The Art of Photo Retouching: Before and After Examples

Photo retouching is an important job that doesn't get the credit it deserves. Retouchers and photographers are equally necessary on many projects, especially when the finished artwork is "made in the darkroom."

Lots of images are retouched in some way. Basic things like color correction, lens adjustments and red-eye removal might happen inside the camera before a human retoucher even sees the image.

I've toiled in Photoshop for hundreds of hours to smooth wrinkles from clothing, remove dust, specks and fingerprints from shiny objects, and address tedious details that are necessary when you're making a catalog or an advertisement. Most retouching isn't glamour.

Actually, glamour retouching is my least favorite kind. I've been asked to make models look younger or more beautiful, but those models were already beautiful. Some of my work hurt people's feelings and led me to question the ethics of certain projects.

In the end, the work that I'm most proud of is when I had an idea for a picture, cobbled together the basic rudiments of a photograph any way that I could, and used Photoshop to mold the "duct-tape and bubble gum" into something close to what I had imagined.

Here are a few photos that fit that bill. They're not necessarily the best or most notable retouching work that I've done (Garry Kasparov is the coolest client I've had), but I think they're among the most interesting pieces in my portfolio.

P.S. If you're reading this one a phone, I apologize for the blank white spaces appearing beneath each image. Content that is embedded in a website using an iframe doesn't always size itself correctly on a responsive design website (i.e. a website that resizes itself based on the width of the browser). A big thanks to the JuxtaposeJS team at Knight Lab for making these Javascript image sliders available free of charge.

Exposure and Color Correction

Almost every photo needs some kind of exposure or color adjustment to look its best. The difference between before-and-after photos can literally look like night and day.

This photo of plastic army men battling a raccoon is one of my favorites. Yes, it's a photo. I found a stuffed raccoon, some toys and a box of sparklers in my aunt's garage and this was the result. The sparklers were the only source of light, and despite the 30-second exposure, the photo was underexposed. I used Photoshop to brighten it up and make the colors pop.

Removing a Person From the Photo

After college, my friend Eddie and I co-founded a fashion magazine called Debonair. The premise of the magazine was about how to look good on a shoestring budget, and we applied that same philosophy when we bootstrapped our photoshoots. "Faceless Fashion" was a regular feature where the model was photoshopped out of the clothes, leaving behind an invisible-man-like outfit. We did this because we were the models (and models we were not).

Giving Life to Inanimate Objects

A colleague of mine started a men's neckwear business. He didn't have much money to spend on photos and marketing materials, so hiring a model was out of the question. We brainstormed, and as I thought about ties, the comic strip Dilbert came to mind. (I didn't mention this, of course.) Dilbert's tie is always upturned, like its windy everywhere. I like quirky stuff like that, so I pitched "ties in the sky" as a kind of fashionable homage. This was a tricky photo to get right. I wound up stringing ties over a rabbit-ear-style TV antenna and wire clothing hangers. Then, I "painted out" the low-tech apparatus I created.

Building a Virtual Space

This photograph (technically, it's a composite of many photographs) is another page from Debonair Magazine. I originally planned to photograph these products inside of a real medicine cabinet, but that turned out to be a bust. Medicine cabinets are either mirrored or lined with unsightly plastic. Ultimately, I found a piece of scrap metal and brushed it with scouring pads to give it a texture. Then, I photographed each product separately and blended them together in Photoshop. The end result isn't photorealistic, but it was decent enough.