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Commercial Photoshop Retouching: In the Studio by Glenn Honiball

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The Workflow of a Typical Retouching Job

First, let's get familiar with the relationships. If you work as a photographer, either in an ad agency or a small design house, you may deal directly with the client who is going to approve your work. If you work for a pre-press or film house, you typically deal with the client indirectly, through a coordinator and a sales person. In this case, there will be an account representative who acts as the liaison between the film house and the client or agency. That representative interprets the client's instructions and relays that information to an internal production coordinator at the film house. From there, the production coordinator processes the job throughout the shop and ensures that the job makes it through the various departments for processing. The basic players and their relationships are outlined in Figure 1-5.

The relationship between the client and various suppliers

Figure 1-5. The relationship between the client and various suppliers

Obviously, each job is unique, but the following sections outline the basic process of a retouching job.

Run a Pre-Flight Check

A typical job will include a pre-flight check of the client's files to make sure that all of the elements needed to do the job are there. This may include page layout files, typically assembled in QuarkXPress or InDesign. It is necessary to make sure the necessary fonts, images, and logos are included in the job file. A quick call to the client at this stage can save a lot of embarrassment later by discovering any errors right off the bat.

Images used in ads are typically supplied in two forms: the ad agency has used a photographer to shoot and retouch the image, or the ad agency has purchased the image from a photographer and will do the retouching in house.

Or perhaps the photographer has shot the image and the ad agency is relying on a pre-press or film house or a retouching specialist to retouch the image. The image can be supplied two different ways, as well: digitally from a camera or a transparency from a film-based camera. Years ago, the quality of images coming straight out of a digital camera were not great, so the images were shot as transparencies, either 35mm, 2.25", 4" by 5", or 8" by 10", depending on the type and size of the camera used. These transparencies were then scanned and digitized for use on a computer. Of course, times have changed, and the quality of digital cameras has improved. As such, more and more images are supplied right off the digital camera.

Make Sure You Understand Your Instructions

Once we have the images to be retouched in one form or another, it is the job of the retoucher to interpret retouching instructions supplied by the client. The retouching instructions can come in two forms, either from the internal coordinator who has been in direct contact with the client or sales representative and has a marked up first proof, or by having the client come into the shop or studio to sit down with the retoucher and relay the verbal instructions into onscreen changes. Yes, you have to be comfortable working with someone breathing down your neck as you retouch sometimes. I have found that if you take control of the situation and show that you are confident with your retouching, you won't have a problem.

Don't Be Afraid to Offer Suggestions

I should point out up front that, in my experience, when an art director or client is with you and they are trying to achieve a desired result, they really do appreciate your input and suggestions! A photo retoucher that just goes through the motions without showing any creative flair, offering little advice or suggestion, is a person I would classify as a mechanical retoucher. Trust me, you do not want to be a mechanical retoucher. You should make yourself open to suggestions, and be able to understand and relate information into tangible results with a creative flair.

Review the Initial Proof

Clients typically arrive with (or send in) proofs of the images to be retouched. These proofs have been supplied to them from an initial scan done by a film house, or they have generated the proofs themselves. The client will go through the proof and mark up the changes and corrections he wants you to make. These marks can vary widely. I have seen an instance when a client has circled every single piece of dirt (as opposed to just giving a general indication of an area to be cleaned up). Others make simple, general requests like the one in Figure 1-6. I've also been in situations when bubbles on a frosty glass needed to be changed and moved around. And I've even had instructions that are vague at best, like the image is "too sweet." In many cases, a lot can be left up to the imagination, and it will be your job to figure it out. Some clients are coherent, clear, and concise; others seem quite reserved, artsy, or just may not really know exactly what they want. Hopefully, after reading this book, you can help your client find what she is looking for and run with it.

