top of page

Beyond Filters: The Power of Professional Retouching

Photography: Ludwig Shammasian
As a professional retoucher, I am excited to see that this art form is finally being celebrated in the D&AD Awards, and now the Martin Evening Excellence in Digital Retouching awards for the AOP. When the winners for both of these are announced, this will undoubtedly shine a new light on what we do and educate the industry as a whole on how much craft goes into image post-production.

Retouching is often misunderstood, and its reputation has been distorted over time. However, it is an essential element in creating stunning imagery, whether the brief is geared towards minimal retouching or creating hyperreal worlds. From my experience, most people have a preconceived idea of what retouching is, even from within the creative industry. We get a bunch of pictures and smash the big Photoshop button - job done.

Retouching: Vahakn Vorperian @ The retouchers Ltd // Photography: Sarah Cresswell // Client: The Observer Magazine
Some people believe that retouching goes against ethical principles, but in reality, every image that we see has gone through some form of a process. Just because nobody has touched the cloning tool and regardless of how complex or simple the image, whether you know it or not, something has been done.
It’s clear that a majority of people don’t really know what is involved - even when keeping the authenticity of an image.


When considered in basic terms, retouching falls into two main stages: the technical stage and the creative stage.
The technical stage involves, amongst other things, ensuring unwanted elements are removed, having consistent exposures across the imagery being used that works either as a family of pictures or as a comp. So when I am crafting an image from multiple assets, it is this part of the retouching process where I constantly question the work I am doing as the image evolves. I never ask myself, "does this image look real?" The constant question is always "why DOESN’T it look real?" The reason for this is that I am hunting for all of the details, the visual cues, all the tiny things our eyes and brains pick up on that need to be built into an image for us to believe it. I am analysing the construct and working out the correct colour matching, perspective, lighting, shadowing, and where those aspects can be improved.

Retouching: Vahakn Vorperian @ The Retouchers Ltd // Photography: Yolanda Y. Liou // Client ITV - Loose Women
Take our latest campaign for ITV's Loose Women - Body Stories shot by Yolanda Y. Liou, which is all about championing body positivity. So much retouching was done for this project, but NONE of it was on skin work, nor was there body shaping done. So, what retouching could possibly be needed? I spent several days cutting out the cast, creating movable groups of the cast and their shadows which I chopped out from the photography, building a master background, and removing pesky creases where the garments got crumpled throughout the day's shoot. A true example of when no retouching IS retouching.

The second stage is the creative process - it’s the fun part, the part where we get to grade, to paint in effects and textures and turn awesome pictures into even more awesome campaigns. That’s not to say the technical stage can’t be fun. Problem solving is well within the remit of what retouchers bring to a project. But, I do love creating scenes that bring disparate assets together into a unified image.

Here’s an example of just that.

Retouching: Vahakn Vorperian @ The REtouchers Ltd // Photgraphy: Jat Brooks // Art Director: Charles Fern // Client: Channel 5 - Compulsion
This image was created for Channel 5's drama Compulsion shot by Jay Brooks. When art director Charles Fearn came to me, he had a scamp and mood board already created. We chatted ahead of the photo shoot where I gave advice on the kinds of assets I needed and how best to capture the cast so that I would be able to seamlessly integrate them into the scene.

Final scamp
Thankfully, Charlie has a lot of trust in the quality of work and allowed me creative freedom to source images and textures to build the scene. You can also get a taste of how much went into the shot by some of the assets used to create the scene. I found a use for everything from the surface of Mars to standard ember assets.

Some of the main assets used
Retouching is far from just a tool, and it's more than just hitting the Photoshop button. It's an art form that requires a combination of technical and highly creative skills, which demand an artist's eye for detail. As two major industry bodies are now recognising the importance of retouching, we are taking a significant step forward in re-educating the industry about this craft. Understanding the complexity and artistry involved and having creative discourse can help us continue to create stunning imagery that tells powerful stories, evokes emotions or just looks bloody cool!

The celebration of retouching through these awards shows that we are finally moving beyond filters and recognising the power of professional retouching. I'm thrilled to see where this will lead and excited to continue pushing the boundaries of what is possible through the art of retouching.


bottom of page