Retouching: how much is too much?


Retouching your photos is like adding salt to your paprikash: it’s all to your own taste.  Some people like a little, some like a little more, and some like a whole lot.  But at some point, if you go too far, it’s completely inedible.  Or in the case of photos, you just can’t look at it without laughing.

How do you know if you’ve gone too far?  If you answer “NO” to either of these questions, you’ve gone too far: 

Does it still look like me (me today, not 20 years ago)?

If a stranger looked at this photo and then saw me on the street, would they be able to recognize me?

The overall goal of headshot retouching is to optimize the photo so that it looks like you on your absolute best day.  You should still have lines, wrinkles, and pores and all the other facial accoutrements that make us human, but softened and made less noticeable at a first glance.  When we take something three dimensional like a face and make it two dimensional, and are seeing it frozen in time on a computer screen and not in person in real life, our eyes are drawn to things that we’re not drawn to when seeing a physical face in actual space and time.

We want people to look at our photo and think, “well that’s a friendly looking, confident person with a nice smile.”  So we retouch anything distracting that draws the eyes from that overall picture of a friendly-looking person.

I’ll use my own face as an example.  In person, no one ever notices that one of my eyes is a little bigger than the other.  You don’t see slight unevenness in my skin tone or redness or shine.  Your eyes filter out stray hairs at the top of my head so you can listen to the super brilliant things I’m saying.  But in a photo, your eyes might go to those distracting areas.  (To be honest, it’s really our own eyes that will ONLY go to those places when looking at our own photos—our friends, neighbors, and strangers on the street don’t look at those things, but I digress…) 

So here’s my photo with no retouching:

And here’s my photo with the right amount of retouching, which just removes, reduces, or diminishes anything distracting and overall just optimizes the image:

Now, for funsies, here’s my photo with some RETOUCHING GONE OVERBOARD… I don’t have any wrinkles anymore, my undereye areas have become one with my cheeks, my skin is poreless and has ceased to become skin, all of my freckles are gone, and overall it just doesn’t look like me anymore:

Now if that last one is more your style, we’re getting into the territory of what we’ll call “artistic license retouching,” or using photo manipulation to create a work of art based on the human form instead of accurately depicting the human form.  This is a type of retouching that works great for fashion magazine covers, but not so great for LinkedIn profile photos. 

That doesn’t mean we can’t steal some of the techniques to even our skin tone, straighten a slightly crooked nose, or diminish some eye bags.  Just as long as done pinch by pinch and not tablespoon by tablespoon. 

When your photo has been retouched, just ask yourself: if this photo were used by Interpol to find me after I commit an international crime would I be easily caught?


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