How Much is Too Much Photo Retouching?

Dear Jasmine,

I am a photographer that started as a retoucher. I WANT to not edit women. I want so badly to let them be them, maybe a blemish here and there but people have grown to want that level of perfection because they see my fashion work. It's going to kill me.

What do you tell your clients about embracing the way they look?
Path to Perfection

Dear Path to Perfection,
A few years ago, I photographed an engagement session of two amazing people. They were young, silly, and in love. She wore a skirt and he wore a skinny tie. I edited the photos and blogged them. Later that day I noticed the comment section of my blog exploded with opinions. Why didn't you Photoshop her scar?! … I'm sure your client knows you can use the clone tool to cover her knee … Why would you show that blemish when you can omit it?

I was gobsmacked. I immediately starting deleting rude comments when I came across a comment from my client. She simply wrote: That scar is from 3 knee surgeries and a full-ride soccer scholarship to college 🙂 I am proud of it!! Her comment was in response to what I wrote to a few people who asked why I didn't retouch my images: Nothing ever forbids me in Photoshop. However, I think we've been conditioned to think that some features are more beautiful than others, and I disagree. One time, I removed what I thought to be a blemish from a bride's face and she later told me it was a mole…a mole she liked. I felt terribly! I have a scar on my right knee from my cheerleading days and if someone removed it without me asking, I'd be bothered because that scar is me. Albeit a quirky part of me, but me nevertheless. I think women should celebrate what makes them different…and I try to not make everything more perfect than it really is.

All of this to say I am not a heavy retoucher. But my clients know this in advance. I explain that photos they receive have been edited in Lightroom and I'm proud of the end product. I also explain that photos that appear in their wedding album will be edited with a fine tooth comb, so stray hairs, a day-of blemish they request to be removed, or the deleting of distracting elements (like an empty stroller at the ceremony site) will be eliminated. It's important for me to let my clients know that I'm there just to document their love, not recreate an ideal of perfection. When clients look back at their photos in 40 years, I want them to see themselves–their real, beautiful, flawed selves–in their truest form. Our job isn't to idealize the appearance of a moment, our job is simply to document love.

I hope this explains my approach and while I know others don't agree with me, I'm fine knowing their entitled to their opinions, but I'm happy with my own.