THE STEALTH WORK OF RETOUCHING
Retouching is a job best done in the dark. Despite what you may believe according to the on/off airbrushing debates, it is a job which, if done well, leaves no trace. The better it’s performed, the less it gets talked about. We make people look good – not just the subject, but also the photographer, the stylist, the model and everyone on the shoot, whose input is less than 100%. We improve and ‘finish’ their work. Retouchers are the ultimate fixers. We fix and finish photographs.
We fix faces, figures, clothes, wonky walls, dirty floors and the odd telegraph pole emerging from the model’s head. We remove roadworks, houses, beer bottles and cigarette butts, and the mobile phone in someone’s pocket. We fix the composition, adjust the colour, re-orchestrate the lighting and create an interesting mood.
We give the photographer’s work a distinct look, and apply his/her ‘style’ on demand. Or even someone else’s style; it’s often asked of us to reverse engineer a well-known photographer’s style and apply it to a series of images. When there’s no art direction we give it our best anyway, even when the client brief is: “Just make it more interesting!”. Usually I struggle to keep a bit of humanity in the shots; a bit of reality. Often I lose that battle. Flawless finish is simply what’s expected. I’m not going to illustrate this post. If you’re reading it I’m sure you already have an insight into the subject, but if you need to see examples of retouched images, have a look at my retouching showcase.
THE COME-AND-GO AIRBRUSHING DEBATES
And then, at regular intervals, we shady creatures get pulled into the limelight. When the big ‘Airbrushing’ debate once in a while rears its head, we are dragged out of the shade, and we emerge, blinking, to answer for our sins in the media.
For surely it’s all our fault; anorexia, the pressure on young girls, rampant consumerism and quite possibly the end of the world.
Retouching is by many seen to be downright evil. It’s criticised as being complete fantasy. It glamorises and idolises the rich and powerful, makes the skinny even skinnier, and pretty girls get even smoother and more symmetrical. It’s funny how media players suddenly forget their own retouched press shots when there’s a new wave of the big airbrushing debate. A couple of years ago I was listening to a certain female presenter on the radio, getting on her high horse about the ethics of models being airbrushed and normal women (for example like herself; bottle blonde, overwheight and middle aged) not being able to live up to that image. Well, don’t you think her own press shots have been retouched? Count on it! I emailed her during that show to mention just that, but of course there was no comment or reply. If you’re in any doubt, I can say that everyone visible in the media gets the treatment – men, women, young, old, pretty, ugly or just downright average. To think it’s just models who are retouched is a totally naive notion. I’ve retouched press images of UK celebrities who have publicly gone out against retouching, and it’s quietly been approved or gone below the radar.
RETOUCHERS ARE THE PERFECT SCAPEGOATS
When the outcry against ‘airbrushing’ arises once in a while, the media go looking for scapegoats. They contact retouchers like me, and do their best to make us look like the villains, with the lure of 15 minutes of fame. I’ve been approached several times. Mostly I’ve declined. But once, for a well-known broadcasting company, I said yes, and was asked by them if I could retouch an image of the presenter to pixel-perfection, and to transform her to look airbrushed/unreal. I think they were quite upset when I retouched the rather low-quality, unprofessionally shot photo that was handed to me, making it look more faithful to the lovely presenter who was actually sitting right next to me – just bringing out the best in her; un-hunching her shoulders (that were normally straight), making the hair a bit more symmetrical, and reducing the glare of a flash that had bleached out her face. In short, I gave her image more dignity and fidelity to the real person sitting next to me. Clearly it was not what they wanted, but it went on-air, and I got the feeling I had not lived up to my role as the terrible airbrusher.
