Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Pre-touch or Re-touch?

A friend sent me a link to a thread on Model Mayhem which in turn led to an interesting link that featured some photos with mark-ups for retouching. (For a few Playboy centerfold pics.)

In that thread, well-known glamour and fetish photographer, Ken Marcus, commented about his days shooting for Playboy. In his comment, Ken said, "During the 11 years (1974 - 1985) that I shot centerfolds, calendars, pictorials and editorials for Playboy, there was a policy against retouching anything except the cover (to make sure text would contrast properly and be easily readable) Our policy during those days was: Pre-touch, rather than Re-touch."

Ken's words got me to thinking about the current state of glamour photography (in the digital age) and it's seeming dependence on post-production tools for making, leastwise hoping to make, impressive images. Often enough, heavily processed and re-touch-driven images either go beyond my ability to suspend disbelief or they simply suck as a result of the excessive and ridiculous amounts of processing and re-touching some photographers apply to their work.

I've probably beaten this subject to death in the past but nothing in the present has changed my opinion in terms of re-touching-- That is, that less is often more.

What I mean by "less is more" has less to do with the time and effort spent re-touching images and more to do with its obviousness.

When I was an editor (I'm talking video editor) one of the important things I learned about editing, be it film or video, was that the best editing is invisible. In other words, great editing doesn't call attention to itself: Cuts and dissolves and other edits all flow naturally, seamlessly, and invisibly. That's why motion picture editing is often referred to as "the soul" of a motion picture. It's there but viewer's aren't overly aware it's there.

In more than a few ways, I think re-touching photographic images is best accomplished when the re-touching is nearly invisible, calls little attention to itself, and seems natural. There are exceptions, of course. But those exceptions, in my opinion, generally refer to images that are as much digital art, perhaps more so, than they are photographs.

In order to produce photographs of high-caliber, the emphasis should be, as Ken Marcus mentioned, on pre-touch rather than re-touch. What that means is photographers should be learning all they can about the front-end of photography and doing everything they can, while in production, to reduce their reliance on re-touching to improve the quality of their photos.

In other words, pre-touch rather than re-touch.

Henri Carier-Bresson said, "The picture is good or not from the moment it was caught in the camera." That simple statement holds much truth!

Cartier-Bresson also said, "Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst." So, with that in mind, be patient. Keep working at improving you production skills. It doesn't happen overnight but, if you keep at it, it will happen. When it does, I think you'll find that pre-touch will trump re-touch in terms of producing good photos, glamour or otherwise.

The pretty girl at the top is Alexis from a shoot last night. I had about 15 minutes with Alexis and spent less than 5 minutes re-touching the above image. Could I have done more? Re-touching that is? Sure. Would the image be vastly improved? I'm not so sure. Improved, yes. Vastly improved? I don't know. Sometimes, things like re-touching (photographically) adheres to the law of diminishing returns.


Anonymous said...

When you start pre-touching and photoshopping pictures it just takes the pure beauty of the woman your shooting and throws it out the window.If she doesn't look good with just a little bit of make up then why even bother taking the photo's.

Tim said...

While I 100% agree with your maxim "pre-touch rather than re-touch" in spirit, digital post-processing offers many tools which adequately ape or even surpass their physical equivalents. This means we can often achieve similar images with less time, money, and equipment as well as having more flexibility in the digital darkroom. The major caveat is that these tools ought to be used only to the point that you would have on location (unless your aim is for the 'digital art' you mention.) Any photographer would be foolish to shun an available tool due solely to it's stigma. The goal, after all, is the printed image, not what it took us to make it. We should still strive for the two looks to be indistinguishable, but I for one won't let MUA issues wreck a shot photoshop could salvage. Love your work, and your blog is fantastic. I have much to learn from you.

jimmyd said...

@Tim: I'm certainly not arguing against retouching and processing and using the cool digital tools available. I certainly use them, albeit sparingly. (Which also, to some degree, is factored by me not being a highly-skilled re-toucher... which I don't really have much of a desire to be.) Where I take exception is when--digital art aside--the processing and retouching is very obvious and stands out quite prominently. Unless, of course, that was the intent all along. I've seen enough RAW images from some high-end shooters to know the lion's share of the credit for their finished products should go to the retouchers, the muas, stylists, and other crafts people.

Eric said...

I think the difference is in the way the project is approached. As a photographer you are attempting to capture a vision, and use post production tools to enhance that vision or correct slight imperfections. As a photographer, and a darn good one IMHO, an image that has been overly retouched detracts from the original vision of the artist who took the picture. It gets in the way and blocks what is truly there. Which I think is why you prefer the post production to be as invisible as possible.

A digital artist who is doing touch up work on a photograph has an entirely different perspective. The image he was handed is the canvas he has to work with. His vision may not at all match that of the photographer who took the picture, and therefor ends up in an entirely different place.

In my opinion the truly great images come from when the photographer and post production team communicate well and share a concept of what the finished piece should be.

I personally believe that once a single pixel has been changed on an image it becomes digital art, and is no longer a simple photograph. But I am also willing to admit I am an extremist in that regard.

And ultimately, as you have said several times, it comes down to what the client wants.

John said...

Seems to me that the issue isn't so much pre- or post-processing as it is what an idealized beautiful human looks like. A couple of years back, seemed to me every cover of every issue of "Cosmopolitan" looked like a plastic doll. It was accepted, apparently, although the covers seem less heavily "plasticized" now. Personally, I think humans should have skin with texture, teeth and eyes that aren't perfectly white, etc. I have no problem with retouching, "pre-touching", make-up, flattering lighting, or any of the tools of the trade - if the resultant image is effective. But my idea of effective isn't necessarily universally accepted.

Bill Giles said...

To me, pretouch means paying attention to detail, getting it right in camera. Retouch implies sloppy work, although there are retouchers that I admire. Post-processing isn't retouching, it's a creative process that Ansel Adams described as making the image match his vision. Post-processing isn't a digital age invention.