peoplemag

Another photo retouching controversy popped into the news this past week over a recent Self magazine cover featuring singer Kelly Clarkson.

The article I saw showed the Self cover, and then a shot of Kelly during a recent daytime concert. (An example from People magazine’s Web site is shown above, but it’s been picked up by about every media outlet now). Here’s a link to an article that showed the same two shots I originally saw.

The concert shot of Kelly was particularly unflattering, and looking at the two side-by-side makes it pretty obvious the cover photo had been retouched. In fact, Lucy Danziger (the Editor-in-chief at Self) reportedly admitted that the cover shot had indeed been retouched, (like all cover shots of all similar major magazines—it’s not a big secret—they all do it). According to the article, here’s what Lucy was quoted as saying:

“Yes. Of course we do retouching,” she writes. “Did we alter her appearance? Only to make her look her personal best.”

I applaud Lucy for admitting the retouch publicly, but my article isn’t about whether or not you should retouch. This is different.

Now, if you had asked me before Lucy’s admission if the Self cover photo had been retouched, of course I would have told you that it absolutely was (Everybody on a cover like that gets retouched. Period!). However, there’s more going on, on that cover, than just post-production retouching in Photoshop, and it’s something you don’t really hear anybody talking about.

It’s Not Just Retouching
If Self magazine decided to release the un-retouched version of the photo (which I doubt they would do), I think you’d find a surprisingly good shot of Kelly was the starting point. Not exactly the finished image we saw on the Self cover, but a shot where she looks better than you’d think. Here’s what I think you’d find:

  1. The photographer (or Art Director) purposely posed Kelly so she would look thinner. There are all sorts of tricks to hide, mask, and disguise facial and body flaws, and great portrait photographers (the kind that shoot major magazine covers), know how to do exactly that. He didn’t position Kelly at an angle that would accentuate her backside (like the concert shot did), but instead found an angle that was the most flattering for her body type.
  2. The fashion consultant/designer on the shoot dressed Kelly in an outfit that would accentuate her best parts, while cleverly hiding or minimizing any unflattering parts. We all know what a difference the right clothes make, how the fit of the clothes plays such a role, and what a big difference color alone can make in making someone look thinner (which is why you never, never, see me wearing white or light gray). It took me all of five seconds to find an article online about which clothing tricks you can employ to look thinner (here’s the link). Here’s another called “How to look 10 pounds thinner in photos”. I could list these all day, but you already know from your own experience how the right clothes, the right fit, and the right color can make a huge difference in how thin (or not-thin) we look.
  3. There was at least one or more Professional Make-Up Artists on the shoot. They are masters at making people look their best before the first shot is even taken. They know every trick in the book on how to slim a face, slim arms, and add shading and layers of highlights and shadows to sculpt and trim the face to make it look many pounds thinner. I’ve worked with professional Make Up Artists on my own shoots and I’ve seen the mini-miracles they create first-hand. I’m always amazed at what they’re able to do (which makes my job as photographer/retoucher so much easier). A great MUA is worth his/her weight in gold, and I’ll bet Shape has some fantastic ones at every cover shoot.
  4. The lighting set-up and position of the lights the was intentionally chosen by the photographer to provide the softest, most flattering, light possible to make the subject look her best. You can light a subject to hide, obscure, or flat out avoid parts of your subject that aren’t flattering, and accentuate the best parts, and you can be sure the photographer who shot Kelly used as flattering of a lighting set-up as possible (not just for Kelly, but for every cover shoot).
  5. After all that work on the set, then the photo was professionally retouched, and I’m not just talking about color correction and sharpening, I mean the standard tucking, thinning, skin softening, blemish removal, wrinkle removal, eye enhancement, etc, and everything else that goes into a finished cover shot.

However, I think we’d be surprised to learn that it wasn’t as much as we’d like to believe, and part of that is because of the four things I listed above that happened on the set, before the retouching. Using just the right pose, the right outfit, a great Make-up artist or two, and ideal lighting make the retoucher’s job that much easier because that much less is required. (Note: I seem to recall that in one of the articles I came across while researching that the Self Editor said that in fact it wasn’t Photoshop that was used for the cover retouching).

What The Reporters Didn’t Ask
Because we’re now all pre-programmed to think that “Photoshop is the culprit” nobody even considered asking the Self magazine Editor these questions:

  • Did you pose her so she looked thinner?
  • Did you use a make-up artist to sculpt and thin her face?
  • Did you dress her in an outfit that helped hide her battle with weight
  • Did the photographer light her to make her appear thinner?

A bigger question may be; does anybody care that all those other things were done first? I doubt it.

Those kinds of retouching are probably considered “fair” in most people’s minds. Retouching you do in “real-life” first is somehow perfectly acceptable, but once it gets in the computer, then it becomes unfair, which I think….is unfair. The goal of both are the same; make your subject look their best (or in many cases better than their best).

I’m not trying to pass judgment here on whether the photographer, make-up artist, retoucher, and/or magazine in general went too far (that’s a different topic, and one where I was quoted last week in an an article on photo retouching in The LA Times), but I think it’s important to realize that Photoshop is just a tool. It’s not the culprit and Photoshop is not the only way to change someone’s appearance pretty drastically in a photo.

My Offer to Lucy at Self Magazine:
I invite Lucy and the folks at Self to send me the unretouched original to confirm what I believe about the “pre-preproduction” done on the shot, which is “The shot looked better than we all think to start with,” (of course, I would sign an agreement not to distribute the unretouched photo to anyone under any circumstances).

If they’re uncomfortable with that, I’d be happy to fly up to Self’s offices myself to see the unretouched image on their computer screen, or as a print in their office, to confirm that it is indeed, a very flattering photo to begin with. This is a pretty unlikely scenario, but if they took me up on it, I think it would be eye-opening to a lot of people in Hollywood, in this industry, and to the media in general. Photoshop is a powerful tool, but it’s not the only tool in the retouching bag of tricks.

One Last Thing
If you see a headshot of me. Ever. It’s been retouched (but probably not as much as I would have liked). ;-)