VANITY IN PORTRAITURE IS NOTHING NEW
It’s funny how critics of retouching forget about hundreds of years tradition of portrait painting. Realism? I don’t think so. Flattery? For sure. It’s an age-old tradition, and anyone who per se is anti-retouching should take a course in art history, and they will realise this is nothing new. Important figures through the ages have always commissioned vanity portraits, and painters have always obliged, making the sitter appear more powerful, iconic and attractive. Do anti-airbrush-campaigners ever consider that there’s a commissioning client behind pretty much every published image today? And who do they think calls the shots? The retoucher? I hate to tell you, but we are the ones with the skill, not the will. Retouchers are typically instructed by their client:
“She looks a bit chubby, that leg’s a bit strange, the eye bags need to go”. Retouchers are generally briefed to remove anything that doesn’t conform to the norm, under the motto – when in doubt, remove or reduce. “And then there’s her arms, she’s funny about her arms, can you do something about that arm hair?”
IT’S NOT JUST THE WOMEN WHO GET THE TREATMENT
“Oh yes, and Damian says can you chisel him a bit more than the other guys in the band. … oh, and check his hairline, will you?”– For the record, it’s not just women who are heavily retouched. The male players in the music industry are often quite obsessed with it. What’s so funny is that these suggestions are often indirect. The retoucher’s brief is often vague and rarely comes in writing. “check this, check that” – a very subtle way of saying “change this, change that”. Or “smooth this, smooth that”, which is the most oft-used term. For the record, pro retouchers don’t airbrush (in the common understanding of the word), ‘Airbrushing’ is a complete misnomer, used by people who have no understanding of the professional process. But we remove – oh yes we remove everything that’s disturbing. Everything disturbing that the photographer didn’t see, or simply a part of the background that couldn’t be physically removed.
I was once asked to remove a whole person. He represented half the image, and happened to stand in front of a highly detailed chair. I had to rebuild the chair. Why? The other guy wanted to be on his own in the image.
FROM THE VAGUE BRIEF TO PIXEL PERFECTION
The client pressure for perfection is usually a veiled, often guilt-ridden demand. Nobody really likes to summarise the extent of the retouching and admit that the image is nothing without radical digital intervention. Not to mention confidentiality agreements and the hush-hush on bigger commercial jobs, especially for cosmetics companies. It’s only when the retoucher doesn’t take the art director’s polite hints at digital cosmetic surgery, that the directives start coming hard and fast, at 20 emails per hour. Suddenly the client pipes up. The photographer, who handed over images without comment or a brief is suddenly on the ball, with lots of ideas and solutions. And his agent too. It’s suddenly as if the clothes chosen for the shoot and that were so cool at the time, are now wrong wrong wrong. “Sorry, her legs are way too fat, please make them thinner. And longer please. The belt makes her look awful. That dress wasn’t meant to be shiny. Or red. Please make it white!” Suddenly the lighting is considered all wrong, and we feel almost as if we were the culprit, when the art director says “I know his double chin is lit from below… but surely you can shade it thinner.” Ah well, so much for holding back and keeping it real.
These direct instructions usually happen verbally – never in writing. Deniability is crucial for those that commission retouching, especially in organisations that are seen to be politically correct.
So ‘they’ want to label retouching, on a scale of 1-6 (6 being immoral, lethal and downright degrading). Absolutely fine by me. If that’s the only way retouchers can get credit in a magazine or on a CD cover, I’ll say yay to that. Because you won’t see my name on the credits even if I spent a day or three, giving it my very best. But please, let’s also label the politician’s press shot, and the BBC’s press images. What’s always funny is how every public figure believes in the authenticity of their own press shot, that they are somehow that well put together, composed, tidy, svelte and definitely not shiny-nosed. I hate to break it to you, most photography that emerges from the camera these days is completely unsuitable for publication, and most of the photographers who approach the likes of me gets a firm refusal when they offer us work on below-par images. Thankfully there are still some good photographers out there that I’ve enjoyed working with, but on the whole, there is a shortage of skill in the profession, and the threshold for calling oneself a photographer appears to be the ownershop of a professional camera, a half-decent lighting kit and a business card.
Towards the end of the film “The Ghost” the ex-prime minister’s ghost writer, played by Ewan McGregor sneaks in as a “plus one” at his own book launch. “Ghost writers are never invited at launch parties as a rule. We’re an embarrassment, like a mistress at a wedding”
IS IT POSSIBLE TO CREATE PERFECT IMAGES WITHOUT RETOUCHING?
