Should Portraits Be Retouched

A very delicate subject matter this one and quite a contentious one amongst parents for very obvious reasons. One thing is for sure, everyone has their own opinion on this matter and I’m certainly not here to trumpet my own personal views, well maybe just a bit! However as a professional portrait photographer and one that has decided to specialise mainly in the genre of children’s portraiture, I feel that it’s important that I at least outline my philosophy, approach and practises when it comes down to retouching.

In this contemporary world of high profile celebrity and our apparent thirst for fame and vanity, we have all become very familiar with the terms ‘retouched’, ‘air-brushed’ or even ‘photoshopped’. As adults we are enlightened to the magical powers of retouching and hopefully aware that the pictures we see spattered across billboards and magazine covers are heavily enhanced and bare little resemblance to reality. Moles and birthmarks vanish, unwanted hair trimmed and pruned and wobbly bits firmed up, sucked in and smoothed out. Quite how much retouching time and effort goes on in these images would surprise anyone not directly employed by the industry, in fact it would most likely surprise those at the mercy of the god like retouchers surgical hands.


Now, I’ve been in the industry for quite a long time and spent much of that time in London working for a whole host of clients both high and low profile. I never got into the fashion industry, I was both too uncool and utterly bored by the concept of beauty and fashion, however, I’d like to think that I do have a good understanding of retouching and a fair amount of competence in professional retouching techniques. Photoshop is a bit of a double edged sword to me as a photographer and individual. It is undeniably an extremely powerful creative tool and allows me to quickly and convincingly make aesthetic changes that would otherwise take hours or even be impossible before the advent of digital processes. However it does mean that I now spend more time in front of my Apple Mac than I do behind the camera, which to me is frustrating to say the least. I have now become a computer geek and find myself obsessing about things such as RAM, processors and the latest and greatest version of various software programs…..yawn! Anyone who knows me personally will tell you that I am a total perfectionist, bit of a control freak and slight obsessive so photoshop to me is both a gift that allows me to express my artistic vision but it also feeds my obsessions and too often distracts me from the task in hand.


For me, the absolute joy of photographing children is that they are already pretty damn perfect to start with, so many of the so called ‘imperfections’ that develop with age and indulgence have yet to show. Also I make it very very clear that my own personal style of portraiture is about capturing the child’s natural character and personality, so to me I’m more concerned about subtle expressions than I am with glossy commercially driven images. Of course I want to create beautiful & creative imagery, but not at the expense of compromising on meaningfulness. So to be frank, one of the greatest attractions of photographing children to me was the fact that retouching would be kept to a minimum. That’s not to say I still don’t spend ages removing biscuit crumbs, scabs and the odd strand of slobber but I do not and will not synthetically ‘enhance’ their looks.

Thankfully I haven’t been put in the awkward position where I’ve been asked to do something by a parent that I fundamentally disagree with. I hope that my style tends to attracts like minded clients although I’m aware that the day will come when I’m asked to just trim down their nose a bit or can you just make my little girls left eye a bit bigger! Trust me it will happen and when it does my answer will be a very polite no. However their is a grey area in between these extremes where I am less militant. What if the child has a really prominent mole or birth mark slap bang in the middle of their face?

Although if it was my child I would in most instances leave it, in this case I would respect the wishes of the parents and remove it or preferably encourage them to allow me to tone it down till it becomes less distracting. This may sound contradictory to some of you or worse still weak and hypocritical to others, however I do have my defence! Apologies if this sounds a little pretentious and fluffy but what we see with our own eyes (or rather brain) and what the camera actually captures are often two very different things. We are living, breathing and emotional beings, so combine this with everyday familiarity and our brains will heavily filter what our eyes actually see. Whereas the camera is a cold, scientific and impersonal tool that will brutally document or worse still highlight the slightest and sometimes unwanted detail. In fact modern digital cameras and their super sharp lenses only serve to draw attention to these differences in perception. I’ve actually taken to removing a fair amount of the fine detail that my camera natively captures because it is quite simply too much information and therefore distracting from the overall ‘feel’ of the image. I don’t want to peer intently with a magnifying glass at a wall portrait of my beautiful children and be distracted by blotchy skin from a recent cold, I want to stand back and smile with a mixture of parental pride and adoration just like I do when I see them in the flesh. In these cases retouching combined with very careful lighting techniques are an absolute god send.

So to conclude my philosophy on retouching is usually very straight forward. If it is temporary like a scab or food stain I will remove it, if it is physical and permanent characteristic then I generally prefer to leave it. However there are times when I respectfully bend and flex a little to meet the wishes of the parents.

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