The Business of Running A Retouching Business

September 19, 2019

The Business of Running A Retouching Business

Retouchers Take Heed

There’s an issue we retouchers have ignored for a long time, and it’s coming back to bite us in our desk-bound asses.

Warning: it’s not sexy or artistic or hip, but skills in this area will guarantee you repeat clients for life. Short change it, and you’ll be scratching your head, wondering why first time clients don’t call back, even after you hit that composite out of the park with sparkles.

I’m talking about the business of retouching - the business of running your business.

I’ve done both freelance and agency work for over two decades. No matter the venue, 80% of retouching tasks are production work that’s probably well below your current skill level. Don’t get me wrong, these jobs lead to the awesome 20%, the exciting, challenging work you live for. And yeah, that 80% pays the rent.

You know what else pays the rent? Repeat clients. What makes clients come back to me? Hint: it’s not just my solid photoshop skills.

Retouching Is A Service Industry

There is so much more to the job than actually pushing pixels around. Delivering jobs on time. Sticking to a budget - or CLEARLY ringing the bell if the job’s going to go over estimate, BEFORE it’s too late.

Communicating on all sorts of levels: schedule, design/visuals, financial, delivery methods, expectations. These are business skills.

We’re in a service industry. It’s our job as retouchers to service someone else’s vision. Doing so in a timely, professional, and dare I add, pleasant and competent manner will get you invited back.

Flashy photoshop skills and an attitude? Yeah…no.

Retouching example by Lisa Carney

Business Relationships Are Everything

The following is a list of the areas I think are the most important for creating great client relationships for your retouching business:

  • Communication. About everything. Expectations, finances, etc.
  • Timeliness. Deliver what you say you’re going to deliver on time. Or early. Conscientious and timely billing
  • File Management. Know when not to build a 89GB file even when the printer told the client that size was desirable.
  • Stop Telegraphing Panic. Be a problem solver. Don’t tell a client what can’t be done without presenting three alternative solutions.
  • Ask Questions. Help the client anticipate future needs. They’ll love you for it. Jobs are being repurposed for digital, social, outdoor and print. Might they want one of these formats later?
  • Rinse
  • Repeat.

There are folks out there who can out-illustrate me, yet they remain under-employed while I’m turning away a surplus of work. Because I play well with others.

I’ve got the skills to do the job, AND I make the job go smoothly. Be a pleasure to work with, and the rent will get paid. Every damn month.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Here’s an example. You're a crafty retoucher, good at your job. You deliver the work, but you don’t email the client to let them know the job’s ready for review. You just presume they’ll check the dropbox, since you had once said the file would be there today.

Maybe you deliver the job, but you don’t let your client know you're going out on your bike for a two hour ride. They don’t know you’re not there to answer the phone. Panic ensues.

Another fiasco: You have a quote on a job, but it quickly becomes clear you’re fast approaching the money line. This job’s going to go over budget, big time. Many retouchers I know don’t tell the client until after the job’s complete, and vastly more expensive than expected. Bad News Bears.

Don’t be those guys.

When clients contact me, they know I am going to take care of them in all aspects of the business. I communicate with them, from start to finish. They won’t have to chase me down to see how things are going. I understand their financial wellbeing is on the line too.

Want the consistent - and lucrative - bread and butter work? Then get your A game on with your business practices. Pay as much attention to logistics and communication as you do to learning the latest bells and whistles in Photoshop.

It’ll pay the rent. Guaranteed.

Lisa Carney Headshot
Written by guest author and professional retoucher, Lisa Carney
Lisa is a 28-year entertainment and advertising retoucher and educator.
She is based in sunny Los Angels, California.
View Lisa's Work



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