The concept of “perfect” is subjective, so I can only speak for myself. But I worked as a commercial photographer for a decade, without retouching, and the attitude then was totally different. We had to plan the shoot in detail, often with storyboards, and then clean up the location, styling it as perfectly as possible. Hair-stylists had to work to perfection and be on set all the time. The same went for stylists, who were in constant attendance, as any wrinkle in the clothes would be unacceptable. I would often set the focus very selectively, throwing large parts of the image out of focus and with bokeh, to disguise and simplify flaws in backgrounds. To make a long story short, the work that often gets done in post-production today, would be dealt with in pre-production back then.
Is it possible to not rely on retouching? Yes, I think it can be avoided to a great extent. But can we have a workflow without Photoshop (or the equivalent)? No, because images have to be digitized, and in this process they have to be colour-corrected at the very least, then resized and sharpened, and the temptation will always be to fix some flaws while we’re in that process.
CREDITING RETOUCHERS WORK?
Personally, I’m a fanatic about good and great photography, and for me it’s a triumph when a photo needs no retouching at all, apart from interpretation of contrast and colour. That’s my holy grail. Sounds like I am in the wrong job, and I’d say that’s a quite correct conclusion. I’ll admit I’ve worked as a retoucher for bread and butter– not for passion – and I’ve always done photography for love. I got into retouching almost by mistake. It simply segued from retouching my own images (as little as possible) to being asked to retouch other photographers’ work, as the industry to a great extent stopped paying for editorial photography. Having transitioned from a world of light, to this shady world of retouching, where my input often is no less than that of the photography, I feel that my colleagues and I deserve some credit. The amount of work done in post-production today often exceeds the labour put into the shoot – yet there is seldom any mention of it.
Look at the credits in for example Vogue magazine. There are credits for photographer, models, stylist, make-up artist, hair stylist, and often for production and assistants. There’s even a credit for the manicure, even when you hardly see the nails. But do you see a credit for retouching? No. Most magazines have a policy of no credit for the post-production, retouching, or whatever you want to call it.
COPYRIGHT AND THE RETOUCHER’S INPUT
In Annie Leibowitz book “At Work” she talks at length about the contribution from her assistants, but, nothing about the significant work of her retouchers, apart from saying that (quote) “the digital guys (presumably digital assistants) made it sound like it was all smoke and mirrors”. If I say that her images are widely known to be retouched by Box Studios or Pascal Dangin, one of the most lauded retouching artists, and that her images are usually extensively retouched these days, wouldn’t that be worth a mention? If photographers were to be honest about their work, should they not be willing to talk about the collaboration or contribution from skilled artists with essential creative and technical input? Well – I guess nobody likes it when someone else steals their thunder, but please give credit where credit is due! Let’s face it, people are only too quick to deal the blame on retouchers when retouching goes wrong. In extreme cases, when what you’re looking at is nothing short of a digital painting, I would even question the copyright belonging to the photographer. Often one published image is a composite of several shots, even if the final output doesn’t look like a montage. On the other hand, we have to take for granted that today all images go through at least a minimum level of post production, such as colour adjustment and sharpening for output. That’s just part of the process and therefore we cannot say that there is such a thing as a non-photoshop workflow. There’s always a level of judgement, contrast and ‘cleaning’ involved.
But if a photographic image is un-publishable without extensive correction and creative retouching, should there not be a joint artistic credit?
CAN WE TALK ABOUT THIS?
