You'll notice the neckline has been addressed as well.  The skin has an overall smoother appearance and the eyes are whiter and more defined.  Since this is a headshot, you won't see the full affect of the Digital Diet.  That comes later...

The affects are subtle, but quite noticeable as the print sizes increase.  

Here's my Deluxe Retouch process:

1.  Open the saved Standard Retouch version of the file in PS.

2.  Zoom In (to see greater detail of the face).  

3.  Remove any additional blemishes, wrinkles, scars or imperfections the client has asked you to address - along with those that may translate as distractions in the final print.

4. Apply Eye Enhancements (reduce redness in whites of eyes, brighten iris, darken pupils, clean up/tweeze the brow line, etc.).

5.  Whiten Teeth.

6. Apply the Digital Diet to any area of concern (chin, waist line, arms, legs, neck, thighs, etc.)

7.  Apply a Skin Softening Action.
* I use a higher opacity on the face and a much lower opacity on the neck (avoiding the nose, mouth and eye areas).  Remember to address arms and hands if skin is particularly dry or flaky, but don't over do it. Your goal is still to maintain some skin texture.

8.  Flatten Image and Save File.
*If working with a smart image, apply each step to a separate layer and save in PSD format before flattening.

. . . . . . 

Go Grab yourself another cup of tea!  We're just getting started!

. . . . . . 

Before I move on, I want to emphasize how important it is to shoot in RAW verses jpeg.  Shooting in RAW gives you much more digital information to manipulate once you are in Photoshop - which is important with more complex retouch jobs.  While you can still do a lot with a jpeg file, there are limitations which will make the editing task more tedious and time consuming.  I encourage you to Google this topic for further information.

Okay, let's get to the good stuff!!! 

Let's get to this DIGITAL DIET I've been teasing you about.  While I did not coin the term, it fits perfectly. You'll see why.

The Digital Diet is the manipulation of an image in Photoshop which causes the subject in your image to either reduce or increase in size, shape or form.  Shapes can also be altered entirely.  This includes selective nips and tucks (or bloating and enhancing) of various body parts to achieve a desired affect.

While I am not going to spend time outlining my workflow here (as it varies from job to job).  I will encourage you to google Filter/Distort/Pinch and Filter/Liquify as a great place to start.  These are the main two tools I use regularly.

My main goal today is not to provide a "How-to-Lose 5 Pounds in Photoshop" step-by-step demonstration. Rather, my goal is to open dialogue on the ethical issues surrounding these techniques.

I want to hear what you have to say!

Is it dishonest to apply a tool that nips and tucks at a client's waist line to make him/her appear a size smaller (or larger)?  

I'd love to hear what you think.  

One could argue...who of us is always the same size from day to day?  Are there not days when we wake up bloated due to eating rich foods the night before?  Are there not medications we are required to take that cause unwelcome weight gain (or loss)?  Most women can count on the fact that their weight will fluctuate for at least 2-3 days out of every month.  For some, the change is significant enough we have to resort to wearing "those jeans".

"What's the harm in using Photoshop to 'alleviate' those issues?", some might argue.

Others might argue, "Those extra 5 pounds are FACT." In their minds it would be dishonest to present yourself in a way that bends the truth.

They have a point as well.

So, where does that leave me as a working photographer?

My job as a photographer is to make my client look their absolute best - IN THEIR EYES.  They are my boss - not the person looking at their image on Facebook.  And, if they have areas they want me to address.  That's what they've paid me to do.  As long as I can edit them in a way that is natural looking, then I've done my job well in a manner that I can be at peace over.  If all their friends see when they look at the image are the wicked cool Photoshop tricks, then I've taken the focus off of the client - and I've failed to do my job.

Where do I stand?

Somewhere in the middle.  (And I'm a very black and white sort of gal!)

Let's face it.  There isn't a one of us that isn't struggling with one thing or another when it comes to our physical appearance.  And, sometimes, the way we appear the day of our session is not our every day reality either.

Take me for example.

I have major food sensitivities that often cause my face (and body) to do some pretty strange things. 

Like this:

Don't worry.  My doctor has helped to get this to a safe level of control.  But, I still react pretty strongly at times to certain foods, perfumes, additives, or dyes.  And this shows in my face and my body as a whole.

I ask you this:

If I were your client and I was scheduled for a session with you (one that could not be rescheduled) shortly after having a reaction like the one above, would you feel good handing me a file AS IS - because that's my reality for that day?

I think not.

It does not represent my every day reality.  It does not define who I am.

Take this Sunday for example.  

After walking past the perfume counter at Nordstrom, my sensitivity threshold plumeted.  As I sat in that department while my makeup was being applied, I experienced heightened sensitivities to many of the eye products being used.  

This was the result:

Gotta love that redness in the whites of my eyes, right?

Thankfully, with Photoshop, that temporary reaction doesn't need to leave a lasting memory.

And the swollen, puffy eyes?  That was caused by making one too many poor choices at the dinner table the day prior to my event...

Yes, that IS how my face and eyes looked the day these pictures were taken.  

That is the truth.  

But, I don't believe that a brief moment in time needs to define me for eternity.  It is not dishonest of me (in my opinion) to choose to digitally remove that part of my momentary reality in order to avoid having it preserved forever in a printed (or online) portrait.

I refuse to be shamed into thinking otherwise!

I choose grace and compassion.

One little swipe with my clone tool allows me to forget just for a moment that this is something I will struggle with for the rest of my life.  With a little PS magic, I can see myself on the monitor or in print exactly the way I feel about myself on the inside - the way my husband sees me - the way my children and loved ones see me - and the way I am when I'm well rested and healthy.  It is enough that I have to struggle with the physical discomforts from time to time.  I personally, don't need a reminder of that temporary discomfort in the hands (or eyes) of others.

