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Nobody is that perfect. Nobody has flawless skin, perfect hair, the perfect shade of white teeth, clothing that fits without a wrinkle in sight… unless it’s a re-touched photo. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m sure Beyonce and Cameron Diaz are absolutely stunning in person, but I am also positive that they have some wrinkles in their clothing, or an occasional pimple that pops up. Professional photo retouchers are trained to virtually erase these flaws while making a photo look natural and true. There is a fine line between retouching a photo to look natural and keeping the integrity of the actual image.
You have to take into account the lighting, the actual colors in the image and decide whether or not changing those colors will reflect badly on any part of the image. Should you remove all the freckles on a face, or will the person look like a completely different human being? Where do you draw the line between enhancing and completely changing something? How do you manipulate a photo while keeping it realistic? This is where some retouchers fall short. It takes specific training, countless hours of practice, an eye for immaculate detail and an unbelievable amount of patience to retouch a photo without making it noticeable to the general public that the image has been retouched. But how can we tell when something has been retouched? I’ll give you 10 ways to spot a retouched photo, starting from the most obvious to the not-so-obvious ways.

Number 1- Doll Face

Not just a sweet thing to call your girlfriend. This is what I call an image with the excessive gaussian blur applied to the face. Amateurs will simply cut out the eyes and mouth of the photo and blur the rest. The skin looks flat, there is no texture, not one wrinkle, blemish or freckle. This is a constant mistake amateur retouchers make while cutting corners on basic beauty retouching. Before even adding a hint of blur to smooth skin, you must remove blemishes or imperfection first. It is a tedious and detailed process which requires patience. Some choose to skip this step and try to wash out the wrinkles or blemishes by just basically blurring out the skin. You then lose skin texture, facial attributes and dimension. The result you get, is Doll Face.

There is also the Doll Body…

Number 2- The Amputee

No, there wasn’t an accident, unless you count the retoucher forgetting to add in (or add back in) a limb. When retouchers work diligently on an image, they begin to get pixel vision. This is when you focus on one area so much that the other areas of the image become obsolete. This should not happen with a professional. While manipulating an image where you have to change a limbs placement, or add a limb to complete the image, this should be the retouchers focus on perfecting. Otherwise, you will get an obvious, or not so obvious at first, result. Either way, it is noticeable.

Number 3- Proportion

Ok, there are many different kinds of body types. Thin, hourglass, broad shoulders, larger hips, long legs and etc. However, these attributes are usually proportionate with the rest of the body. It is usually pretty easy to scope out plastic surgery in real life if it is overdone. The same applies to retouching. Angles should be accounted for, sizing of the rest of the body as well. Please, use caution with the liquify tool in Photoshop.

Number 4- Something is… Missing

So you’re thumbing through a magazine, and you come across an ad that catches your eye. How long do you really look at it? Are you just reading the text? Is there a lot going on in the ad? Sometimes there are things in the images you had no idea were there. Or not there. When retouchers are working on an image, they will erase some things in order to “fix” or replace other things. Let’s just hope they do not erase what is important.

Number 5- Give me a hand

A lot of times hands are not doing the right thing in an otherwise perfect photo. They can be tense or bend the wrong way when the photo is taken, and it is up to the retoucher to “relax” or put in the right position for the photo to be more fluid. Unfortunately, sometimes the hands are overlooked by retouchers, but in plain sight for onlookers of the photo.

Number 6- Out of place

Have you ever looked at a photo and thought… Is that supposed to be there? Sometimes it is a real thing that is actually in the image, sometimes it’s an intruder. You have to take a second look to see if it should be there, or if it is quite apparent that it should not be there.

Number 7- The fake background

One thing that is often required of retouchers is to manipulate a background. Fix a seam, get rid of unwanted items in the background or even entirely replace a background. Placing an image on a completely different background is not as simple and cut and paste. It takes detail, shadows, lighting, angles and specific placement with perception and depth. If this is done in the correct way, yes that bikini clad model is actually in a snowbank. If it is not, well, that bikini clad model looks like a sticker on a photo of a snowbank.

Number 8- The immediate weight loss/gain

Trimming a little of the edges is normal in retouching. Getting rid of a fold or two that hang over when you sit or bend, that’s ok. Adding a smidge fullness to complete a top, acceptable. Losing inches around the waist in a photo or adding curves or weight? Hmmm.

Number 9- Same Head, New Body

Altering body parts if necessary on a photo to look better is expected in retouching. A nip here, a tuck there is a regular day at the office for a professional retoucher. Giving a client someone else’s body with their head, is not. Unless this is supposed to be a spoof of humor that is very obvious, I advise not doing it.

Number 10- Bad angles

Who bends like that? Glancing at some of these photos you would never even think to wonder. Getting the angle to match the rest of the body is of extreme importance. If you are going to manipulate one thing, chances are you have to manipulate a few other things to be sure the image is conducive with the angle.


So there you have it; these things are dead give-aways when spotting a retouched photo. My advice to designers or photographers that are entering the world of retouching: Take your time. Be extremely detail oriented. If you question whether or not you can “pull this off” then you probably shouldn’t try to. Unless you are just doing a favor for a friend and making them skinnier in a photo, or whitening some teeth for your Aunt Judy, give the image to a professional to retouch. Be aware of the available software out there for basic retouching on images.

(www.piknik.com, www.pictreat.com) Just like you wouldn’t let your mechanic give you a root canal… leave the retouching to the professionals.