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The Art Of Retouching - Finally Pencilled In For The D&AD Awards

Updated: Apr 18, 2023

It goes without saying that I’m proud to serve as a judge at this year’s D&AD Awards in the Photography category. Without a doubt, this is a highlight in my career.
But as a retoucher, it goes way beyond that because it's also the first time that retouching has been a D&AD award in not just one, but two subcategories, of which I’m beyond proud to have initially suggested, worked towards and seen become a reality. Giving official recognition from the creative industry’s most prestigious awards with their coveted, oh so pretty, yellow pencils that retouching actually is a part of the creative process.
But, for most of its existence, this hasn’t been the case for retouching. This is underlined by most of the industry publication’s articles on D&AD 2023 not mentioning the new retouching subcategories (though they're clearly highlighted in the “what’s new” section of the entry kit) even as they announced the other new subcategories in the Photography section. It's like they're hiding retouching away like a monster in the attic.
Retouching has a reputation problem
I can’t really blame them, retouching has a big reputation problem. Say 'retouching' and most people will think we either spend our time removing all skin textures or mechanically cutting and pasting elements onto a master photo with our brains firmly turned off. Taking the output from “real” creatives and making it clean and fit for commercial purpose - a purely technical exercise.

Retouching: Vahakn Vorperian @ The Retouchers Ltd // Photography: Parisa Taghizadeh // Art Director: Charles Fern // Agency: Channel 5
When in reality, it’s so much more. A talented retoucher, often a photographer, illustrator or graphic designer in their own right, can bring a wealth of creative decision-making opportunities as well as artistic expertise to the photographic table. Far from being just technicians, we work hand in hand with Art Directors in collaboration to bring their vision fully to life.

It's a very rough scamp
Just as an architect needs a structural engineer to guide, form, and build their ideas, Art Directors 100% need retouchers to do the same for the fantastical images they want to create. As the renowned structural engineer Cecil Balmond whose legendary geometric collaborations with Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind and Alvaro Siza seemingly defy the laws of physics, says: “The engineer’s role is not just to build structures, but to help shape the architecture.”

I’d say this is the same relationship between Art Directors and Retouchers.

Cecil Balmond's Pedro E Inés Footbridge
The Art Director provides the raw material, big-picture ideas and direction, while a creative retoucher refines, perfects and evolves them. We can – and sometimes do – change almost every element of a photograph in post-production: adjusting colour, lighting and texture, combining and overlaying other images, integrating CGI, generating scenes that are often impossible to capture in real life. And by working together, having open and honest creative discussions, we can create campaigns that are both visually stunning, conceptually strong and potentially award-winning.

Retouching: Vahakn Vorperian @ The Retouchers Ltd // Photographer: Nicky Hamilton // CGI: Simon Allan @ Giant Bonsai // Agency: Adam & Eve DDB // Playstation Now
Which brings me back to D&AD.

Last year, I wanted to enter one of the campaigns I’d worked on but found that there was no place for me to spotlight the work I do. (Ironic, given that almost every image that’s submitted and used in advertising has had something done to it). The only choice I had was to ask the agency the work was done for to submit it. And, if the work won anything, the retoucher would be credited simply as crew. Retouching key visuals and key art will often take weeks, sometimes even months, to complete and not having an opportunity to be recognised for that creative dedication needed to change.

So, I took matters into my own hands.

I reached out to D&AD and asked why there wasn't a category for retouching. I wanted to know why artists like me, who put their all into creating stunning images, weren’t being recognised. To my absolute delight, D&AD responded quickly and I spent six months working together with Katie Hunter, Senior Awards Manager at the time, to create and set the standards for the new subcategories (3712 - Stills Compositing and 3713 - Retouching) that finally give retouchers the recognition and celebration we deserve.

As a judge for this year’s D&AD Awards, I’m honoured to have the opportunity to do just that for the best artists in our industry. I can’t wait to see the outstanding work and to learn in turn from my fellow judges. We now have a spotlight for the vital role that retouching plays in the creative process. So, if you’re a retoucher, get submitting now - I can’t wait to see your work!

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