In short, we’ll see how and why advanced retouching enables leading brands and retailers to BE leaders.
We’re not talking about the basics. It’s widely understood that removing backgrounds, aligning products, and maintaining consistent crops and margins is necessary to be successful at e-commerce. So what are we talking about?
For starters, how shape, crease reduction, and symmetry tap into biological imperatives to make apparel more appealing. Then we’ll show you how retouching can keep your footwear feeling new, with different cleanup and recreation techniques. We’ll follow that with some hints on retouching handbags, and finally end on skin retouching, demonstrating skin tone evening and blemish removal for on-model product images.
To demonstrate retouching changes, we're using before-and-after images in a slider to help you spot the differences.
You’ll see that advanced retouching is like adding a team of digital stylists to your studio. Yes, the more you can do in-camera the better, but the key to consistent quality at scale is retouching in post-production.
When done right, your in-studio stylist’s pin-and-tuck kung-fu serves as a guide to your retouchers. Their complementary skillsets combine to conquer imperfect samples and ticking clocks, getting images from the studio to the web faster and at higher quality than ever before.
1. Retouching Apparel: Shape & Crease Reduction
Apparel product photography is about demonstrating shape through fit. You want customers to be able to accurately picture themselves in a garment, and to like that mental image so much they click the “add to cart” button.
When you’re photographing samples, even with the most skilled styling, it’s next-to-impossible to create perfect shape in studio. It seems like there's always creasing, wrinkling, and bunching preventing a good fit. Let’s look at a real world scenario.
Let’s say you’re shooting jeans. They’ve been packaged and shipped from the factory, traveled in sales reps’ cars for display to buyers, worn on location photoshoots, and now are back in the studio. They’ve spent a lot of time folded and packed away. That means they’ve acquired some pretty serious creases that your stylist does their best to steam or iron out, but some packaging creases still remain.
Smoothing the packaging creases removes a serious distraction and lets your customer see the jeans as they will be when actually owned. That’s a good basic rule for retouching: temporary flaws should be fixed, but don’t change permanent features. Your product image should be as appealing as possible, but above all it should be accurate.
Next, it’s time to put your jeans on-body. Your mannequin is a good one for your ideal pants size, but there’s always some variance in samples and these pants are a little long. Your stylist pins the legs in order to make the hem strike the ankle at the right location.
The pin line can be merged with the rest of the pant in post-production. Styling and retouching, working together, allow you to control inseam length.
You sell a lot of jeans, so you want to make sure your website has a consistent presentation. Consistency gives a professional impression, and also makes it easier for a customer to compare items quickly. When details are aligned, your customer’s eyes will be drawn to the factors that matter instead of distractions.
For example, it’s a good idea to decide if you want all your pant hems and waistlines to be curved in, out, or straight.
Paying attention to details like hem shape and waistline in your product images may not seem like a big deal. On its own, each may not be. But when you add details together, it sends a message to your customer: “I’m paying attention. I care. I take pride in my brand’s reputation.” Increasing your customer’s confidence in you increases their likelihood to buy.
Let’s walk through another example.
A certain amount of creasing may be part of jeans’ style, but creases caused by misfit are more troubling when it comes to something that should be smooth and clean, like dress shirts. A little digital ironing and shaping can make a big difference.
First, one of the most obvious applications of shape comes when we’re discussing shape on the edges of the garment; eliminating things that stick out. For example, bunching around the shoulders and collar, and flaring around the cuff and hem.
That kind of bunching is a consequence of how it was hung on the mannequin, a temporary circumstance and therefore a good candidate for retouching. Removing inconsequential distraction points keeps the focus on what matters.
Inner shape comes back to smoothing wrinkles and creases. Shoulders and armpits, particularly on mannequins, are a frequent problem area. Retouching can remove the appearance of a wrinkled misfit.
As retouching gets more advanced, it’s less about removing creases and more about working with contrast to control shadows and highlights.
One effective way to create extremely consistent images is to create an ideal silhouette and then retouch images into that shape. The silhouette can be created from the first, perfectly retouched image in a series.
You need consistent photography for use of a silhouette to be practical.
Shaping and crease reduction furthers the good work you’ve done in the photo studio. The stylist pins and the retoucher follows their guidance in order to complete the work in post-production.
2. Retouching Apparel: The Power of Symmetry
Many human standards of beauty depend on symmetry across a vertical axis, like biologically driven facial and body attractiveness. Apparel doesn’t have to be symmetric to be beautiful—there are plenty of lovely dresses with asymmetric hems—but if your product is meant to be symmetric, it better be photographed that way!
An asymmetric appearance will give a sloppy impression, particularly in head-on shots. When you’re trying to rush through your shotlist for the day, well, sometimes you’re going to need to correct alignment in post-production.
To apply vertical symmetry when retouching, we establish a Y-axis and then make sure key elements align. For example, on a coat guide points will be on the collar, shoulder, armpit, elbows, and cuffs.
For pants, the waistline is a particular area of emphasis. If the waistline drops and becomes asymmetric, it doesn’t look like it’s being worn. The key guide points for symmetry on pants are at the waist, inseam, knees, and hem.
A key part of retouching shirts for symmetry is maintaining a consistent distance between the arm and body. If they’re different distances, guide points will naturally come out of alignment.
