Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Retouching photos - Taking them from good to great!

I recently had a client ask my why I needed to retouch their images. She said "why didn't you shoot them correctly in the first place?" I have to admit, I was a bit taken aback by this question. But as much as I felt defensive, I also was very prepared to answer this question. My answer to her was quite simple, and went something like this:

* The goal of the photographer is to get a really nice photo that is 90% complete. But almost every photo needs some sort of retouching. Whether it is removing fly-away hairs, exit signs, those rogue microphones in the corner of the frame, or some other distraction. 

* As good as the cameras are, the exposure is still not perfect. I typically find that slight adjustments to the shadows and highlights make the images much stronger.

* I usually shoot in Auto White Balance, which is usually quite good. But...it is not perfect and I like to make adjustments to the white balance for accuracy and consistency across all the images.

* When people look at photos, most of the time their eye is drawn to the area with the sharpest focus and also to the brightest areas. With this in mind I will try to remove bright spots in the background of an image to make sure that the viewer is not distracted by that area. 

* There are countless other ways to retouch images, and depending on the particular photo, I will do whatever it takes to make it as strong as possible,

The end result is this...retouching helps to take a good photo to a great photo.

I have retouched just about every photo I have ever taken. It may be something really minor, like a crop or a minor tweak to the exposure or it could be a major project. I don't usually do major work to a photo where I spend more than 15 minutes on any image. That is not my style. And it does not matter if it is a portrait, a wildlife photo, or a landscape. 

Even my Olympic images need some tweaking. For the Olympics, we are only allowed to change small things like exposure, white balance, and cropping. Not much else since the IOC does not want us changing history.

Let me show you some before and after photos to help you understand my retouching.


Cropping in on a photo is a great way to highlight the subject. In the first image you see the Toucan flying off of a tree, but the bird is small in the frame and the tree branches are more distracting than helpful to the image. For this reason, I cropped in to show a little of the tree but draw your attention to the Toucan. (I also brightened the image a bit to show more detail in the feathers of the bird.) I was shooting with the Canon R5 camera, so I had plenty of resolution for the crop. The final image still has 7MB of data and can be printed large and look great.


Here is another photo from the last photo tour to Costa Rica. I saw this Summer Tanager perched on a nearby tree branch and I loved the contrast of the red bird against the green leaves. The original image was taken at -0.7 exposure comp (just because my camera was preset that way from the day before and this was a quick grab early the next morning), so it needed to be brightened. I increased the exposure to to correct the lighting.

Shadows / Highlights

It may be hard to believe, but the image on the right is the same image (just retouched) as the one on the left. As many of you know, the camera is not able to capture images with a vast amount of light differences. Your exposure will either be overexposed in one area and/or underexposed in other areas. To correct this, I increased the exposure on the foreground (trees and Half dome) and then darkened the sky in the background. And what a difference this makes!


I can not tell you how many times I have captured a sunset and thought "the color in the image is not as vibrant as what I saw in reality." I really hate seeing images that over heavily oversaturated, but with that said, there are many times when a slight amount of saturation is needed to For this image, I reduced the brightness of the sun and then added saturation to show you what it really looked light the night in Tanzania.

Fly-away hairs and skin imperfections

When you look at these two images, you may not see a huge amount of difference. Well..at least not from this small preview. But trust me, there are some things that I wanted to clean up. Let's take a closer look.

Whenever I take portraits, I assume that there will be some imperfections to clean up in post production. In this case, there was a slight shine on the older sister's skin, and some major fly-away hairs on the younger sister. 

I cleaned those up in Adobe Photoshop. I really love using my Wacom Intuos tablet to paint out these distractions with natural brush strokes using the stylus, versus trying to do this with a mouse. When retouching people, I generally remove acne and fly-away hairs, but I do not remove moles and other natural parts of who the people are (unless otherwise requested). I also lightened their eyes, just a tiny bit to bring them out. You probably did not notice that, and that is a good thing. Good retouching should not be very noticeable. I always say that retouching is a lot like seasoning in food, a little bit can really enhance a meal, but too much can ruin it!

I took this photo in City Hall in San Francisco. If you read the blog regularly, you saw this blog post a couple of months ago. Getting a clean shot of the rotunda is almost impossible since there are so many people in the building. I waited to try and get as few people as possible, but I knew that a perfectly clean shot was not likely. I took this photo knowing that I would have to remove the people on the right and the man in the blue shirt in the doorway. 

Sometimes I am overly picky about retouching my photos. In this photo of a Howler Monkey in Costa Rica, I loved the pose and the catch light in the eyes, but found that some of the branches were distracting. I cropped in to hide the one branch at the top of the frame that was more in focus than the others, and also removed the one lower branch at the bottom. These are minor tweaks, but I think that it helps the overall photo.

Some people say that a good photo should not need any retouching, but I truly believe that retouching helps to take a good photo to a great photo (or at very least a better one). I would love to hear your thoughts on all this.


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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I couldn’t agree more. Basically every picture can benefit from brightening/darkening something, skin correction, or removal of something distracting. You truly are a master at this and I couldn’t love your photography any more. Keep up the amazing work!