Not every photographer wants or can afford to hire a retoucher. That said, I hate seeing photos with all the potential of becoming something amazing being ruined by bad retouching. I am not even talking about those mistakes that only a specialist would catch – it is about the ones that make everyone say, well, it has been photoshopped.
To get around this issue, and to hopefully help those who retouch their own photos I compiled this list of tidbits to help you produce better results when it comes to post-production. Even though a couple of these are no-brainers, it is good to remind ourselves that sometimes seemingly simple notions are the hardest to truly understand.
1. You Have to Learn Photography First
Post-production should come after pre-production, and production. Never has been a more evident truth written. It is important to keep this in mind because sometimes beginner photographers start with a bit of photography knowledge, and immediately after that they jump into Photoshop. This is usually wrong as it produces subpar results. When your base is lacking, it is better to work on that rather than trying to polish it.
Here is my advice to you: learn photography, then learn a bit more photography and only then start with a very small amount of retouching; just barely using the healing brush here and there. Once you are confident with that and are producing great results, move on to more photography and more retouching etc. This way you will not get into the habit of making your photos ‘interesting’ only because you applied some random colour to it.
2. Do Not Buy into Techniques
A technique is a technique is a technique. I am 99% sure that you have heard about ‘frequency separation.’ It is being advertised by ‘gurus’ as the tool high-end retouchers use – it seems to be the magic technique everyone wants to learn or perfect. I know many people who retouch whole photos with it; which is possible, but ill advised. I cannot even remember the last time I used it. It is only a technique and should be used as so, not the be all end all tool of skin-hair-whatever retouching.
I know someone who used frequency separation on a group photo. That is not when it should be used. Whenever you encounter new techniques be sceptical, learn it, and only use it when it is necessary. The main ideas behind retouching can be applied using any techniques. Sit down, study your tools and you will be able to skin that cat in a hundred different ways.
Instead of learning techniques, learn the principles of a good image.
3. Zoom Out
I remember a photographer a couple of years ago boasting about how he zooms in to 400% magnification whenever he is retouching. Do you know how his photos looked? Blurred. When you work on an image really zoomed in you are basically eradicating the detail in that photo, and that will result in a blurred look, much like you used Gaussian blur.
So here is a question for you: when you look at the cover of a magazine do you put your nose to the glossy finish to peep at the dots of the image? Probably not. Hence, try to retouch your photos as the intended use. Will people see it zoomed in, from a distance, on a billboard, on the cover of a magazine, on canvas? Factor this all in, and this will help you understand how far you should take each of your images.
4. There Is More to Retouching Than Skin
In people’s minds, most of the times retouching equals to making a person’s skin look beautiful (especially the face). This usually results in a contrast between the main subject and everything else. Aim to be equal in your retouch – try to balance everything out, not just colour and contrast but the degree of retouching, too.
If I am hired to work on an image, I try to be all over the place and retouch everything to the same degree. That way, if I run out of time because the client needs to take a look at the photo sooner than planned, they will still see it as a perfect unit without parts being out of place.
5. Mimic Movies
The people who make movies look good on the post-production end are called colourists. They will make sure that scenes look natural while maintaining the same aesthetic throughout. The thing is that they cannot be as precise as retouchers because they work on moving images that usually contain 24 frames in a second. That is a lot of images. However, I dare you to take a screencap of any movie and find every little detail these colourists worked on. It would be almost impossible as they work so well.
Based on this, my advice is to try and work like they do. First, try to utilise feathered, broader selections and use those to guide the viewer’s eyes with colour and contrast. Set a nice tone, and make artistic choices while still keeping the basic principles in mind. Once you have all of these worked in seamlessly and you still think you need to go in and retouch more in detail, only then do that. This way, you will keep things fairly natural and will not overwork the image unnecessarily.
As you can see it does not take much to improve your retouching – all you have to do is to study others’ work and try to do less. When you start small and apply basic principles, even the hardest tasks can be easily handled. Where people fail most of the times is that they either do not have a strong enough base or they try to do too much right off the bat. It is OK to learn one step at a time, and you do not even need to remember a library of techniques to succeed in the end when it comes to retouching.