Applying symmetry in post-production is one of the best things you can do to increase attractiveness and create consistency.
The difference in each image may not be dramatic—which is a good thing—but when you consider a category page with 20 images, differences are magnified. If you apply symmetry, your customer feels like they have a consistent perspective instead of having their point of view shifted all over the place.
3. Retouching Footwear: Keeping Kicks Fresh
One of the biggest challenges in footwear product photography and post-production is how quickly shoes show signs of wear. Instead of common apparel problems like shape, creasing, and symmetry, retouching footwear is mostly about cleanup.
Many shoes are shiny, which can result in unwanted reflections as well as showing unflattering scratches and scuffs. Some materials, like leather, will crinkle with even the slightest use.
Retouching away those signs of wear will give your shoe that brand new feel you want in your product images.
A frequent problem area is the bonding where soles are joined to the shoe; it collects dust, dirt, and glue, and just generally gets untidy.
It’s time consuming and near impossible for a stylist to clean a shoe sufficiently. It’s a relatively simple retouching task to remove dirt and other unwanted specks, particularly against solid colors like white.
You may also need to use props to create shape, or need stickers and tags removed from the inner or outer shoe. In those instances you’ll need portions of your footwear recreated.
There are a variety of retouching techniques that can recreate covered areas. The technique you use will depend on your product shot, but the benefit is obvious. It enables the use of props, like lines supporting strapped backs to create an in-use appearance, or removing sizing tags to make an image more universal.
Laces aren’t generally the part of the shoe you want to attract attention to, so keep them neatly tied to avoid distraction. If you miss lacing while shooting, it can be corrected in post-production.
Details, details, details. If your customer sees attention to detail in your product images, they transfer that belief to your design, build quality, and service. Every link in the chain affects trust and influences the buying decision.
4. Retouching Bags: Shape & Cleanup
Bags combine the challenges of footwear and garments. Whether it’s a backpack, handbag, or clutch, bags generally have a more flexible shape than footwear while using materials that show wear more quickly than garments.
Most bags need to be stuffed during shooting to give a full appearance as if in use. It’s difficult to create a consistent shape when stuffing bags.
Another common challenge for bags is that material like leather cracks easily and needs repairing. These types of imperfections are particularly visible on zoom, a common feature of websites selling luxury and designer accessories.
Retouching can remove cracks and restore the material to its original new appearance.
5. Models: Skin Retouching
Last but not least, we’ll briefly tackle the challenging—and occasionally controversial—topic of model retouching.
Skin retouching is one of the most advantageous ways to retouch product images that are on-model. There are many different philosophies when it comes to skin retouching, and we’re not going to say that one is better than another. What’s most important is that you are consistent.
If you like a natural look, particularly popular with outdoor apparel, you’ll want to spend more time evening out skin tone than you will smoothing skin. That means paying more attention to color than removing blemishes.
An individual has variation in skin tone in a photo for a couple of reasons. First, no one tans evenly over their entire body. Second, when a model is standing all day at the studio, often under hot lights, circulation will naturally cause extremities to redden. To create a consistent tone, pick a neutral spot (like the face) and then even out the tone of the rest of the body.
Next, let’s talk blemishes and skin smoothing. No matter how beautiful the model, if you look closely enough you’re going to see blemishes. There will be reddened skin, bruising, freckles, stray hairs, moles, eye bags, wrinkles... What do you do with them, if anything?
A general rule of thumb for a natural look is to leave anything permanent while removing temporary imperfections. For example, you may remove goosebumps, acne, or bruises while leaving freckles and birthmarks.
This blog post goes into more detail on the “less is more” approach to retouching models. You’ll want to be sure you don’t go too far and cross the increasingly legislated boundary between real and Photoshopped (learn more about Photoshop, models, and the law).
For a more classic retouch look, popular in magazines, you simply smooth all marks. No more moles, wrinkles, or eye bags. Skin smoothing can create an extremely consistent look, but you need to be careful not to go so far that skin starts looking like plastic. It’s never good for a customer to feel like your images are fake.
How To Get Your Images Retouched
Now that you know a few of the ways leaders use retouching to stay ahead, the question becomes “How? How can I use advanced retouching techniques to sell more?”
Generally speaking, you have three options: do it yourself, hire an in-house retoucher, or outsource. I’m not going to spend much time on the DIY option, because to be honest, if you’re doing it yourself you probably won’t be for long. It’s simply too time consuming and specialized a skill.
Hiring local freelancers and eventually an in-house team has pros and cons. The advantage is proximity; it’s nice to be able to walk over to someone’s desk and get or give instant feedback.
The disadvantages are expense, experience, and scale. Retouchers are expensive, employees come with overhead, and because the work is seasonal they’re often either idle or overwhelmed. It’s also challenging to find a wide range of skills on smaller teams.
Traditional outsourcing appears to solve the expense and scale problems, but unfortunately there’s a lot of over-promising and under-delivering. Communication can be difficult, and it feels like every time you upload images you’re taking a risk; you can start to dread opening delivered images, wondering, “What did they mess up this time?”
Pixelz Professional is our solution to the retouching dilemma. We’ve edited over 15 million images for leading brands, retailers, and commercial photo studios around the world. We’ve taken the best practices we’ve learned over the years, and bundled them into a wide variety of category-specific retouching packages.