At the risk of professional suicide, these are some thoughts I’d like to throw out there for further discussion. In a nutshell, could we turn around the debate on retouching, to a more constructive view on the retouching profession and its role? Instead of a retouching rating system or a public health warning, could we instead fight for more exposure of our work, and cast it in a more professional light? I know most retouchers are very discreet about the work we do, partly because we are privy to a certain intimacy with our subjects, and we feel somehow loyal to those faces and bodies we scrutinize and manipulate at a larger-than-life view. It’s a well-paid job, and it’s quite natural that most of us are afraid to lose work by talking about it – even more so demanding a credit. I wish the retouchers who sit in shaded rooms could come together and use our collective voice to put pressure on those who commission the retouching, to honour our highly skilled and creative work with a credit. Going back to what I said at the beginning, when we do a really great job, the work we do doesn’t get noticed. Why is it only the retouching that goes overboard that gets the attention? It’s because our good work goes quietly under the radar.
I’ve stuck my head out, and I only dare to share these thoughts as I am now leaving this profession and I have nothing to lose. I still care about the ethics and skills of retouching and I hope that future retouchers will fight for a better positioning in this industry. Now – get that ball rolling…
It’s in your court now. Pass it on!
I’ve been thinking lately about how people grow to learn Photoshop and retouching, and how I went from being a photographer to becoming a square-eyed digital sort of person.
It starts with the frustration of trying to achieve something in-camera, or obtain a certain colour effect. Once you start dabbling you find a couple of effects you get excited about, and then you use them on everything… till you realise that in fact that didn’t quite work. Then you start reading up and trying out YouTube tutorials, download lots of Photoshop Actions and you apply it ALL to one image, feeling like you’ve developed a lot, but ending up with a complete mess. Take 3: You start finding your own way. It works, but not quite. It’s long winded and complicated. Take 4: The penny drops. You realise that it has to be simpler. It has to be built on know-how and skill.
Having gone through all these stages myself, I recognise them in others. I recognise the urgency of wanting to get straight to what you want to achieve, without having to watch 7 hours on a video tutorial or DVD. I recognise the pressure on photographers and retouchers to deliver to deadlines and the need for efficiency in the industry. And I’ve seen quite a few retouchers who needed help in untangling a job or boosting their skills.
I have learned primarily from books and industry retouchers, plus lots of practice and experimentation. My first experience was when I swapped a Photoshop 5 training session for a haircut. (Not CS5!) The (then) guru Maxwell Ferguson taught me Photoshop’s Curves and I tamed his lion’s mane. There weren’t any Photoshop tutorials on the internet, and I tried to apply 10 years of darkroom work to my digital images. In vain… my blacks were too rich and my pixel retouching was a mess. I then took an evening course twice a week and stayed up the whole night.
After sleepless nights of Photoshop practicing, I improved my Photoshop skills fast. One or two times after the evening class, I couldn’t get to the studio and my computer, and what I’d learnt the previous night had all but evaporated when I came in the next morning. Which neatly takes me to point #1…
HOW TO LEARN AND DEVELOP RETOUCHING SKILLS
1. PRACTICE WHAT YOU LEARN, WITHOUT ANY DELAY!
From teaching Photoshop and retouching over a decade, I’ve been in a position to observe the effect of instant practice – or lack of it. Regardless of talent and IQ, those who practice their new Photoshop skills straight away will grow rapidly and return to me with fruits of their labour, ready to build further. Those who don’t believe me when I say (like strict Miss at school) “DO YOUR HOMEWORK BEFORE TEATIME!!” will come back to me in the need for a refresher. It’s the brain-to-hand thing that has to be practiced. Just do it, straight away! When I teach 1-1 I don’t teach a whole day, because I know the limit is 3 hours. After that, you’re exhausted and your head’s full of new things you need to try out before they evaporate. To use a fancy word, you need to consolidate. By stumbling a bit, then reading your notes or my handouts, and then solving the problem, you’ll have made it your own, and it stays in your mind that way!
