Guest Blog: Photographer, Educator, and Author Robert Vanelli

Are you a Photographer, Retoucher or Graphic Artist?

This article was inspired by an interaction I had with a member of a Facebook photography group I belong to. A member posted an image of a bride standing in front of a jungle gym on a playground. He removed the jungle gym and was looking for praise in the form of asking for critiques. When he didn’t get the positive feedback he was hoping for, he proceeded to argue why he felt the image was his best work. I simply asked him if he is a photographer, retoucher, or graphic artist. His reply set the tone for my advice.

Proper Advice For The Proper Level

As an educator, my job is to inspire and help others, not tear them down. Before I give advice I ask what level the person wants me to critique their work — beginner, intermediate, advanced, or professional making a living — then I give proper advice for the proper level. So when I asked him, “Are you a photographer, retoucher, or graphic artist and at what level?” he proclaimed he is proficient in all three. Here is a sample of the interaction.

Guy on Facebook: Art, art, art. You know what I’m saying. That’s why you see Rihanna in the movies while she’s a singer.

Vanelli: You can be all three. BUT, for each discipline, you need to do it right. Unless there was no other way to get the shot of the bride, and I mean zero chance of moving her to a different location, then you move to plan B and use Photoshop to FIX and REPAIR. Think how long it took you to take the shot and then to edit it. Sometimes it’s quicker to fix it in post or for the sake of “ART,” you get the quick shot then manipulate it after. Again, decide which one you are IN THAT MOMENT. I hope this helps.

This statement didn’t help him and he continued to comment why everyone is wrong and he is right. I ended my participation in the conversation. I want to show his image, but out of respect I can’t. Instead, I’ll continue by using a bad image I took early on in my career when I thought I knew lighting.

Photographers Strive To Get It Right Before They Take The Shot

I was excited after I took this image. I had just learned how to use a light meter and didn’t have to guess at achieving proper exposure. I was even excited that I got the model to strike an interesting pose. I received praise from friends, local photographers, and even the model — who proclaimed I was the best photographer she had ever worked with. I was feeling pretty full of myself, until I asked the late great Jim DiVitale to review my portfolio at Photoshop World. Looking back, I realized how kind he was in choosing the right words to teach me about feathering the light, using grids, and how sometimes, to light a scene, you need to remove or redirect light. That was one of the best Photoshop Worlds I attended.

Retouching Should Enhance The Image, Not Repair It

Over the years I’ve developed my editing and retouching skills. I rose through the ranks while creating presets, looks, and creating educational content for a variety of photography-related companies. This skill set landed me a position with Skylum Software as a member of their Education Development Team. I still consider myself a photographer first. If I want to remove a blemish on a subject or ensure they have perfect skin, I hire a makeup artist. If there isn’t room in the budget for a makeup artist, THEN I fix it in post.

Recently I was asked to create a tutorial on how to develop a dramatic portrait using Luminar. This was a perfect opportunity to once again share the knowledge Jimmy D gave me many years ago. In this short 3-minute video, I show how to use Luminar to develop a dramatic portrait, and what photographers can do to achieve the same look as they take the photo.

A Graphic Artist Has The Ability To Transport Us To A Different Reality

Software such as Luminar was designed with photographers in mind and has some graphic tools — layers, masking, blending modes — to help their artistic efforts. Photoshop, on the other hand, was designed with graphic artists in mind and has tools photographers can use, making it a perfect choice to augment or change reality. I am by no means a Bert Monroy, Corey Barker, or Brooke Shaden. The graphic skills I’ve achieved came from the many years of attending Photoshop World and learning from some of the greats. When something inspires me, I do my best to be able to achieve it in camera. When that’s not possible, I enhance it in Luminar and then take it Photoshop to complete the vision.

For the image below, from my Assassin series, I didn’t have access to a rooftop with the New York skyline. So, instead, I found a rooftop image on Adobe Stock and photographed my assassin on a dark background to match the scene.

For this next image, “Shipwreck,”  I used my photography skills to achieve a beautiful blue sky by cross filtering. I set the white balance in the camera to Tungsten to make everything blue, then applied a CTO (color temperature orange) gel to color correct the light illuminating the model. Once again, I searched Adobe Stock for images of stars and the moon.

For the image below, from my Aviator series, I took images of vintage planes at an air show, then photographed the aviator on a white background to make it easier to extract her and to match the scene.

So ask yourself, are you a Photographer, Retoucher, or Graphic Artist? With discipline, you can achieve all three! But decide which one you are IN THAT MOMENT and use that skill to the best of your ability.

You can see Vanelli in person at Photoshop World Orlando from May 30 – June 1! You can also find more of his work at, and keep up with him over at PhotoFocus and on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

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