Photo Retouching: How Much Is Too Much?

As a photographer or a digital editor of photographs you hold quite a bit of power. The way that your subject is perceived by a viewer, and in turn, how the viewer sees his or herself in relation to your subject, is in your hands. The photography community is in the midst of a lengthy discussion over retouching and how much is too much.

Is it our job to make accurate depictions of the people and things we photograph? Or do our clients hire us to make them look better than just accurate? We can discuss these questions and others in this post.

When it comes to photoshop, let’s discuss where to draw the line.

Portrait of a girl untouched and then photoshopped

Smoothed skin, more makeup, and bigger eyes separate the image on the right from the one of the left. Too much?

Are we responsible to only our client or also the audience for our photos?

If you are a professional photographer, there is a good chance that you make photographs for a client who has specific needs and specific intentions for your imagery. And the client wants to look good or wants their product to look good. Sometimes the client does not take into account how the audience’s perception is changed while asking for retouching — like all the teenage girls who take on unrealistic beauty standards from advertising.

It is important to decide early on what you are willing to photograph, what job is not worth getting paid for and where you draw your ethical lines. Most of us can agree that removing a zit on a bride’s face for her wedding photos is pretty harmless. And we can agree that changing the proportions of a teenager’s body and facial structure is harmful. But what about in between there?

I think we do have a responsibility to the people who view our photos in addition to our clients.

Should we expect the viewer know the difference between reality and enhanced?

Some people would argue that it is common knowledge that fashion advertising and beauty magazines retouch their models. The informed consumer knows that advertising is not reality, but an idealized version of reality meant to get us to open our wallets so we can have a piece of the fantasy. I think that this is true for many people, but not for all people, and certainly not true for young children.

When retouching and enhancing photographs, we have to consider who will be seeing the image and how it may affect their perception. Otherwise, it may be responsible to start putting disclaimers on photos, so viewers aren’t fooled into a false reality.


What about hair, makeup and lighting?

Before we ever start moving pixels around on a screen, there are a whole host of other techniques for changing the appearance of people on camera. We use elaborate hair styling and dramatic makeup. We use lighting to accentuate the best parts of a person and hide the more unsightly parts. We pose people in ways that make them look the thinnest, youngest and most vibrant.

All these things have traditionally been considered ethical with the people who view advertisements. What about digitally adding makeup? Filling in eyelashes? Brightening eyes or teeth? Are these things ethical?

Is it an issue of supply and demand?

Clearly, we have an appetite for perfection in images. Would any of us take the time to view a swimsuit on an average looking model — or ever consider buying it? Would we buy a fashion magazine to see people that look just like our next-door neighbor? Advertisers and media producers order up these overly retouched images because we gladly consume them! As long as there is demand for these images and money is changing hands, images will be retouched to meet the viewer’s desires. Is it right? Is it wrong? Is it just a fact of life?

I’m not entirely decided. We are asking a lot of questions and hopefully some of you have thoughtful answers, because this issue affects all of us…

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What kinds of retouching should be off-limits? Where do you draw the line?

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