Since the advent of digital and the emergence of Photoshop, there has been a huge debate in the photographic community as to the ethics of retouching. The opinions are all over the spectrum. There are those who say never retouch anything, that how is comes out of the camera is how the photograph should be printed. Then there are those who say so anything you want, any time you want; let your creativity run wild! And everything in between.
Personally, we think that it depends on the situation. If you are taking a photograph for a newspaper and it’s intent is to record a scene or an event, then you should try to get by with as little manipulation as possible. Facts trump creativity. But if the image is going to be used in some sort of graphic design element that isn’t supposed to represent reality, then a lot of manipulation may be called for or even necessary.
As portrait photographers, we occupy that middle ground. To explain: Anyone who has ever taken a photograph knows that what comes out of a camera isn’t necessarily what you saw. Camera sensors are different from our eyes. They don’t have the same sensitivity to color and contrast as our optical nerves. So some loss of “reality,” whatever that might mean, is inherent. That being said, as portrait photographers, it’s our job to make our subjects look as good as possible within the limits we set. What are those limits? Well, it’s hard to say because it’s not a line in the sand. Obviously, we correct color and adjust brightness and contrast. And some things are a given, such as a pimple on a face or a stray hair across a cheek. They are distractions and will go. We have no problems with taking a few pounds off a thigh, making eyes more blue or making teeth more white. Obviously, there are limits. If a client wanted to put their head on Jessica Alba’s body, that might be a problem. So far, though, no one has asked for that.
The goal is to match the image that’s printed to the image of the subject that’s in our brain. If you think about it, what you remember about how someone looks is a composite of how they have looked every time you see them. They might have had a cold sore on their lip the last time you saw them. Or their hair might have been messy. Or they hadn’t slept much and had dark circles under their eyes. But that’s not how you remember them when you pull up their image in your mind. That image is our goal for a printed portrait.
Below is an example not involving people. The first shot is from a shoot we did last summer for a client here in Knoxville. They wanted some photos of their business and wanted them to appear as if they were taken 30 years ago. They asked some friends to bring some vintage cars and we set up a scene. However, when you look at the photo, there are a lot of distracting power lines and poles, and that huge pre-fabricated building behind their business. So I look the image into Photoshop and removed the poles, lines and the building. The second image is the one most people would see in their mind’s eye. Is this the image that the camera saw? Of course not. Was the client pleased? You bet! This image is hanging in their business right now.
We believe this philosophy is a great comfort to our clients. We are going to do everything in our power to make them look as good as possible without compromising the essence of what or what they are.