Is Retouching Appropriate?

Out of Camera vs. Retouched
Out of Camera vs. Retouched

This question touches every photographer sooner or later and then from every now and then again. Photographer Matt Kloskowski has shared an article on this question he found these days on the blog of Swedish photographer Jonas Hellsén. And this led me to think about it again.

First of all I am far away of blaming anyone who has a different oppinion on the amount of retouching appropriate to a photograph than I have. I think as we look at photography as an art form it is all about personal taste (and only then about technique, equipment etc.). In German there is a saying that states that you cannot argue over taste. Full stop.

This truth in mind any offensive discussion on personal likings is immediately obsolete.

Next I want to draw a very sharp line between photography and photodocumentary.

Okay, the latter one does not allow any retouching for ethical, legal or logical reasons. Fields of action that immediately cross my mind are of course journalism but also crime investigation and scientific research. But here we are not only talking about re-touching but also about pre-touching. Vantage point, angle and field of view and lighting, just to name a few, are set by the photodocumentarist before he presses the shutter and produce a certain impression on the side of the viewer. While crime investigators and scientists make use of it mostly without emotion, a journalist will always have this as his design toolset at his disposal. Anyway – getting the subject matter right into the frame is the goal for these folks.

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Life is much easier for photographers that understand themselves as artists. Not only that they can alter their images without any remorse and make them beautiful in their eyes. They also have the freedom to add or remove, to crop or frame, to colorize or desaturate. Nonetheless I’ve learned (the hard way) that it is always advantageous to do a good amount of pre-touching to get a frame close to my intentions. As a great side effect you start to grapple with the subject beforehand quite intensively, you learn a lot about its environment, you start communicating. (That is what distinguishes a photographer from the common snapshooter.) A good preparation makes all the work on the computer much easier (and due to the time saved it sometimes opens new spaces for experiments ;-)).

For photographers the audience question should not be in their focus in this respect. Who are we shooting for? Is it for a professional audience like the fashion industry? Is it for a special interest group, which can be anything from a dog breeding club to cooking book readers? Is it for other (professional) photographers to impress them? Is it for mum, dad and uncle Bob? Or is it just for ourselves? That all does not matter – the result must be highly satisfying for the viewer addressed and therefore even intensive retouching is absolutely appropriate.

Since I see myself as a photographer with a slight vein to documentary (which is in the genes from my professional past) my answer to the headline is definitely: YES.