One of the questions I get asked the most by people is, "I know there's tons of high-quality education that you've made, but how do I actually become a working photo retoucher, and put it all to use?" Well, pat yourself on the back if you're asking that question, because most photographers and novice retouchers trying to start a career in retouching either assume they already know the answer or just don't even address it.
Understanding how to become a photo retoucher is almost as important as how to do photo retouching itself. In this article, I'm going to begin to unpack for you all of the concepts, strategies, and myths behind a career as a full-time retoucher.
It's surprising to those of us who have had a long career as a full-time retoucher that many people out there don't even know that it's a thing. But don't be ashamed if you're among them, retouching has sort of lurked in the shadows since the early days of photography and scanning. Originally, it was a far more technical and far less creative discipline. Early retouchers were essentially scanner operators. Right, not really sexy.
I've met lots of people who have made a lucrative career in retouching that flat-out thanked me for showing them that it was actually a job of its own. It makes sense, we don't really ever see the names of retouchers printed in the credits of an advertisement or magazine cover. But we can always find the photographer credited. So it would naturally make sense to believe that photographers retouch their own photos, or maybe in advertising agencies, graphic designers also do their own photoshop work.
Knowing is half the battle - you can't pursue a career in something you don't know exists. It can also seem daunting that photo retouching might just be one part of a multi-discipline job title. You might be thinking, "Well, I also need to get good at graphic design, that's a lot of programs to master!"
Really good photo retouchers are not also graphic designers. In fact, in a professional setting, we often refuse to open InDesign files. Because we have spent all of our time getting extremely good at retouching, and graphic design is not part of our job.
Another startling realization is that you do not need to be a photographer in order to become a retoucher. I'm living proof.
I came from a background in fine art - painting, drawing, sculpture, and printmaking. I also have a long history messing around with computers. I learned programming languages, built websites, even built my own computers back when it was actually hard. But never held a camera bigger than my phone.
Now I'd never advocate for not learning photography because in the early days I did find myself in situations where I had to just keep my mouth shut and pretend I knew what a photographer was talking about until I could go Google it. But don't let it hold you back.
A friend of mine used to say, "Dude, I could teach you photography in a day." I have found that to not quite be true, but becoming a really skilled senior photo retoucher definitely takes years of very consistent and focused work. Which is why - if you've decided to start investing toward a career in retouching - you should focus very narrowly on doing just that, and doing it well.
What about the photographer out there who's already invested in her career through college or online education, gear, or building a client base? Getting a job as a retoucher can be a great safety position to fall back on when times get rough. Markets constantly fluctuate, and since photography and retouching complement each other so well, keeping a solid foundation of retouching skills in your back pocket can keep your bills paid.
I like to tell the story of 2 of my good friends and (now) world-class retouchers Sarah and Will. When I met them, they were just about to graduate from art school in the photography program with some great skills, no clients, a thin portfolio, and a mountain of student loan debt.
They were smart, talented kids, and could see that they were about to jump into a market saturated with photographers. They also knew they’d be competing with a bunch of fresh-faced grads looking for some kind of assistant position in one of the photography studios in town. That or start pounding the pavement for weddings and portraits of their own.
Sarah and Will immediately realized they could do an end-run around all of the competition by leveraging the photoshop skills they'd learned in school and save a bunch of money trying to invest in a really gear-intensive career. Since retouching is so tied to photography, they'd be establishing themselves in the local industry. If they could get into an advertising agency or retouching studio, they’d be interacting with all sorts of creatives and producers.
Retouching teams are usually led by an experienced senior or two, and any number of assistants or juniors of varying skills depending on the workload. It can be a really lucrative freelance lifestyle, and good assistants can be in high demand with little competition.
Sarah and Will responded to my job posting and I started them a week following. They were eager to learn and what’s even better, getting paid to learn real production-grade retouching techniques from an experienced senior. If there would have been more Sarah's and Will's who applied, I would have hired them too or sent them to my friends who were also looking for help.
Sarah and Will have now worked on multiple global brand campaigns for demanding clients, putting them far ahead of their competition. They haven't put their cameras down either.
One guy I hired was Keegan, a photographer with some decent clients on the east coast but new to town. He tracked down the ad agency where I was the retouching supervisor through LinkedIn. In fact, he had tracked them all down (more about this in future articles, it's a smart move). He had some nice shots and a little commercial retouching experience. Hired.
That's the thing - for many of us heads-of-studios, if even a decent candidate pops up who we can train, we snatch them up asap.
Keegan spent about a year working for me. I had to break a bunch of his bad habits but he picked up my commercial workflow pretty quickly. It's key, whether experienced or not, to have a growth mindset when joining a new studio. What I always looked for in new retoucher hires were folks who looked like good students, whether young or old. Long established retouchers can often be more difficult to integrate into a team if they are stuck in their ways and resistant to change.
The smart move that Keegan made by applying for work in an advertising agency was the exposure to so many different people. Photographers often can be very isolated, running their own business from home, getting hired for individual shoots with few players. So many different kinds of professionals move through ad agencies.
Keegan left after a year and confided in me that he "Freakin' hate[s]..." retouching and from this day forth would pay somebody else to do his retouching because he was going to be a photographer. Fair enough. He did a good job and made himself contacts throughout the creative industry. He now shoots regularly for very prominent brands.
I'm telling you these stories to hopefully reduce a little stress surrounding your career choices and see that sometimes the straight-ahead way is not always the way. OK, you want to be a photographer. Are you the type of person who thrives in a highly competitive market? I surely am not.
Don't be under the misconception that you have to break the wall down by attacking it with a sledgehammer. I like to follow Master Bruce's adage, "Be like water." There's always a crack in the wall someplace, just keep poking around until you find it and then slip through while everybody else is swinging those hammers.
In my next article in the series, I'll be talking about the different kinds of retouchers there are out there. "Whaaaa, there's not just skin and beauty?!" That's right, there are a lot of different kinds of retouchers. I'll talk about personality types, working styles, and technical skills to get you started in different areas of retouching.
This article was guest authored by our good friend Sef McCullough.