Perspective, lighting and color. Shadows, midtones, highlights and contrast. You can dodge and burn. You can heal or clone. You could paint or even isolate frequencies. Photoshop is there for everyone. The tools are there for everyone, but if everyone uses the same tools, why do some images stand out among others? Well, because tools don’t make the difference, the retoucher does. Photographers and directors aren’t just clients, they’re people.

I work with people. Photographers put their heart into a photograph. When a photographer gives you an image, they’re entrusting you with something precious to them. I think, the most important tool that a retoucher should have in the box, that no software gives you, and that you only learn how to use over time…is caution. It sounds simple, but subtlety, nuance and finesse are all key qualities that take time to develop.


receiptVAT# 03601830833 is owned by Alex Harris. I am an independent retoucher and provide invoices to both domestic and international clients.

Reference Images

Hello retouchers! So, today’s tip regards reference images and how using them will dramatically decrease the amount of times we have to go back and make changes.

More often than not, we’re inspired by something. I can honestly count on one hand the amount of times I’ve had an idea which came to my head without any secondary inspiration whatsoever. Personally, I find nothing wrong with that, though I’ve heard some argue that being inspired by someone else’s work, is the act of copying in it’s purist form. To them, I say, “OK so I’m a copycat. Banish me.” There is some truth to the statement, but I think that the judgement doesn’t fit the crime. You see, it’s the 21st century, media, in all shapes, sizes and forms surrounds us and there’s know escaping it. Although, I suppose you could escape it if you go off the grid to a remote island and cut ties with society altogether…but you’d still bring a boat load of memories with you. So I guess, if you’re not born off the grid…there’s no escaping it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with hearing a song and thinking, “Wow, I want to write something like that.” Perhaps you see an image and think, “Holy crap, those colours rock! I want to try that on something.” You’re not stealing (unless you’re blatantly making a photocopy of it) because you’re personal touch is always going to be in it. Often enough, being inspired by another person doesn’t mean you were are inspired by the work as a whole but instead by certain aspects of the work. I could look at an image and be inspired by it’s depth, where as the guy next to me could look at the same image and take inspiration simply from it’s subject. Regardless of what we are inspired by, the first step in learning and growing as retouchers is to humbly study the work of others that have clearly understood something that we still haven’t. How do we implement this you ask? Well, by using great reference images in our workflow.

I have a folder which contains somewhere around 70 images ranging from landscape to glamour including products and fine art. What they all have in common, is that they are all divine images in some way. I wouldn’t say that they are perfect images because I think perfect is a big word, however, they are images that I feel just nailed it in whatever they were trying to achieve.

Using reference material is not something exclusive to retouching. In music production, we do it all the time. At some point we might be stuck on whether or not certain aspects of our mix are going in the right direction, so we’ll import a song or some hit songs in our genre, solo them, and then go back to see how our mix sounds. In the mastering stage (the last stage of production where we work on the overall sound of the mix) we’ll do this same thing multiple times. There are times when I’m stuck right at the end of a mastering session and toggle solo between the client’s track and my reference material 50 times, each time making a micro adjustments. Sure, that’s when I’m completely stuck in the mud, but it means that at the very least, while mastering on a good day, I’m flipping back to the reference material maybe 10 times.

Sometimes that reference material simply serves the purpose of keeping you on track with standards. We might lose control during our colouring process and go off course. Taking a quick look our references will help us get control of the wheel again and get back on the road before we go to far and have to start over.

Reference material has another extremely important use, and it’s all thanks to the fact that once we start working on an image, we’re hooked on it until we’re done. Yes, hard work is great, but sometimes we also need to put in some smart work. When we work hard from the time we open that raw image in Photoshop, we begin to get used to what we’re seeing. This is not a matter of eye fatigue, rather, it is simply the act of your eyes adjusting to temperature, perspective, lighting, saturation and many other aspects of the image we’re working on. The best example of this is skin tones. You might start out using an approximate tone you think best fits the rest of you subjects complexion only to realize 30 minutes later that your model looks like a ghost or perhaps some tropical fruit. This is where using our reference material may have helped us as a guide 10 or 15 minutes in, and kept us from going off course. With my students, most of the cases where adjustments needed to be dialed back were due to them staring at the monitor for too long and/or not using reference images. Thus, it is a time saver to simply take a few minutes to calibrate and train the eyes using good reference material before, throughout and after we retouch.

“Time is money!” Personally, I don’t subscribe to that, however what does get my goat is when time is wasted and might not have been if a simple trick like looking a good image for a second could have kept me in the right direction. There are times when winging it is the right thing to do, but there are jobs where time is on the line and using a map is the smart thing to do.

As always, remember, if you’re reading this, you’re asking the right questions!