Is Outsourcing Your Retouching Harmful in the Long Run?

Is Outsourcing Your Retouching Harmful in the Long Run?

Even though my posts are typically educational in nature, today I want to start a discussion on the potentially negative effects of outsourcing your retouching.

Didn’t see that coming, did you? As a full-time professional boudoir retoucher, I always preach the value of outsourcing your editing. I don’t even edit most of my own work, I believe in it that much! But after retouching over 16,000 images last year alone, patterns and behaviors are starting to emerge to make me wonder: is outsourcing every image actually making you a worse photographer?

Maybe worse isn’t the right word. Less technical? Less observant? Less creative?

Think back to when you were first figuring out your style, both in shooting and in post production. You would shoot a session, try a bunch of new things, and screw up a lot of shots. Then you uploaded the images, and had to fully deal with your choices in posing, lighting and angles. When you forgot remove that stuff in the background, it was you that climbed the learning curve of content aware. If you sucked at the lighting, it was you that had to try to mitigate shadows, unflattering texture, and flat images. And because you were fighting the good fight in post, you made changes at the next session to avoid all that extra work.

Having to remove poorly lit cellulite probably made you think twice about shooting it the same way, and having to clone outlets off of body lines likely made you change your angle to avoid that issue.

I will admit, I have been guilty of this. When it’s someone else doing this shitty work, it’s really easy to shrug it off, but all of a sudden when it’s ME that is banging my head on the desk those details matter. This image is a client favorite, and I didn’t learn from my mistakes until the THIRD time I did it and had to fix it myself.

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Blemished skin. The world’s dirtiest sensor. Lighting that accentuates texture and causes an aggressive gradient on the background. Super combination. But I didn’t edit this one, I outsourced it knowing it was going to suck. I know I didn’t learn from this mistake, because this is not the first image exactly like this I have shot and outsourced. No consequences means no adjustments.

Once you take that process away completely, those lessons start to fade. Sure, you see them in culling, and might think about them while shooting, but if it isn’t you powering through a rough edit, the mistakes aren’t painful. They don’t affect your ego like they used to, or your time, which makes them much more likely to be repeated. Worse is when your retoucher is talented, and zaps those problems away in what feels, to you, like little time or effort. You may start to think that those mistakes are actually no big deal.

We should all be aiming to get it right in camera, every time, we all know this.

But does that continue to be important when someone else will be dealing with it? Taking a shot with the mindset of “that pose isn’t perfect, but my editor can fix it” is the absolute worst – for your images, your attention to detail, your sales potential, and your retoucher. It’s ALWAYS going to be better to spend the time taming flyaways or moving distracting elements in person, even if editing them out is an option.

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Those footprints should be easy enough to clean up, let’s not worry about rolling out more paper. Wrong. So so wrong. Not something I will waste my time on again.


“I got lazy for a while when I wasn’t culling.”

Recently I spoke with AIBP member and fantastic photographer Petra Herrmann. I have been culling, RAW processing and retouching for Petra for over a year, and have always admired her work as gorgeous, consistent and well done. A few months ago she started doing her own culling and RAW processing, and after just a couple of sessions she was noticing some changes in her work for the first time.

“Going through the images made me more conscious of the variety that I was shooting. I got lazy for a while when I wasn’t culling. I needed to change my perspective more often, try to shoot in such a way that it’s easier to edit, try to take back the idea of shooting smart. I feel like my images got less in focus because I wasn’t seeing all of them, and adjusting the next time. I want a 75% keep rate, and I was missing that. Now I’m more aware of my end capture, and nailing focus. I’m being more conscious of my exposure, nailing it more often, and regaining the habit of stepping back to allow room for cropping and straightening.” When I asked her if she had been aware that she was slipping, she said, “Was I slipping? Well, yeah, I was. And I didn’t know it until I took that process back and had to make the choices. I was getting really cocky with shooting in quantity, variety and accuracy.”

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It was me that had to edit the white strip in the background, when it would have been a million times easier to fix that in person. Will I make that mistake again? No way in hell.

If you outsource your retouching, I applaud you! That process is scary, takes a lot of trust, and is an excellent indicator of success. It’s such a smart habit to be in, and provides an important emotional break in the session workflow. I can’t emphasize enough how important I think outsourcing is. This train of thought is not intended to minimize that, or be accusatory or generalizing, but a discussion on the long term effects of having images returned polished and perfect.

What really happens if we make our bed and don’t have to lie in it? To be honest, I don’t know, it depends on the photographer. I do believe that editing a few of your images regularly is a good idea. Even more so if you force yourself to edit the images you think will be tough, and dig in to figure out what makes them tricky and how to improve.

After all, these creative brains needs all the flexing and challenging they can get.

Jen Swedhin
Jen Swedhin

Jen Swedhin is a natural light and studio photographer. Jen specializes in intimate portraiture for men, and is one of the only photographers in the industry to focus on this niche. If you are interested in offering men and couples but don't love shooting it, hire Jen! She can come to your studio, shoot men and couples for you, under your brand, and split the profits. Easy peasy. Jen is also the owner of Jen Gets Shit Done, a retouching, web design and mentoring service for boudoir photographers.


1 Comment

  • Aroha

    Brilliant read!! Thanks for the interesting insight Jen and Petra! 👍

    February 20, 2017 at 8:01 pm