Category Archives Photoshop


I got an email yesterday from a reader of one of my books, and it’s an email I’ve gotten dozens of times before, and it always puts me in an uneasy position. Uneasy enough, and yet common enough, that I wanted to share it with you guys.

He had read something in my book “The Photoshop Book for Digital Photographers” where I said to do something a particular way, but then he found someone on a Web site somewhere who said to do it differently (in fact, they said to do it the exact opposite of what I said in my book). So, basically, he was emailing me to ask me to defend what I written in my book. Ugh.

As I’ve done dozens of times in the past, I set out to write a lengthy explanation of why what I had stated in the book was correct, and give even more detail and background than was already provided in the book, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized (from previous exchanges exactly like this over the years) that this was just going to start a long back and forth, and that in the end, because he had doubts (based on what he read on some Web site) he was going to believe what he wanted to believe anyway.

So instead, without being a smart-alec in any way, I politely let him know that what I wrote in the book is actually how I feel on the topic, so he already knows that’s what I believe, but I also told him (I’m paraphrasing here):

On the Web you’ll find conflicting information on every topic; whether it’s medical advice or how to hang a picture frame; from how to play the Blues on guitar, to how to cook spaghetti bolognese. It really comes down to you making a decision about which advice to follow. You have to choose which person’s explanation, theory, or technique sounds more “right” or makes more sense to you, and try that and see what you think. :)

In the end, I’ve realized how important it is to find sources that I can trust on a wide variety of topics. I usually look for experts on the topic, and once I find someone who makes sense to me, and then (this is important), I take their advice and try it for myself and it works for me, then that becomes my go-to person for that topic.

That doesn’t mean I ignore the rest of the world, but if I read something conflicting, I take it with a grain of salt. For example, if Joe McNally tells me something about off-camera flash—I know he’s speaking from experience, and I take his advice and run with it. If I read in a forum, or even in a book something that flies in the face of what Joe says, that doesn’t mean Joe is necessarily wrong; it just means somebody else does it differently, and that may work for them.

In Photoshop, it’s the same thing. There are so many different ways to do things, and so many of us teaching how to use Photoshop, that you’re going hear and see different techniques that we found work for us, and we pass those on to our students. For example, there are a dozen (probably more) books written on color correction in Photoshop. Which one is right? They all work (you don’t ever see a color correction book where the correction looks worse than the original), but again, you have to choose which experts techniques makes the most sense to you (for me, it’s Dan Margulis; to me he’s the bottom line on color, but you’ll find others who disagree). That’s OK, what I’ve learned from Dan works for me.

But finding an expert who makes sense to you, whether its about Photoshop or how to drive a race car, is only one part of this. It’s perhaps even more important to try this person’s techniques yourself and see if it actually translates to what you were looking for. Does it actually work the way you were hoping?

The person who wrote me that email could have tested both theories (the one outlined in my book, and the one he read somewhere on the Web) in less time than it took to find my email address and compose that email. He would have known right then and there if what I said was right, or what he read on the Web was right. That’s what’s so great about Photoshop. Testing is nearly instant. It’s not like medicine (where you have to wait to see if you got it right, and a lot more is riding on the line).

I guess the point of all this is that at some point, you’re going to have to trust somebody, but beyond that once you do find somebody whose opinions you trust; if at all possible, try them out yourself. See if their techniques/advice/theory works for you, and if you’re getting the results you hoped you would. Oh yeah, that, and don’t write an author asking if what they wrote in the book is what they really meant. I doubt they’ll say, “Oh that….oh, I was just making up stuff for the book. I really think something completely different.” ;-)


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). ;-)


That’s right folks, I’m bringing the Photoshop CS4 Down & Dirty Tricks Tour—-a day of nothing but those eye-poppin’, jaw-dropping, Photoshop special effects that you see every day in magazines, at the movies, in print, and on the Web, to Orlando for one day only:

Friday, August 28th
Orange County Convention Center
Orlando, Florida

The techniques you are going to learn are real commercial effects that today’s clients are asking for, and you’re going to learn them all step-by-step. We are going to have an absolute blast (plus I’ll probably even have Corey Barker do a quick Cameo appearance with some of his amazing stuff), so I hope you’ll join me there for a day that is 100% guaranteed to totally take your Photoshop skills to the next level!!!!

Seats are limited, and filled on a first-come, first served basis, so if you’re planning on coming, sign up today. Here’s the link with more details and how to reserve your seat. See you in Orlando!

P.S. Don’t miss Corey Barker himself next Monday when the tour comes to Indianpolis, Indiana. Use the same link (above) for details.

My buddy and fellow “Photoshop Guy” Dave Cross did an excellent video clip on the just-released-today way cool “Flow” software (I bought a copy the first time I saw it back when it was still in Beta testing, and I got my serial number emailed to me last night, so I know it’s shipping).

I put the video here (above) so you can check it out (also, Dave unveils something new that wasn’t in the public beta that will be of particular interest to a lot of you). Thanks Dave for putting this together. :)


I’ve talked about before (which is basically a site that does a very clever job of gathering blogs about specific topics and it puts them all on one handy page, but that’s just part of the story). They call it, an “online magazine rack” that they update every hour.

