What You See Isn’t Reality (Retouching Walk-Through)

Like any good educated human and staunch feminist I have mixed feelings about retouching. I totally understand why the abuse of retouching can create problems on both a personal and a societal level. But as an artist and professional photographer, I love how I can use Photoshop and similar tools to create an image that is exactly how I pictured it—how I can use these tools to bend and shape reality, and make a statement about how I see the world.

I gave a talk last year about how photographers use light and posing to create shape and alter viewers’ perception of bodies (long before the “retouching” process even starts.) At the end of it, an audience member asked me “But is retouching a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t know how to feel.” My answer is that I don’t know how to feel either.

“But is retouching a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t know how to feel.”

I think the ultimate answer is in education. It’s wonderful for artists to be able to create images that are beautiful, and make the subjects feel beautiful. Aesthetically pleasing representations of the human form are a core part of human culture. (Michelangelo didn’t chisel acne scars into his sculptures, or add flyaway hairs to his painted portraits.) But people viewing our images must be educated and made aware that what they are seeing is an idealized version of reality. When I look at a magazine ad and see a gorgeous person, I know exactly what tricks made them look that way (even in the “makeup free” photo sessions.) So I don’t think that I need to look that way, because nobody looks that way. Advertising has no power to make me feel badly about myself because I know how it works AND I’ve done a lot of work on unlearning my own body image issues.

I don’t think that attractive and professionally retouched portraits are incompatible with the body positivity movement and feminism, but I do think that we have to be really open and honest about what we’re doing, so that the next generation doesn’t grow up thinking that six-foot tall glowing rail-thin goddesses with perfect skin and hair actually exist. They don’t.

Real human skin
Not real human skin














In that vein, here is a short video I put together about my retouching process for a portrait session. This wasn’t a full-on beauty retouch for an ad or magazine cover (that would take a few hours.) This was the kind of retouch that I typically do for a portrait or headshot client. My philosophy is this: Don’t fundamentally change the person’s appearance, but clean up minor, temporary imperfections and leave my subject looking like their best self on their best day, viewed through the eyes of someone who loves them.

I hope you enjoy!

Kaitlyn Retouch Video


Retouching Resources

I mention two retouching methods in the video, one is Unmesh Dinda’s skin smoothing process, which you can see in this video.

The other is Linday Adler’s dodge and burn technique. She created some actions for that, which you can download here.


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