A Conundrum Among Colleagues: Is Retouching Bad?

By now, you’ve seen them: the (in)famous non-retouched photos of Cindy Crawford and Beyoncé. When these photos started circulating the web, people spoke up. They commended the women for being brave, for being real, and for not using Photoshop to retouch their faces and bodies. Seeing as though TRG is a photography studio, we obviously had our own opinions on the controversy.  

Back in December, we posed a general question to a panel of TRG Reality employees and asked for their input in a blog called What Makes a Great Image? So, we pulled David, Mandy, Derrick, and Craig back into our conference room and posed our latest conundrum based off of the latest Internet humdrum: Is retouching bad? 

As soon as Craig posed the question, Derrick did not hesitate to dive right in. “No! From a CGI point of view, it’s so much work to get a perfect image out of a render. You spend an hour or more retouching the image just to fix the stuff that would normally take you an excessive amount of time.” He noted “Retouching products makes it easier to sell those products, so of course it’s going to be retouched. Who wants to see a fingerprint on their snow globe? You can polish it 50 times and handle it with a new pair of gloves every time, but something will still inevitably show up on [the surface].” 

“That’s true,” agreed Craig. “Now you have companies like Dove that are taking a stance against retouching; they are making a big impact on that. Some clothing sites and magazines won’t retouch; it’s becoming a thing. It’s going to keep growing slowly.”

Derrick with the response, sans comparison: “But I don’t think it’ll ever die. You have to have it; [the images are] not good enough to not have it.” 

Mandy swooped in. “How much of this is about blame; about having someone to blame, as in with little girls? ‘Is retouching bad’ is really only one aspect of a larger issue. The issue about making girls feel badly about themselves is never going to go away. What we need is to have more support programs and education. People need to understand that it’s an image, that it has been retouched, that you don’t have to look like this.” 

“For products, it’s essential,” Derrick remarked. You need [retouching] for those things that you need to get rid of in order to sell the product.” 

“So, overall we all agree it’s not bad,” Mandy summed up. “But where do you draw the line?” 

David was first to respond. “This issue came up is because of a high profile person. For products and all that – great, but the minute you get a photo of someone who is high profile that has been altered, that’s where the controversy comes in.”

“We have a different opinion because we’re so close to it,” said Derrick. “We are aware of what’s been done and what hasn’t. How do you remove a desire for it?”

“Well,” Craig drawing out the word, “do you think the average person exaggerates the amount of retouching they think they are seeing in an image? Like, does the average person who is not in this industry realize that? Do they even think about the fingerprints on the snow globes?” 

Derrick and Mandy practically speak in unison in response. “No! But, when they do notice it, that’s a failure.”

David, who was now visibly fidgeting to my left: “It gets under my skin when I hear a topic like this. In our field, you can’t live without [retouching]; you can’t be a success without it. This is a media issue.”

“If you feel a certain way, and you want to make a stand, you can or cannot; it’s each person’s decision to do what they feel comfortable with doing. Similarly, the best retouching and CGI is when you don’t realize it’s there.” 

“Yeah,” David agreed, noticeably relived. “When you have to ask yourself ‘Is this photography or CGI?”  

“Which includes pictures of people,” added Craig.  “That’s how you know it’s been done the right way,”

Mandy agreed as well. “Knowledge is power. Understanding what retouching is could help you. When I look at a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, I look at it for what it is.”

“I think there are lots of people that feel that way, but some people don’t,” said Derrick. 

“Absolutely. Having the confidence to look at the image and just accept that it’s just that: an image,” Mandy added to her sentiment.

“The world is not black and white enough to say that [retouching] is good or not good,” an almost exasperated Derrick commented. “And it’s not going away,” Mandy quickly put in. 

“Upward of 85% of [retouching] is good; it’s the right thing,” David commented. “Think about everything we see on a daily basis: the professional images in a wine and food magazine, a home décor catalogue, a home improvement magazine. You can appreciate the beautiful images in a quality magazine. When you get to a less than great magazine, you see the difference, and you’re disappointed. It’s not bad; it’s fantastic! And if you want to put a photo studio out of business right away, don’t use retouching.”

No one could deny David’s logic, and with that Craig brought it home: “If the retouching is done tastefully and subtly, it makes for a really pleasing image.”

It probably comes as no surprise that the employees at a photography studio do not agree that retouching is bad, but hopefully this conundrum’s discussion brought a little more insight as to why we think retouching is so fantastic.