Especially not in print.  

Not even on Facebook.

And, I'm fairly certain I am not alone in these convictions.  I believe my clients deserve the same options. And, I am blessed to be talented enough to offer them some sort of relief.

But, I do think Photoshop CAN BE dishonest.

I just want us to remember that it can also be very, very GRACIOUS.

And, for that I am grateful!

Let's talk for a moment about when it becomes dishonest.

Again.  This will vary depending on who's answering the question.

For me, it is dishonest when it distorts a current long-lasting reality beyond the point of recognition.

Take a look at what this looks like in my mind:

. . . . . . . 

And here's where I cringe a little.  Those who know me well know that I would HAVE THE HARDEST TIME posing like this in public.  This is so not me!!!!  So, be kind, friends.  And, remember, this is meant to educate you!

. . . . . . .

Here's me - with a little nip and tuck action!

FOR ME, the above retouch is dishonest.  


Because I don't have a flat stomach - not even when I eat properly. 

I don't have a toned rear.  

And, I don't have knees and legs that are naturally slender.  

And, even though this particular Digital Diet is tastefully done, I know that IT JUST ISN'T ME!  

Not right now, anyway! 

But, more importantly, it gives a false impression of who I am to others.  As you already know, I personally am okay with a little of this from time to time.  A little touch up to the face.  I little tuck here or there.  But, a complete overhaul?  That's harder FOR ME to swallow.


I don't have a problem doing that for a client - if asked to.  That's my job!  I'm a photographer.  I'm an editor.  That's what they are paying me the big bucks for, isn't it?

Telling me that it's wrong to retouch an image would be like telling a landscaper that it's wrong to trim a bush.  "But, that's not how that person REALLY looks," someone might argue.  Trust me, there isn't a book on a shelf anywhere that looks exactly like it was originally written.  

Editing happens everywhere.  Enhancements are a part of life.  

In our culture, we do all sorts of things to alter our appearance - especially women.  Just like I'm not going to tell you that you can't wear a padded bra - or get "the girls" enhanced, I'm not going to tell you that it's wrong to get braces to straighten your crooked teeth.  I'm also not going to tell you that you can't wear Spanx or that you can't wear makeup.  I'm not going to tell anyone that's it's wrong to soup up the engine on their car either.

And, after Sunday's party, I'm certainly not going to be the one to tell you that you can't wear false eye-lashes! 

These things are none of my business!!!

And they are none of anyone else's business either.

But, I do ABSOLUTELY understand and even APPRECIATE both sides of the argument.  

It hasn't fallen on deaf ears at all.  

There are valid arguments to both sides of this issue.

But, please remember this:

The mom who wants to remember her child's accident by leaving a scar in place is no better - no more righteous - than the mom who wants to remove a fresh bruise from a recent fall on the play ground.  

It's a personal decision, one that can only be made by the individual.

In fact, I would argue that the unrighteousness comes more likely in the form of judgment by others than it does in the retouch itself.

For me, personally, this whole editing process crosses a moral line when the tools are used to harm or defame a person's character.  Or, when we hide behind a retouch because we can't seem to love and accept ourselves the way we truly are.  That's shame based editing.  There's no place for that (as I preach to the choir).

It's a hard call.  I know.  But, it's one I think we photographers should approach with great caution.  We must search our motives and encourage our clients to do the same.  When we are asked to do something that crosses our moral boundaries, then it's time to get courageous and stand up for what we believe.  While we might lose a sale, perhaps you'll find relief in knowing that we aren't the only ones equipped to do the job.

With that said, as a photographer, I will almost always side with my client - as long as I have a clear conscience in doing so.  I am in no place to judge their motives.  If no one is being harmed or defamed in the process, then my job is to do my job - which is to make my client look their best IN THEIR EYES.  

It isn't up to me to say what that is supposed to look like.

But don't you worry, there are other options out there for the purists among us!  If you really are bothered by the Digital Diet and other digital retouching and enhancements, then I have just the thing for you.  

It's called GOOD POSING!!!

The right posture (along with the right makeup and the right clothing) can melt inches off your appearance just as affectively as any stroke of the Liquify or Pinch tool in PS.

Take a look:

Not quite executed perfectly.  Those fingers.  Ayyy!!!!  And, why didn't the photographer remind me to suck in my stomach and lean a little forward at the waist?  What was he thinking??!??

But, you get the picture.

And, that is yet one more reason why you hire a photographer.  It's their job to coach you in these areas.While they can't make miracles happen, they can definitely maximize what they have to work with by encouraging flattering body position.

But that's another blog post...

For now, I'll end by sharing a few more of my favorite images from yesterday's photo session with my husband Steve.  And, in the spirit of honesty and truth, all of these are UNEDITED.

No retouching.

No Digital Diet.

As Is...


...with a little help from great makeup and styling, of course!

This is may absolute favorite - even though it's blurry!

And, you know what?

I like me!

No...I LOVE me!  

Puffy face, wrinkles, and red eyes and all!

And it's about time I embrace the age old truth:


In fact, the word mistake isn't even in his vocabulary.  

Each and everyone of us, despite our imperfections and human shortcomings are BEAUTIFUL and LOVED by HIM!!!!!

God celebrates us every single day.  It's about time we do the same!

Whatever that looks like for you...


I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topc.  Voice your opinions in the comments section below.

Thanks for hanging in there on this long post (It's how I roll!) and for listening to me spill my heart out!



. . . . . . 

If you are new to this blog, we'd love for you to join us on Facebook.  Become a fan today HERE!


Thanks for stopping by!