2. READ BOOKS AND WATCH VIDEOS, BUT DON’T BELIEVE IT ALL!
With books, I like to read them first, take some notes, and then pick out parts to try out, or (in later years) see if the technique/tool stands up to scrutiny. Believe it or not, there are many mistakes in text books, and not all of Photoshop’s tools are well-behaved, so take it with a tiny pinch of salt. Try it yourself! Some people prefer the ‘live’ version on a Photoshop DVD or video tutorial. This can be great if you’re less inclined to read, and perhaps more trusting of something you see and hear. However, although some of them are good, there are also a ton of video tutorials out there that are totally destructive, without any regard for editability or output outside of the big www. Of course I do recommend my own stuff, and I try to be as accurate as possible in my ebooks and videos, but there are also some classics out there that are definitely worth checking out:
If you want a bible of what Photoshop does in any given version, Martin Evening is your man. It’s a good book for looking something up. If you’re wondering what a certain tool can do, he knows.
There is an Adobe PS Help file for every version, which has always been useful to me, although it strangely has gotten shorter as Photoshop’s bigger! It used to be my study manual when I was an Adobe Certified Expert. I’m now happily lapsed, as I feel time is better spent on really digging deeper into the parts that we use for retouching.
If you’re into fine printing, landscape and abstract, have a look at John Paul Caponigro. I learnt so much from his ancient Masterclass book, and he’s still around and going strong. It wasn’t so much the imagery I got from him, but his clear vision and the layout of the book, which was so refreshingly minimal compared to others.
I’m no supporter of blind Evangelism, but Julieanne Kost, Adobe Evangelist, is one that I watch every time something new comes out. She’s straightforward, no-nonsense and a photographer herself, with lots of know-how on Lightroom and Photoshop. In fact, all of these are also photographers.
Katrin Eismann comes from photo illustration background and she’s a respected educator and a good writer.
These are heavyweights and there are of course many others! Early on I found that although it’s important to find training materials that match your level, the best resources are those that take you on a steep but DEEP learning curve, up to a high level, but never missing out the basics.
I’ll also mention one author’s books that I’ve learnt a couple of valuable lessons from, but whose style and rhetoric makes me cringe, and I tend to skip pages: Dan Margulis, a former printer who is CMYK and Lab centric.
Don’t get caught up in the quest for the latest. I’m currently re-reading the out-of-print (but still available) Channel Chops, from 1998 by David Biedny, Bert Monroy and Nathan Moody. It’s a key book, and still so very relevant.
3. LEARN ABOUT THE VERY SPECIAL THINGS UNIQUE TO PHOTOGRAPHY
Have you thought about how motion is something not really recorded in pictures until Eadweard Muybridge managed to freeze it? Or how the camera captures motion or sway on long shutter speeds? We often talk of images like this as ‘painterly’, when in fact they are inherently photographic! Have you noticed how incredibly tricky it is to make this kind of effect ring true when digitally applied to a sharply captured image? In fact, the short depth of field, which is another thing special to photography, is also very hard to recreate without making it look fake to trained eyes. So if you don’t have photographic training, I recommend trying to see as many print exhibitions as possible. Attempt to see both new and old work, and try to analyse the greats.
My favourites when I started out were Deborah Turbeville (no good website, hence google image search here), Sarah Moon, Richard Avedon, Lillian Bassman, Saul Leiter, Paolo Roversi (his page under construction, hence google image search), and Nick Knight (google img search). I saw every exhibition I could clap my eyes in in London in the 90’s and Noughties, and as a photography student at the LCP I practically survived on private view canapés and wine in plastic glasses. I returned to a single Lillian Bassman exhibition at the Hamilton’s gallery 8 times to figure out her BW printing technique and bleaching method! Today it would probably be a digital effect most people try to emulate. But if you look at any of these, or even many of my shots, many of them are not ‘Photoshopped’. Retouching begins with the photograph, and should end with something resembling a photograph too! My image below pales in comparison to these greats, but it’s an example of ‘painterly’ yet not painted. It’s a 4-minute exposure with a very limited depth-of field on a 5×4. I still have a hard time getting that in digital capture and post-production. It’s cleaned up digitally, but I was aware I couldn’t take any liberties with this shot, as it had been shown a lot in its unretouched state. And of course you can see the influence from most of the above!