Image marked up with instructions for retouching

Figure 1-6. Image marked up with instructions for retouching

Create New Proofs for Each Set of Corrections

As each set of corrections is made, I output a new proof and recheck for previous corrections and, if necessary, make new ones. I have seen instances when an image has been sent through for over a dozen changes, each time the client finds something new to change. And while this is a great way to make extra money on the job, it can get rather frustrating for the retoucher and everyone else involved. Keep a cool head.

Some clients still prefer to have high-end proofs output. The belief is that they are more accurate and stable in color than lower-end inkjets proofs and more accurately represent what will happen on a printing press. This is basically true; however, there's a catch: the costs of the high-end proofs are much greater than a lower-end proofs from ink jets. High-end proofs are typically output on large, expensive machines that cost tens of thousands of dollars. Materials are proprietary to those machines and also expensive.

Other clients, in an effort to save a few dollars, are prepared to accept a lower-end proof, perhaps with one that you have set up yourself. If you think you may want to set yourself up with a proofing system and don't have the space or the hundred thousand plus dollars to implement a high-end proofing system, this may be the way to go. Just make sure that you set yourself up properly. I have seen many clients supply gorgeous-looking outputs from ink jet printers, only to find that such colors cannot be matched on a high-end output. Why? Because the color gamut on the inkjet system in no way relates to the real-world press condition. Uncalibrated, poorly implemented desktop ink jet printers make images look too good with their vibrant inks. Hence the expectations of clients are dashed when the reality of the printing press comes into play.

Know the Deadlines

Retouchers typically have to work under tight deadlines; images are expected to be completed in hours, not days. Ad insertion dates for magazines and newspapers are expected to be met. A missed insertion date can cost thousands of dollars and can be charged back to either the film house or the ad agency serving the client. You have to be able to work well under pressure and produce timely results. In the following chapters, I'll discuss techniques I use to produce quality work in the short periods of time.


Many publications accept—in fact, many only accept—final electronic files that are generated directly onto the printing plates. This eliminates the need to have film produced to create or burn the printing plates. This obviously saves a lot of material, time, and money. Some pre-press houses will have a direct-to-plate machine and stock many of the popular plates for various printing presses.

Here's a tip: as the required retouching for an image is being explained to me, I begin to form a mental picture of the final result before I start any retouching. I will think of all the subtle changes that will have to be made. Most often, I have completed the image in my head before the work even gets started. I won't let myself get bogged down with all the technical aspects of the job, as this tends to hamper the creative process. I'll never mention to a client that something isn't possible because it will go over spec; clients just don't want to hear that. I'll massage the technical aspects into the image at the end of the job.

Art directors seem to come in two different flavors: those who know exactly what they are looking for and those who have no idea. The ones that do typically have been in the business for a long time and are sure of the changes and corrections they wish to make. This can make your job much easier as a retoucher, because you know exactly what it is you have to do. The art directors that don't really know what they are looking for tend to waffle and have you go in circles. They tend to be newer to the business and lack experience. In either case, you have to be prepared for anything they may throw at you.

Present the Final Image to the Client

Once an image has been retouched and the art director is happy with it, the image is then presented to the creative director or client. The creative director is the person who oversees the entire ad concept and makes sure it conveys the correct message.

At this point, the image may come back to me for further alterations. Otherwise, the image is then presented to the final client. Two obvious things can happen at that point: the client either loves it or hates it. I have had situations when there is a total change to the image and direction of the ad, and it must be recreated from scratch. In other cases, there are minor changes or none at all. It is typical to get an approval on the image within a couple of rounds.

If the image is approved, it will be passed on for further processing. This usually means mating the image(s) with the page layout file, and from there, it is either sent for final film or, most often, it is sent electronically to the correct publication house.

Regardless of the version of Photoshop or the computer platform you are using (unless it is really old!), the techniques described in this book rely on basic tools to complete the tasks described. I have found that with each update of Photoshop, I will typically try the new functions, but often I end up relying on the more basic tools to perform my corrections. In other words, the program version number isn't a big issue with me, it's what I do with the tools that matters.

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