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When to Edit Skin – and When to Leave it

At some point in their career, every photographer – whether professional or hobbyist – will come across one big question. That question is, should you retouch a person’s skin? If you do, how much should you retouch it? There are plenty of arguments both for and against, but there is a way to decide logically and calmly whether retouching should be done. Here we’ll go through all of the reasons that you should edit skin, as well as all of the times when you should not.


Image is courtesy of Oh So Savvy Photography

Edited using the Summerana Skin Essentials Photoshop Action Collection

When to Edit Skin

There are a number of situations where it is perfectly reasonable to edit skin, using either hand edits or the Summerana Skin Essentials – Photoshop Action Collection. It may even be expected as part of your work. Here are those situations, in as exhaustive a list as we can manage.

  • Commercial photography – Commercial photography refers to work which is produced for a company for their own use. For example, you might be producing an advert, a website image,  a catalogue image, or something for use on their social media accounts. In the commercial world, retouching is always expected to include skin. Your final edit should show smooth and unblemished skin, though it does need to appear real rather than plastic. Including some natural texture is the best way to achieve this. Models should be wrinkle-free where possible, and you may even change the shape of their bodies and parts of their faces.
  • Fashion photography – It is considered normal to retouch skin on fashion editorials where they are taken in studio or on location. This does not include runway photography, which is normally left untouched. Again, you want the skin to be blemish- and wrinkle-free. You may also change the shape of the body and facial features. The extreme to which you go normally depends on the client. If you were aiming for a high-end glossy like Vogue, you would go to the furthest extreme to achieve a body ideal for the fashion world. If you were going into a more natural-focused magazine which favors showing the clothes over finding the perfect model, you might only smooth the features out.
  • Senior photography, Newborn photography and other portraits – When working with a private client to produce portraiture, you will want to do some smoothing here and there. Spots and blemishes are a temporary part of our faces and skin, and will disappear over time, so there’s no reason to always include them in a portrait. You can also take out small hairs, such as around the lips or eyebrows, which look like they shouldn’t be there. Sometimes these show up under studio lights when they normally wouldn’t be visible! This only applies to temporary skin marks which will go away with time, including spots, hairs, red marks, sunburn, dry skin, and so on. It does not include moles, birthmarks, freckles, scars, or other permanent features.
  • Celebrities – While you may not photograph celebrities often, you should think about retouching their skin if you ever do. The reason for this is that most of their photographs are retouched in general. When you look at an album cover or a book sleeve or a magazine article, those images will be retouched. If you leave their skin looking natural, you might find that their manager or PR expert refuses to allow the photographs to be used!
  • Make-up – If you see issues with the model’s makeup, these can be retouched as well. You can take out stray flecks of mascara on the cheeks, smooth out uneven foundation, and also add “powder” by reducing the shiny highlights on the nose and forehead. Make-up can often look great in person but suffer under the studio lights, so feel free to boost it up and get it looking great. You can also use the Glamourana Makeup and Hair Essentials – Photoshop Action Collection to add make-up if you missed it out during the shoot.



When to Leave It

So, we’ve looked at when you should edit skin. But when should you leave it be? Here are a few things to leave as natural as possible.

  • Natural Flaws – We touched on this already, but you should always leave real and natural flaws be. If they are a permanent part of the skin, then it’s too odd to remove them from a portrait. The rules change for fashion and commercial photography, when the focus of the image is not necessarily the person but what they are trying to sell. A portrait on the other hand is all about that person. That’s why you should leave their flaws in place.
  • Teens and children – While taking out teen acne is fine and fair, any other kind of retouching on the skin other than minimal smoothing and contouring should be avoided at all costs. Teens don’t want a reminder of how awful their skin was in high school, but there’s no reason that any other part of their skin should be changed too drastically. Leave it natural looking – in most cases there’s nothing to change anyway, as they have no wrinkles or sunspots yet. Over-retouching images of children gives them an unrealistic view of perfection, and encourages them to strive for something that is not actually possible. This can promote feelings of self-consciousness and even issues such as eating disorders.
  • Male faces – Interestingly enough, male faces are often far less retouched than female ones. If your male model has no obvious blemishes on his face, you’re fine to leave it as it is. Even wrinkles are often fine to leave, as they give character to the face. It’s a bit of a double standard, but unfortunately the photography industry has upheld this standard since the dawn of retouching and so it continues today. Leaving a natural male face is a great idea, and you can practice leaving female faces untouched where possible in your work too if you want to even things out for the genders.
  • Personality – Finally, make sure to leave untouched anything which gives personality to a face. A woman may have deep laughter lines because she is such a carefree person, or there may be scarring which tells of a personal battle for health. If you can see that something adds character to your model, always leave it as it is.

If you liked this article, take a peek at this 5-minute skin hack!

So there you have it. Do you agree or disagree with our lists? Tell us in the comments if there are any other situations where you would or wouldn’t retouch skin.

2 thoughts on “When to Edit Skin – and When to Leave it”

  1. Thank you for all of this very useful info. You have done a great job on your blog. Commercial photography agencies need to learn from this article when and how to edit images for their business. Thanks for sharing such a knowledgeable tip.

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