4. TAKE AN INTEREST IN ART, BUT MOST OF ALL, BECOME AN OBSERVER
Formation-wise, I got the art part pretty much for free. I grew up with the smell of turpentine, linseed oil and powder pigments. My mother would point out the shape of a vase, or the ‘wrong’ colour of a house. or the texture of a leaf. She drew some incredibly scary faces which have influenced me, and she later in her life retreated into a world of still life and landscape. But she would ask me constantly what I thought of this and that, in all things visual. She was quite poetic, rather strict, yet eccentric. I turned out more analytical and maybe more democratic in my outlook. I became a hairdresser, as a rebel act, but it turned out to be a very creative and rewarding profession for me, as I had the chance to observe people’s hair and faces close up, and also doing make-up for shoots. I was lucky to get ‘free’ art classes as a child, and for those who aren’t that lucky, I’d say it’s never too late!
My point is, that if you’ve not spent your life visually exploring the world, up to the time that you start learning to retouch, maybe as an accountant or a banker (two professions often drawn to retouching!) you better hurry up and get out there. And I don’t mean on the internet. I mean get out there for REAL. The world is round, not flat like the screen, and in the real world things are 3D, they change in lighting every time they move. And in colour, as time moves. Observation makes you a better retoucher! Now get out there!
5. TALK TO YOURSELF!
OK, I know this sounds weird. But you really can gain so much from wording what you’re seeing – good and bad – and describing it. And then wording what you want to do with it. It’s amazing how it moves you forward. It’s also a good practice for putting your thoughts to clients. Or becoming a teacher at some point. I have always enjoyed writing, and curiously it’s helped me retouch better because I can verbalise the image flaws. Doing a Bachelor degree in Photography at the (now) LCC, where Semiology (gosh that just sounded like something of a religious sect but it’s not! It’s the science of signs) changed my outlook completely. I started thinking of images in terms of MEANING. It taught me to look at an image and ask: What’s it about? Is it day or is it night? Is it aggressive or soft? Is it modern or is it ‘period’ and THEN we can start planning what to do with it, in terms of colour treatment and ‘feeling’. The chatter goes on… half a stop lift here on the side… distracting thing over there… hair needs some shine… pop the highlights… and someone really should have cleaned that floor! You get my drift!
6. GET INTO GOOD HABITS FROM THE START
Can you imagine unlearning everything you know at this point, and starting to work in a totally different way? That would be a waste. I suggest you learn to work editably right from the start, and keep your Layer stacks intact even when you’re really pleased or maybe totally frustrated with your efforts. Save them, and you’ll come back to the file later, when you’re more advanced, and then you can re-edit it, or have the sheer pleasure of gloating over how much you’ve improved since then. I always go on about how clients change their minds and suddenly want another background, or more/less power of a certain effect, and so forth. But this advice is also of benefit for your own good self.
7. WHEN YOU’RE STUDYING, STUDY IN-DEPTH, AND TRY EVERYTHING OUT
When you’re reading, take notes or try out the step-by-steps. Really get involved. Don’t skip the basics. Advanced is just the basics combined and done really well. Contrary to what you might find on the internet, a retoucher can live without Frequency Separation, but not without learning the Pen Tool or Curves. I had a student who said he knew how to work the Pen Tool, but it turned out he only knew how to click with it. He told me when I started teaching him the ‘bends’, that he thought he knew it, because he’d seen it done in a video. Just because ballet looks quite easy when someone else is dancing on stage, it doesn’t mean it’s so. By saying this, I also mean that you should TRY OUT the techniques and tools to see if they work universally, or just on that one image. Which brings me to…
8. ONE IMAGE IS JUST ONE IMAGE
Every image is different, even when it’s a series, and that means what works for one won’t always work for another. That’s why I’m sceptical to the value of a join-along-with-me-on-this-one image for 8 hours book or DVD. Because at the end of that effort you will have learned to retouch one image, and you will have so many techniques flying around your head in one go, it’s impossible to give them all their due attention. Now there’s nothing wrong with learning to do a proper workflow on one image, but don’t ever expect that the same workflow will be the same for another. You’ve got to practice on a range of different images. I like to focus on one aspect at a time, and make sure it’s entirely understood. I also believe in learning different ways of doing one single thing, and then adapt it to the type of image you’re retouching. Imagine how different skin is. Imagine how different hair is. Imagine how different sharpness is in different images. Imagine a high key daylight image. Imagine a low-key contrasty night scene. Imagine a celebrity. Imagine your mum and dad. Imagine a man and a woman. A child… would you retouch them the same way? Would you follow the same workflow? Not unless you’re very stubborn!
