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Digital Portrait Retouching: A Question of Truth or Fiction

By Gary Lott

Since switching over to digital several years ago, I’ve considered the retouching that I do for clients to be an idealized representation of them.

Recently, however, my philosophy came into question when a woman I know jokingly accused me of being dishonest. She wondered why I didn’t see making people look better than they really do as less than truthful.

In response, I spoke about the joy I see in people’s eyes when they see a retouched image of themselves. I spoke about the satisfaction I get when going into the home of someone who has hung a 20 x 24 fine art portrait that I produced. Yes, I even mentioned that the frequency of which I sell wall art is a testament to my clients’ satisfaction. That was enough to convince my friend what I was doing was okay. After all, I’m not robbing banks.

The truth is, it wasn’t enough to convince me. The next morning, I sat and contemplated the conversation. I began to question what I was doing. Was it right? Searching for answers, I went back to the beginning. I asked myself, “What is photography about.” The answer that came to mind was light and shadow.

I looked at the light coming in through the French doors. The rays shined brightly on part of the couch and the coffee table. Yet, the end table received no direct sunlight, it was completely in the shadows. The variance between highlights and shadows would not adequately record on my camera. To capture the scene naturally, detail in one or the other would have to be sacrificed. Yet, my eyes could see detail in both areas.

This little exchange of light and shadow started me thinking about Ansel Adams. Was the father of the Zone System also dishonest? He evaluated the scene, set exposure, and manipulated the negative and the print to present the world with idealized versions of reality.

As fine art portrait photographers, I believe we do the same. Emulating Adams’ process, we evaluate our subjects, set exposure, and manipulate the digital file, resulting in an idealized version of reality.

But hold on, that sounds like the earlier argument I made to my friend. A reexamination of Adams’ process and those of a portrait artist reveals that photographers may not necessarily be presenting an “idealized” version of reality. Rather, we may in-fact be using the tools of our trade to present a more accurate version of reality.

Case in point, Ansel Adams’ images have shadow detail as well as detail in the highlights. Without manipulation in exposure, negative development, and dodging and burning, prints of that magnitude could have never been produced. Film range with standard development couldn’t reach that far. Yet, when standing at Old Sentinel Bridge near the Yosemite Chapel, looking up at Half Dome in the winter, one can’t help but be taken aback by the scene’s beauty and ability to captivate. Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of photographers stand near the same point where Adams stood near Merced River each year only to meet with disappointment. Their eyes, minds and hearts have captured the setting, but they can’t do it with their cameras.

This is where we portrait artists face a similar challeng. When someone looks at a loved one, their mind doesn’t really register the fine lines, the blemishes, or the dark circles under the eyes. The camera does, and thus without further manipulation by us, if we simply allow the camera to capture our subject, we allow it to present an altered view of reality. We would allow our subjects to be represented in a way people don’t see them in their mind’s eye. Through retouching, we restore the balance; in actuality, we present a truer truth.  

Gary Lott is the owner of Photographic Designs located in San Antonio, Texas. You can see Gary's work at