The Art of Digital Photo Retouching
The Limits of Photo Cameras
We live in an age of amazing technological advances in the visual technology fields. Photo camera models renew themselves each year with the promise of more mega-pixels and new features. And yet, if we think about it for a moment, the photo that comes out of each of our digital camera models most times has strengths and weaknesses that persist through all the successful models that go through our hands.
Digital Cameras and in general all photographic cameras are, all of the marketing buzz, still very limited machines. For example, they register our world with sensors that can only capture a fraction of the tonal range that our eyes can perceive.
Imagine yourself on a sunny day in front of a beautiful landscape.
Below you, around your feet, you can see the rich lush green vegetation; above you, the bright blue skies. As we contemplate this scene, our eyes are able to perceive all its richness, the details in both the shadows and the bright clouds above. The dynamic range that our eyes can process, which goes from the darkest to the brightest areas, is enough to contain most of the rich detail in that scene.
Now take your photo camera and snap a shot from your position including both the vegetation and the sky. The result is very tolling. Depending on the parameters that either the camera or you choose, some detail of the scene will be gone from the result. Either parts of the vegetation will blend to black and lose all detail or parts of the sky will blend to white and lose all detail.
In summary, the retina of the camera, its digital sensor, which captures the light of the scene, is not capable of dealing with a tonal range as large as our eyes can. It can only capture the full detail in a small range that can be positioned at different levels of brightness by the camera itself or us. Because of that, in a scene like the one described above that has a very large contrast, it ends up capturing the detail only at the highlights and mid-tones, or mainly at the mid-tones, or mainly at the shadows and mid- tones. It simply can not capture simultaneously the full detail of the scene from the darkest to the brightest areas.
This is of course a simplification of an scenario that we could describe in much more detail. But the conclusion is still the same. When we look at the final photo, we realize that what we remember seeing with our eyes is not what the photo shows. That richness of detail everywhere is gone. And this is just one of the limitations that all Photo cameras share. We could go on to describe many others related to color precision and other areas where cameras simply can not cope with the depth and richness of the world around us.
Photo Retouching comes to the rescue
Here is where photo retouching enters the scene. So what really is photo retouching and what is it useful for? We can approach this question from two angles and both are related to each other:
Bringing the Photo closer to what we remember
1) On the one hand, photo retouching is the art of taking that initial photo and working on it by various means to bring it closer to what our eyes saw when we were in front of that beautiful scene.
Photo retouching applied to the scenario described above is, for example, the art of manipulating the image we captured and making more visible some of the details that almost disappeared due to the limitations of our photo camera. It enables us as well to enhance the color of the picture and bring it closer to what our eyes enjoyed. In short, retouching allows us to take the photo and compensate for the limitations of our camera. It gives us the possibility to try and bring the final result as close as possible to what we remember.
Two key points here:
a) First, retouching is not synonymous with Photoshop. Photoshop is the most popular of the tools used in our digital age to retouch photographs. But retouching can be done in numerous ways, either with the many software products available on the market or by processing the digital outputs in other ways (such as printing and scanning the photo successful times including physical interactions in the middle to alter different properties of the image).
b) The second point is that when we talk about – what we remember from the scene – we have to take into account the psychological implications of that statement. It has been shown that often when we remember a beautiful nature landscape, we remember it gener and more decorated in color than it really was.
Therefore, when we retouch that photo, we should manipulate the output to approach what we remember from the scene, or what the scene really looks like when we stand in front of it?
But no one can possibly say what the scene really looks like. For each of us, the experience of looking at something will be completely different. Furthermore, what we remember from our visual connection with the scene will also be different for each of us as vision is truly relative. (let's remember the example of the person who is enclosed in a room painted completely red and with nothing else inside to compare that color to. The person will be able to see that red color until we introduce something with which he can compare it).