9. LEARN YOUR TOOLS WELL, AND DON’T SHOOT SPARROWS WITH A CANNON
I often say to students who have come far already, that I don’t really care what settings you use your brushes at, as long as you use them consistently and well, and that you’re totally aware of what they are doing on your masks. You’ll need to get some experience before you can judge what level of precision to work at, and when to work fast or slow. Generally, easy does it! And I mean that for Dodge & Burn too. I’m sure millions of hours of productivity have gone down the drain on exessive D&B! In many cases one might as well have used a blur! Hear me me straight now, I’m not against the technique (it’s one of the main things I do) but it’s the overkill that I see from so many of my early students, and on the www. Time will teach you when enough is enough. Meanwhile we fortunately have the ability to reduce it with a mask. That’s what I mean when I talk about editability.
10. 10 000 HOURS!
You really want to master photo retouching. OK, here’s the ultimate recipe: 10 000 hours of practice! That’s what it (apparently) takes to achieve mastery in any field (and I agree). It’s explained pretty well in this piece. Just make sure those hours count well, and that you love what you do, while you do it. Don’t waste them on images that have no right to exist beyond the camera. Don’t bother to polish any turds, as we say in our job. Also, remember that a retoucher is not an illustrator or even a ‘digital artist’ (if you want to be that, fine – but it’s not the same). In photo retouching it’s the image flaws that determines how you retouch. It’s all about the image and the photographer’s style and the brief. We are in the business of catering for that – not for any personal gratification we may gain from reshaping someone’s figure or colouring dark skin white. The luckiest of us are the photographers, who get to apply what we learn to our own vision, and obtain those effects and styles that we started out trying so desperately to achieve!
And by the way, I’m still learning and playing with new ideas and techniques after 20.000 hours – or I guess I’ve lost count by now! If you care to comment, I’ll be the first to say that although I’ve listed 10 things, there are another 10, and maybe even 10 more. I haven’t even used the word ‘model’ or ‘tablet’ or anything like that, so there is clearly much more. If I get some encouragement I might even do a video on what makes a good retoucher… or what makes for good retouching. Let’s see!
The Cadiz Carnival or CADIZ CARNAVAL as the local Gaditanos call it, is an amazing spectacle. Many ‘Gaditanians’ totally live for this event, all year round. For a town that inhabits 124,000 people the Carnaval in Cadiz is quite an amazing thing in itself, but if I told you it’s one of the biggest carnivals in the world, second to Rio de Janeiro, it sounds almost impossible. It takes place in the small old town, on the plazas and in the narrow streets, and it goes on for more than 2 weeks! In Cadiz the carnival is a small industry in itself, and for many of the inhabitants it’s a full time obsession. I’m amazed at the talent, flair and wit that exists in this small 3000 year old city.
THE CHALLENGE OF CROWD PHOTOGRAPHY
Shooting in crowds is difficult, and you have to be fast, because someone’s going to walk into the frame in a millisecond. I have to admit I took the wrong camera that day – I used the Fuji X-Pro 1 (a slow focuser) when I should probably have used one of my faster Nikons. In crowds you look for compositional patterns (it’s always a question of where to crop) or details, facial expressions, moments of communication between people, and often people relating to you. I often try to get high or low viewpoints. I love the expressions on these girls faces, although they may not seem to have a whole lot of love for the photographer. Smiles and waves to the camera are usually not what I want.
