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Styles of Retouching

I like to think of retouching techniques as falling into three different styles or categories: reality retouching, plastic surgery, and fantasy. These categories serve an artistic purpose. By establishing a goal for the ultimate look and feel of the image, they provide the parameters that decide the range of techniques I'm willing to use and give me the boundaries for the job at hand.

As I've mentioned in previous chapters, it's very important to have a concept of where you're trying to go before you start working. This is especially true for retouching—you don't want to just go in and start hacking away! Deciding in advance what kind of style you're aiming for will keep your work focused and help you produce a more unified final image.

These categories also prove quite helpful when working with clients. You can show them the range of possibilities, including before and after images to illustrate each style, to give them an idea of what they can expect to see when you're done. This helps ensure the client will understand the process and be satisfied with the end result.

If your portfolio doesn't have examples of all the different styles in it, you can use examples from magazines to get across the different possibilities. I suggest trying to incorporate these different styles into your portfolio, however, because it will help you broaden your client base and give you more work opportunities.

Reality Retouching

Reality retouching is the kind of retouching you do when the client doesn't want anyone to know that you have altered the image. I find this style of retouching the most challenging, because there is an art to having your work go completely unnoticed. When doing this style of retouching, we usually don't remove every wrinkle, but instead just make the subject more attractive. What do I mean by "more attractive"? Well, it's subjective, but I like to concentrate on the idea of removing what's distracting me from the person I'm retouching. In real life we are animated, and this makes those little lines and spots much less noticeable. In fact, the little imperfections, as part of a real-live person, can add character and charm. When you freeze a moment in time and give the eye a chance to concentrate on these minor imperfections, however, they become more pronounced. This is where reality retouching comes in. The idea is to do the minimal amount of work necessary to lessen those slight imperfections. Among the things that you'll want to work on are blemishes that need removing, deep wrinkles that need softening, tired eyes that need whitening, and yellow teeth that need to be brightened.


Reality retouching (see Image 1) is also the first step in retouching for a large majority of my images. It establishes a foundation upon which to do fantasy retouching and plastic surgery.

Image 1Image 1 Before and after images showing reality retouching.

Plastic Surgery

Another category of retouching is plastic surgery. This is where you really transform the person, perhaps even removing years from the person's face, by lifting and altering her features. Plastic surgery can involve drastic changes: nose jobs, eye-lifts, liposuction, and hair extensions. However, the goal is still to achieve the desired result without making the person look completely unrealistic.

Image 2Image 2 Before and after images showing a plastic surgery eye-lift.

Image 3Image 3 Before and after images showing a plastic surgery nose job.

Fantasy Retouching

The final category I use is fantasy retouching. This is where things start to get a little surreal. With a fantasy retouch, you're no longer trying to imitate reality or conceal your work. In fact, the effect you create will become an integral artistic component of the whole image, and almost anyone looking at the image will immediately realize that it has been artificially enhanced.

Many times, when you retouch this intensely, you almost turn the model into a painted figure. When you do this, you'll probably want to extend this look out to the whole image, creating a dreamy surreal quality so that the retouched model still looks as though she fits into her surroundings. As you'll see later, this kind of effect can be achieved in an image by playing with light, color, or focus.

Image 4Image 4 Before and after images showing fantasy retouching.

Avoiding Beginners' Mistakes

A few things jump out when I see a bad retouching job. First and foremost is when I see a face on which parts of the skin have been retouched and other parts haven't. Also, remember your edges! The edges of anything are key to making something look "right"; so if you blur the edge of a lip line too much while retouching, it will look wrong. Working evenly and paying attention to your edges will keep you from making beginners' mistakes.

This chapter will give examples of each of the three categories I've defined. As usual, you can find the images used in this chapter on the web site, so you can try things out for yourself.

This discussion starts first with reality retouching, which is not only a useful technique in and of itself, but forms the basis for the more advanced styles.

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