HOW TO LEARN AND DEVELOP RETOUCHING SKILLS
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!