How To Become A Full Time Retoucher Part 2: Positioning

May 27, 2020

How To Become A Full Time Retoucher Part 2: Positioning

In my last piece about how to become a photo retoucher, I talked about some of the motivations behind choosing to make a career change to photo retouching. I shared some real-world stories about others who made the jump from photography and dispelled some myths about a life spent in Photoshop sprucing up images all day.

You were probably left thinking, "Real cool Sef, but can you tell me what the hell I need to actually do to make it happen?!"

I hear you, that's what this article is all about.

What kind of retoucher should I be?

There are a lot of different types of photo retouchers out there. If you spend a lot of time on Facebook communities for photo retouchers, you might think the only kind of pro retouchers are in skin & beauty doing fashion and portrait retouching. I'm here to tell you that's not true - just look around the next time you're walking downtown and take note of all the images you see. There's skin retouching, and then there's the rest of the vast universe of commercial photography that eventually ends up in Photoshop.

All the images you see around you in popular commercial culture get retouched. Period. I know there are campaigns for "No Retouching" but there is still somebody who uses software like Photoshop or Lightroom who’s job is to color balance, output images, knock out the background, put 2 of the models in the same image and get them to the printer. That's a retoucher.

This is where I always recommend to start: as an entry-level assistant commercial retoucher. Get good at the basics of photo retouching (like ahem, just get reeaaally good at the first 4 chapters in my commercial workflow tutorial, seriously), get good at Photoshop, and start finding work.

Feel free to compete in that red ocean of skin & beauty retouching if it’s your passion, but I see much more opportunity and less competition for retouchers in the vast landscape of commercial photography.

The tools every commercial photo retoucher should get first.

First things first, you're not going to start photo retouching with a box of crayons. You need some equipment and software. The equipment you choose leads right into how you can intentionally plan to position yourself as a photo retoucher.

You might be daunted by all the tools and software you think you need to buy to call yourself a retoucher, let alone ask a client to pay you to open up Photoshop and work your magic. Don't worry. You don't need to run out and get all the fancy stuff.

The freelance photo retoucher's backpack

Lots of my friends live a “permalance” retoucher lifestyle and love it. Even if it’s not your end goal, it's one of the most common ways to start. Find a shop that needs some temporary help and get your foot in the door. The gear investment is small for this first step, but I do recommend showing up with a couple of portable devices that can travel between home and work.

A Terabyte in your pocket

A drive always comes in handy. You never know when you might get the chance to bring images home with you, or quickly load up your custom actions, software, brushes, or stock images. You look pro if you show up in the studio with your quiver of secret weapons to use. Sure, almost everybody has dropbox now but this will save you the hassle of logging in and downloading software, or the time it takes for a big upload.

The best portable tablet in the world

Worried you need to run out and drop $400 on an Intuous Pro right away? Hold up. This medium Intuous not-pro is totally suitable for most work, especially if you show up to a busy studio and there's a shortage of good workstations. These things are so portable and durable you can just grab it off your desk and not have to worry about damaging it like you might with a big pricey Pro. I love mine and use it all the time especially if I'm out at a cafe or kicking back at the pub. Yes, I sometimes work at the pub.

For when the pen is a pain

It might seem silly at first, but I have been in studios where there were no mouse (mices?) at the computers. None. And the studio manager was like, "Why on earth would you need a mouse for retouching?" And I thought to myself, "For lots of reasons you'll never understand, pal." There are plenty of scenarios in file management, admin, and photo retouching itself that a mouse is invaluable.

Gear Upgrades

That's it for the basics. When you're working in a studio you might not need to show up with anything but your hands, eyes, and brain (sometimes, you only need the first two). But having a few tools with you can make life much smoother.

Here are a couple of additional, fancier, pieces of gear that can help to level up your professional image.

Your personal entertainment center

Yep, that's right, an iPad. I witnessed this first hand when a new freelancer showed up and set one up at his station. At first I thought it was a little weird, but later he told me why he likes to do this. "Yeah so when I show up at a new place I'm usually on someone else's computer. And the last thing I want to do is log them out of all their music, communications, youtube or netflix, and have to take all the time to set that up."

You could always just use your phone, but I find that the bigger screen on the iPad sure is a nice luxury if you have the means.

This is an important point. When you're a new guest at a studio, don't jump right into making yourself at home and installing software. If you're asked to stay longer-term, you'll probably be quickly moving to a different spot. Anything you can do to stay out-of-the-way when you're new - both physically and digitally - will help you look more professional.

A cool backpack

OK cool guy, I know it's a little fancy. But I love my Peak Design 30L pack. It's the bigger one. I just love the design both aesthetically and functionally. Show up with this bad boy and they'll know you mean business.

Retoucher Workstation

We could go further into all the high-end stuff photo retouchers use, and I will, but for now just get what you can to practice with. You can start learning photo retouching on any computer that can run Photoshop and won’t choke when you use the healing brush.

I definitely recommend a computer with 16 gb of ram or more. But if your monitor is cheap or too small you might still be able to practice prep work for commercial photo retouching, but you’ll be hamstrung on color correction. Here are two affordable entry-level screens perfect for your home photo retouching setup.

A decent monitor can go a long way

I’ve retouched on a lot of different displays, from multi-thousand-dollar Eizos to an iMac, and I can tell you first hand that the Dell Ultrasharp series comes in at the perfect intersection of price and quality.

Dell Ultrasharp U2717D 27” Infinity Edge

The Dell Ultrasharps have a really great reputation, and I know first hand because I have owned one for years. These new Infinity Edge models are sweet. I’ve had mine for about 10 years now and it still looks great. It might surprise people to hear that I don’t work on a top-end Eizo, but I’ve shipped countless global campaigns for top brands using my Ultrasharp.

Dell Ultrasharp U2417H 24” Infinity Edge

I recommend getting a 27” but if you need to save some cash, the next one I’d recommend looking at is the slightly smaller Dell Ultrasharp. Later, when you’re stacking all that retouch money, you can switch this one to use as a second screen.

X-Rite i1Display Studio

Now that you got a sweet monitor that didn’t cost thousands of dollars, you need a way to calibrate it. You don’t need to drop a stack on an i1 pro, X-Rite has a lite version. Also ask around to borrow one. You don’t need to calibrate every single day.

A nice screen and a calibrator will go a long way to make a home laptop or desktop into a legit photo retoucher workstation. With a nice display you can feel confident your color correction is more accurate than 80% of average users.

The point is, don’t let a lack of new tools hold you back

If you really can’t afford a tablet, practice with a mouse. If you can’t afford a terabyte drive, bring a thumb drive. If all you have is a janky old laptop, use it. The point is, just start working.

Next in the How to become a full-time photo retoucher series, I'm going to show you strategies for how to find the "shops" and photography studios, to target the person you need to talk to, and what to say to them. There are very simple strategies for connecting with and introducing yourself to the right people, and it’s not as hard as you think.

I'm a Commercial Retoucher, Writer, and Educator. I've worked with a lot of sports, tech, retail, and automotive brands. One of my life missions is to give better access to high-end retouching workflows for people who have traditionally not been included in the industry. Commercial retouching techniques have been closely guarded by a select few, and since I've had the privilege to be welcomed in those spaces, I feel obligated to share the tools and methods with others. In the hopes that when we all get better, art gets better. - Sef McCullough

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