Anyway, just recently, they introduced a feature called “MyAlltop” where you can set up your own Alltop page, with your own favorite blogs on it. So, I put one together with blogs about Photoshop, Photography, the Mac, and other stuff I check each day, and of all the things like this I’ve tried (various RSS readers, blog aggregators, Google-this, Yahoo-that, etc.), this is the quickest to use and easiest to set up.

One of my favorite features of Alltop is that you can move your cursor over a headline and it shows you the first paragraph or so from that post, so you can quickly decide if you want to click the link and read more.

It’s free to sign up, and once signed up, you just search by topic (Photoshop for instance), and it shows you a list of the Photoshop blogs they follow. To add one of those, you just check the box, and keep on choosing blogs until you’ve got your own custom page set up. You can also reorder the blogs in the order you want them to appear by just dragging and dropping. Anyway, it’s free, and quick, and definitely worth a try. Here’s the link to set-up your own page.

Let me know what you think after you’ve tried it for a few days. (If you want, you can check out my own page by going to


The blurry photo above was taken with my iPhone just a few minutes before the doors opened to my new Photoshop seminar. It shows the calm before the storm.

On Friday, in our nation’s capital, I met some of the most gracious, patient, and downright forgiving people on earth, because for two hours, at the kick-off of my “Photoshop Down & Dirty Tricks,” at the Washington Convention Center, I had absolutely the worst audio problems I’ve had in the 16 years I’ve been doing live Photoshop seminars.

I am not kidding.

Before the doors opened, we had tested, tweaked, and toned the center’s audio system (I took the photo above during the soundcheck. That’s Corey Barker walking through the ballroom as we were tweaking the audio. Luckily, we were in such a large ballroom that the in-house A/V company had an audio tech right here in the room with us). The sound check went fine, the doors opened, 700+ people poured into the ballroom, and after a few announcements, I was introduced to start the seminar.

I walked to the front of the stage, and said, “Well, good morning everyone,” and that’s when the problems started. During the next sentence, my mic cut out. Then back in. Then out. One of our staff rushed to the stage and quickly swapped out my headset mic’s batteries. It worked. For about a minute. Then it cut out again. And again.

We swapped out headsets. It worked for around two minutes. Then we tried a lav mic. It worked. For about a minute. I could go on and on, but what we wound up doing was moving my laptop over to the podium, rewiring everything, and I did the class standing up from the podium using the podium mic. This is just not how I wanted to start the first stop on my brand new tour. Arrrggghhh!

After the break, they had brought in four new speakers on tall stands; they ran new cables, and brought me yet another mic, and it worked. For about 4 minutes. At one point, the only way we could get the mic to work was to have Corey sit beside me on stage and hold the mic’s wireless receiver up over my head. If he moved, even an inch—it went out. This was the convention center’s in-house system, so it was totally out of our hands—all we could do was complain to the A/V techs troubleshooting the system (which we did. Vigorously!).

During lunch, the A/V company (who now had three techs frantically working on the problem), finally swapped out the mixing console, and it (a bad console) turned out to be the culprit. The audio was great the rest of the day, but let me tell you—that was the longest two-hours of my training career.

It’s not that amazing that we had such a catastrophic audio meltdown; stuff like that can and will happen, and always at the worst possible time. What is amazing is how gracious, patient, good-natured, and forgiving the audience was. They hung right in there with me the entire day—we laughed, we cried, we gritted our teeth the entire morning, but we made it through alive, and at the end of the day, somehow we brought that plane in for a smooth landing (although we did arrive at the gate about 25 minutes late).

Yesterday, I saw the first review of the seminar, from Karen Akerson of Svenska Studios (and yes, she did mention the audio), but you can read it here for yourself (here’s the link). There’s also a photo of me during the day, and I probably looked as blue as the tint she added.

Thanks to all my friends who came out (like Jeff Revell, who brought me a copy of his brand new book, “Canon 50D; From Snapshots to Great Shots!” which looks absolutely outstanding!) Also, right before my flight, I had been handed the first copy off the press of my new “Photoshop CS4 Down & Dirty Tricks” book, and I actually gave away that signed first copy as one of the giveaways at the end of the day. Hey, after the audio problems, I nearly gave my laptop away! And my plane ticket. And rental car, and…..

I do want to offer my humble thanks to everyone who endured those audio problems right along with me, and thanks for all your kind words of support during the day while audio grenades were going off all around me. Your attitude and the smiles on your faces out there kept me in the zone and focused on what we came to do—put the rest of the world on hold while we immersed ourselves in creativity and learning some really cool new Photoshop stuff. My hat’s off to you all.

NOTE: Photoshop genius guy Corey Barker (who helped me develop the tour, and helped immeasurably on Friday) is taking the tour to Richmond, Virginia on May 27th, and it is filling up fast. If you want to go—better snag your seat now (here’s the link). My bet is; the audio will be perfect! :)