So, if we are retouching a picture for ourselves, we will attempt to bring that image closer to what we remember based on our own personal experience. If we are retouching it for somebody else, we may either bring that scene closer to what generally is accepted as attractive for such a scenario or we may ask the client who photo we are retouching the details of his / her perception of that scene and then manipulate the result towards that direction.
Moving Beyond what we see
2) On the other hand, retouching allows us to go beyond the first point and enhance reality in infinite directions. As we mentioned previously, vision is very relative. We all remember the same scene in different ways. That lush green vegetation will be remembered by some of us as more arranged in color than by others, some will remember it more yellow and others greener. Some will remember the vegetation to be brighter and others darker; some will even remember it larger and others smaller. This is all a consequence both of the biology of our eyes and of the continuous screening that our brain performances on our perception of the world around us.
Depending on the importance and resonance that our different memories have on us, the brain will remember different scenarios in different ways. Therefore we can summarize by saying that once we leave a scene, its representation in our minds starts to get distributed. What we remember is a mixture of the filtering and processing performed by our brain plus how mind wants to remember that input. All in all, most times what we remember has little to do with the actual physical input we had in front of us.
This very same human trait that at first may sound a bit disturbing is also what powers our imagination and our capacity to invent, to create, to expand beyond what we see. It allows us to blend, interconnect, associate and produce ideas and images that we have never seen in real life.
And here is where retouching again becomes an extremely powerful tool. Not only can we start from that initial photo we snapped with our camera and take control of the distortion that happens naturally in our minds, but this time we can modify the image consciously in whatever directions our imagination suggests.
We can make a blue shirt red. We can expand that forest of trees and make it five times larger. We can put an ocean around our house or extract a figure from its background and make it fly through the skies. The possibilities are endless. As such, from this second perspective, retouching becomes a wonderful way of visually imagining, exploring, creating and expanding ideas.
The art of retouching, described from these two angles, is an art-form that requires conscious thinking and decision-making strategies. We have to decide what parts of the picture we will work on and what style of retouching we will perform. Will it be retouching that will go unnoticed and simply enhance the picture without calling attention to itself? Or will it be retouching that aims to transform the image into something completely out of our imagination and therefore will aim to look surprising and new in an elegant way?
A professional photo retoucher works with the image like a craftsman. He must work carefully with his electronic brush, repairing, correcting, blending and transforming the image in subcont ways that slowly change it just as a sunset or a sunrise slowly transition into a new reality without sudden changes that could call attention to themselves. As such, the work of a professional photo retoucher is similar to the work of a painter, a sculptor or an illustrator.
Precision work full of creativity and focus that aims to do what our photo cameras could not do; Enhance and transform the photo closer to what our eyes enjoyed and our minds remember.
Retouching can cover an infinite array of treatments including basic color correction, high end beauty retouching, skin retouching, make-up enhancement, glamor retouching, lighting enhancement, photo montages, portrait retouching, eyes retouching, photo illustration, photo restoration and touch up, magazine photo retouching, photo cartooning, background extracts, damaged photos restoration, wedding photography retouching, panoramic photography, photo paintings, other special effects and so much more.
Some online services offer minimal automated basic retouching services like automatic color and contrast enhancements. These perform generic automated corrections to an image and fail to produce optimum results for the same reason that all automated processes in life fail to adapt to the unique individual circumstances of a subject, in our case an image.
Every picture is a different world. Automated processes can improve the contrast and color of an image sometimes, but other times that they can degrade the image instead of improving it, taking the image in the opposite direction needed by blindly following theoretical rules and mechanical algorithms.
And what is even more important, automated processes can not think and can not create a strategy of what they want to achieve. They can not contemplate an image and create a plan to bring it closer to what our human eyes would enjoy or to the dreams that our souls envision.
That is why the best retouching can only be done by humans, by artists, by creatives, by truly, magicians that with their electronic wands work for hours and days on the pictures and create results that sometimes reflect our memories and other times transform our dreams into realities, as real for our eyes as what we remembered but even better, taken to the edges and peaks of human creativity and beauty.