This image makes me think of what Lord Byron put it in a letter to his mother in 1809: ” . . .Cadiz, sweet Cadiz ! is the most delightful town I ever beheld, . . . “ ” . . .and full of the finest women in Spain . . .”
IN CADIZ THE CARNAVAL IS A FEAST OF WIT AND SATIRE
This is a carnival more in the Venetian tradition than the Rio type street fiesta, and it’s famous for its satirical Chirigotas, who sing and play with amazing humour and expression, parody and word-plays. Some of them have simple costumes, while others are amazingly detailed. The Coros (choruses) who parade the Plazas on the first Sunday. I started taking pictures on the plaza, along with my student. We started early, while they were making up and preparing, and I feel that the best shots were taken before the procession – not during. The light that day was bright and flat, and there were no shadows or harsh contrasts, so my take on the flat light was to expose high, pushing it even brighter simply by upping the contrast, and letting pastels be pastels.
One of the things I do in a crowd is try to get high up (or sometimes low, if there’s space). Fortunately, my partner who I run Luzia courses with – Ignacio Fando – knows people and places, and we were invited to shoot from a friend’s balcony in the most pefect location on Plaza Mina (Gracias Mer!). Shooting tops of heads can be a problem from above, so you don’t want to get too high. First or second floor is perfect. You also want to try to get people to look up, getting a ‘connection’ in a massive crowd. The reward for having flirted and dwelled a bit with the players while they were on the ground came as they recognized us up on the balcony. You don’t want too much waving or recognition, but the guy looking straight at the camera leads you into the image with more engagement.
THE BIG CONTEST AT EL GRAN TEATRO FALLA
The official Carnaval contest, takes place at Gran Teatro Falla and we (Luzia) were fortunate enough to follow the Chirigota winners ‘Esto si que es una chirigota’ in their final preparations before the final, which they won! This Chirigota perform a satire on politicians and the Spanish authorities, and it’s extremely funny, even if you don’t understand the language. Make no mistake, this is not a performance cobbled together at the last minute. I really recommend having a look at their stage performance on video because it’s a finely honed act and while it’s responsive to the feisty audience, it’s no amateur act, and it really shows the best of the Cadiz spirit and humour. My shots are from the ‘dressing room’ in a local Peña where we – Luzia Photo Courses – were invited to hang out and accompany them through the strreets to El Falla. In terms of interpretation, I made these shots warmer and more low key.
CHIRIGOTA REHEARSAL IN A PACKED ROOM
This shot was one of the hardest to get, as the room was totally packed. Normally I’ll jump up on a pile of chairs or try hanging from the chandelier to get the shot, but having fallen from the top of a ladder and broken my shoulder and arm last year, I’m now officially a wimpette who has recently discovered mortality. So I literally had to focus on one plane (the eyebrow guys), lock the focus and exposure (AE-L/AF-L) and then raise the camera in the air, just about able to see in the back LCD, the live preview. This was where the Fuji came in handy, with its live LCD and ability to get good quality shots on high ISOs, as well as its petite body. As you can see, the room was absolutely packed, and the air was filled with intensity and anticipation. This is the best shot I could squeeze out of the chaos, before we hit the streets in an informal procession to the theatre: El Falla.
If this inspires you to come, we run themed photography courses in Cadiz, and part of what we do is enable people to shoot in great locations and gain access where a visitor would never have a chance. As you can see, this year we backed a winner!
Starting this blog with a very short shout out to friends and colleagues. Here’s my new web-home. Bigger pictures, more content and finally a responsive site!
Hopefully posting some more new images after the Cadiz Carnaval, where I’ll be on the streets, in rehearsal and hopefully catching some expressive street photography in the weeks to come. Last year I was ‘kidnapped’ by a bunch of air hostesses, and just barely managed to keep my clothes on as they took me through security control again and again to much amusement. I believe this picture was taken by their Captain Clooney! The Carnaval in Cadiz is full of humour and satire during a street-fest lasting two weeks officially, and usually an extra week for the road. Wish my Spanish was better, but at least I get the expressions!