Lessons Learned from Beauty Retouching

BeautyRetouch_BannerLast week I met with the French photographer Clovis Lalanne who does a lot of work in the beauty and makeup industry. Talking with him made me realize how little I know about shooting and retouching beauty photos. Far too often I’m guilty of looking at an advertisement and saying to myself, “I could’ve shot that…” and then usually end up in a bout of self loathing as I reason why I’m not doing work at that level yet. Meeting with Clovis helped me understand the gap and realize I still have a lot to learn. After looking at my portfolio he suggested that I work on retouching, so that’s where I began.

I’ve said it many times before: you will learn much more about photography while editing than you will while shooting. You’re in a different frame of mind when you have your camera in hand. Editing forces you to really look at your images and compare the difference between this and that. This is especially true for retouching. Painstakingly removing a single hair in Photoshop makes me desperately wish I had paid attention to it during the shoot. Retouching helps you develop an eye for detail. The more you notice, the better you are.

The first thing I did was to learn from others. Google introduced me to Sean Armenta who has a series of extremely helpful, and well organized tutorials for retouching beauty. Unlike most other videos I found, his tutorials present a simple, logical workflow for each image. There’s a methodology and rhythm to it. Suffice to say, I recommend you check them out. I’ve been using Photoshop for over a decade, and I still learned something new.

The hardest part of the learning curve for me was to not revert into my old habits. I forced myself to try things differently (i.e. the way Sean suggests) and more often than not I was surprised/pleased with the results. The crummy part is that it took me forever to edit this single photo. Nevertheless, it was a very rewarding learning experience in the end.

Adding to the difficulty is the fact that the image I was retouching was never intended to be a beauty shot. It was an uphill battle from the start, but it made me realize the value of shooting with the end in mind. This particular shoot was one of those, “Hey, let’s do something creative!” times when I phone a friend and experiment. If I was planning on retouching this as a beauty photo, then I would have been a lot more particular about minor details. Moral of the story: know where you’re going, and give yourself a head start.

I’m not usually one who favors plug-ins, but they’re up for consideration again. The thing I don’t like is that plug-ins are easy to duplicate –that’s the whole point of them really. Think of it like Instagram: everybody can apply the same filters to their photos, and in the end everyone’s photos end up looking the same. Personally I would rather spend time doing the work manually to create a unique look, not to mention learning how to achieve something without relying on a plug-in. In the tutorials linked above Sean uses Portraiture. For the next 14 days I’ll be taking it for a test drive. Until then the verdict is out.

The thing I love about beauty photography is that you are ultimately focusing on a single image. You don’t have to edit and deliver 600 photos like you would for a wedding. What I don’t like, however, are all the rules and regulations. There seems to be a very strict code one must adhere to –symmetry, no smiles, no veins in the eyeball, straight eyebrows, etc… I’m the kind of guy who like to break the rules. I like my shallow Depth of Field. I like creative shadows. I like to be surprised from time to time. I’m not saying beauty isn’t creative; it just operates under a different set of parameters than I’m used it.

Perhaps more than anything it taught me the value of collaboration. Most of my work is done by a one-man crew, but I’m realizing how limiting and boring it is to operate that way. I’m good at lighting things and capturing them in focus; that’s pretty much the extent of my specialty. I don’t know anything about hair or makeup (or food, or cars, or whatever else I may be shooting). The point is my work would be a heck of a lot better if I were working with a small team of individually skilled artists. Despite having written about this before, it’s still taking some time to sink in. Check back later; hopefully I’ll have it figured out then.

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