When I first graduated from university, the scope of my retouching experience was almost entirely on my own work. I had helped a few of my classmates find their way around Photoshop, but the decisions on the outcome of the majority of the images I took into Photoshop were my own.

I began testing for retouching jobs almost straight away, with a few of the companies I tested for asking me to do things like apply an eyeshadow or change a models hair colour to something of my choosing – neither I’ve ever had to do on an actual commercial job I might add!

Now, I’m quite sure that as the end result wasn’t the only thing these companies were looking at, my actual choices on colour or look wasn’t really important. They were wanting to see my workflow, technique, eye for detail and an ability to follow a brief.

And that last point is very important to working professionally as a retoucher, or indeed any role within the creative industries.

Creative projects, be they a billboard campaign, web series or product packaging, live and die by the brief. Even when doing personal projects, top creative directors will give their designers a brief, for without a brief, no matter how loose, it will prove difficult to convey a point, bring cohesion across a series or deliver a brand identity. 

And so when it comes to professional retouching, budding retouchers should realise that they are often filling the role of technician. Sure, when working with photographers, advertising agencies and publications, the retoucher has a place in suggesting looks or the method of achieving a certain effect, but often the final outcome of the image is preplanned and the brief must be adhered to.

Photography: Hao Rui

For jobs that have a more abstract or creative outcome in mind, involving cgi elements or complex compositing, agencies are likely to approach the retoucher in the earlier stages of pre-production. Here the role is to advise on how to best shoot the images to get the necessary plates for post-production. You may be called to work on-set. This is a fast paced and high level task, requiring retouchers to be able to quickly and effectively comp images or apply looks so that the production team can see in real time how the images will look for delivery. This is often a bit of a luxury for most shoots, and will sometimes double up with the role of “Digital Operator” (or Digi Op), but can be very valuable for higher production value shoots, as it means workflows can be tweaked to achieve the best results. 

When it comes to making creative choices, for a retoucher it’s not so simple. The first few projects for a particular client, we are often learning the look of their style. After working with a client for an extended amount of time, they are often more likely to take a more hands-off approach. This is when we make creative decisions, but with the aim of adhering to their style as closely as possible. Deciding to apply an otherwise nonexistent eye shadow or changing a models hair colour without being prompted is likely to lose you a client!

If total creative control is something that you are looking for, becoming a retoucher may not be the path for you! But if you are passionate about helping others create the best work that they can, and realising seemingly impossible briefs, being a retoucher can be a highly rewarding and exciting career.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *