Recently there has been some public discussion about the unnecessary and damaging nature of the retouching of models in advertisements and other print media. The practice is depicted as creating an unrealistic ideal, a fantasy that is impossible to achieve, and inaccurate depictions of what various products can really do. As such, there has been a movement to reduce or even eliminate any retouching of images in order to show “reality” as it supposedly is. So this begs the question, “Why Photoshop?” As a professional photographer I have a few thoughts:
First, I agree that excessive retouching via Photoshop for images that are supposed to be as close to reality as possible is not a good thing. I’ve seen some retouches that are so extreme that if one met the woman in real life, one would not recognize her because she’d have to be 6” taller, her waist 5” smaller, and her skin looking like plastic!
That said, if the intention truly is a fantasy piece and the model was used, well, as a model from which one can render the fantasy, then there is no limit as to what can and should be done to the image.
Second, although the intention of advocates of the “no retouch” argument may be good, it occurred to me that some of them may not really understand the process of photography and why at least some retouching is necessary; for if reality is the intended objective, some retouching is usually necessary in order to properly render the subject in an image to look like the “real thing” in person.
The question of dimensionality
One of the most critical things that happens when we take a picture and then look at it on a monitor, our phone, or as a print is this: We are creating and then looking at a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional person. This process significantly changes the model from “real” as we see her with our eyes to something quite different. Why is this?
We humans are blessed to have two eyes and a brain. Our two eyes allow us to see objects and people via “binocular vision”. One of the purposes of binocular vision is the provision of “stereopsis”. By having two eyes in different positions on our head, it creates “binocular disparity” which gives our brains the ability to perceive depth.
It is perception of depth that allows us to see our world, and people in it, in three dimensions. When I look at you I can see “around” you. My brain interprets what my eyes see and so I know that your ear is on the side of your head even if I am looking at you from the front. I know that your waist starts at your navel and then goes around your side to your back.
Now aside from specialty stereoscopic cameras, the majority of cameras have one lens and no interpretive “brain” that can magically interpret and render things in three dimensions. One lens means that whatever image is captured through it will be “flattened” from three dimensions to two; there will be no perception of depth. As a result, unless a photographer creates the illusion of depth and shape in an image, what one sees in the image will not look the same in reality. For example, a baseball, which our eyes and brain interpret as spherical in real life, will look like a flat white disk in a picture if photographed from the front with flat lighting and with no shadows.
Knowledgeable artists and photographers through the centuries have understood this problem of loss of three dimensionality when rendering a person on canvas or film. So to correct this and make people look “real”, photographers use a number of techniques. I will cover some of these in detail in later blog entries. But basically, light and shadow, the choice of the lens to avoid or create distortion, the angle of the camera to the model, and the model’s pose all contribute to either enhancing or degrading how accurately the model is depicted in the image.
So what if one uses an on-camera flash aimed straight at the model, shoots with a 24 mm wide angle lens from two feet away, puts the camera at chest height, and has the model face directly at the camera? The resulting image would render the model looking fat and very distorted to the point that she would not look as beautiful as she really is in person.
Now on the other hand, what if one uses natural light or a strobe from front and left, shoots with an 85 mm telephoto lens from about 15 feet away, has the camera positioned low and looking up at the model, and has the model slightly turned away from the camera? The model will most likely look as beautiful as she is in real life. The light and shadow will shape her body so the viewer’s brain is convinced she is three dimensional. The lens choice and low angle will probably make her legs look a bit longer. Her pose will cause her waist to look as narrow as it really is.
At this point, no retouching has been done; and yet, the photographer has already utilized an approach that changes how our mind perceives the model. So those who demand no manipulation of an image after it is shot may not realize that even as an image is being created, “reality” is already being changed. And, as I have noted, there can be an attempt to render the “real” but no photographic process can ever accomplish what our own eyes and brain can. So the irony of the whole “retouching is bad because it isn’t real” argument is that the image already is not real as soon as it is taken!
Retouching to get to “real”
So this brings us to retouching and, in particular, the use of Photoshop or other editing software in post-processing. Is it right? Is it honest? Is it a disservice to humanity and woman-kind?
In my own experience there are a few retouches that help to adjust an image so that the model in the picture looks closer to reality that without them.
First, if the lighting is a bit flat, the lack of shadows to show the model’s shape and provide a sense of three dimensionality will make her look wider than she really is. I have a little saying, “Flat means fat”. As such, in Photoshop I may use the liquify tool to slightly narrow her waist and other body parts so that if one looks at the picture than immediately to the real model, they look the same.
Second, if the model’s shape or body parts are not quite correct, I may also use the clone stamp, dodge or burn, or actually paint different areas to get things right. In one image I was working on, the part of the model’s breasts that was visible above the bodice had a major crease. This was due to the way the bodice was pushing on the breast as well as the model’s pose. In addition, because her body was turned at a certain angle toward the light, it created the illusion that her breasts were lopsided and one was flat. Is this reality? I think not! Lol! She was quite well balanced and had no creases in real life.
So do we go the “purist” route and say, “Well, that was reality so we just have to let people think the poor model has issues…”? I don’t think so!
To fix the problem I spent an hour to visually “reshape” and “rearrange” what was showing of her breasts. I used liquify to do some basic reshaping. I had to copy, move, paste and blend a part of the bodice to get the lines of the dress around the breasts to look right. The hardest part was that I had to darken and lighten parts of the breasts to visually create the illusion of roundness. In the end, if one looked at the edited picture and then at the actual model, one would say that the retouched image accurately depicted the real model. Had this edit not been done, one would not have made that conclusion.
Third, most people need some retouching for skin blemishes and softening. This is where there must be some moderation. Too much skin retouching and the model looks like a plastic Barbie doll. Too little and the model may cause bodily harm to the photographer for not removing a pimple or a patch of dry skin.
These are just a few examples of how retouching actually helps make an image more accurate in its depiction of the model. Except in cases where retouching is used to an extreme or intentionally to create a fantasy, it is a necessary part of the process to achieve “the real”.
So my opinion is that whether it is through techniques used during the creation of an image or retouching, a responsible and moderate approach in the process will yield results that most accurately reflect what the model looks like in person. The moment we do anything to change what an image will look like, we have also changed how reality will be perceived.
In future blogs I will discuss in more detail how lighting, lenses, angles, poses, and more are used to create a desired end result.
Please visit my Facebook Page at Paul Zhen Images to see examples of both reality and fantasy. If you enjoy what you see, I would appreciated it if you “like” my page!
Have a great day!