The camera never lies – but with image manipulation, anything is possible. Where are the limits?

As anyone who has ever met a celebrity in the flesh will know, the physical realities of the famous can be far removed from what you might have been led to expect.

I once saw a world-famous US songwriter and now aspiring actress at close quarters, and was shocked at her pockmarked complexion – not because she was unbelievably pockmarked, but because billboards and magazine covers had led me (and you) to believe her skin is lustrous, silken and perfect.

And there we have it: the pursuit of perfection is image retouching’s reason for existence. “It all comes down to advertising,” says Chris Christodoulou, director of leading UK retouching house Saddington & Baynes,

“Why do people spend so much time retouching images of women to look perfect when everyone knows they’re not perfect? It’s the same with products.”

He continues: “It’s because advertising works on a psychological and subliminal level; we’re visual creatures, and they want to sell us the most aspirational view of that person or product. If you show someone something that’s not very appealing they’re not going to buy it, whether it’s a car or a carton of juice.”

Any discussions of retouching invariably touches on the cases involving celebrities, such as the recent controversy surrounding Kate Winslet and her Vanity Fair shoot, where the magazine denied the (almost unrecognizable) actress had been heavily retouched.

Yet the debate should be far broader than this, insist the experts. “You can bet that Mona Lisa wasn’t quite as attractive in real life,” offers Jacob Nelson, of Sweden-based agency Forsman & Bodenfors,, while Christodoulou asks: “When was the last time you saw a pot-bellied Greek statue?”

If the essence of retouching has not moved on in 3,000 years, the tools have, and particularly so since the early 1990s. Glenn Feron, began retouching at a photo lab in the early 1970s, and still uses the same techniques today, only now his toolkit consists of Photoshop.

“I’ve had the good fortune to have worked with some veterans who were retouching in the 1930s and 1940s, with airbrushes, pencils, ink and water-colours, and using hand-held plastic masks to protect unwanted areas from being affected – just as selections and masks are now used in Photoshop.”

Computer-based technologies mean that contemporary retouching is far quicker than the old analogue techniques – and it needs to be, because demand for retouching services has never been greater.

“The way images are perceived has evolved in recent decades,” offers Sophie Caperan, project manager at US-based Sous Les Etoiles Studio,

“Everything nowadays has to be – or seem – flawless. Thus, retouching in order to beautify and enhance a given image has become an essential part of most photo production. Models look amazing, but like anyone else they have facial hair, pimples and natural wrinkles.”

But it’s not just imperfections that fuel the market for retouching: changing style has a hand, too. A Saddington & Baynes speciality is vehicle retouching, which is a big growth area, says Christodoulou.

“The style of car photography means that most photographers no longer describe a car with natural light any more. They use a lot of flash, fill and reflector boards, so you get jobs comprising six or seven parts, with different lighting for the alloy wheels, sides, front, roof and so on. Because these components are digital they all register, and so you can blend them pretty quickly.”

Technology has democratized retouching too, believes Glenn Feron, making it both more accessible and more widespread. “Digital retouching let the cat out of the bag,” he says.

“When I started, it was a closed industry and few knew about it. Now, anyone can take out redeye and undesirable imperfections, and colour-correct images pretty simply. And with websites displaying so many ‘before and afters’, it’s become an area of major interest, both for fun and profit.”

The broad areas of demand for retouching are people and product shots. “On products – a carton, say – we’ll tidy up the edges and get rid of creases, bar-codes and product information you don’t necessarily want,” says Christodoulou.

“You work toward a perfect view of that box. Everything – watches, bottles of perfume, laptops – has imperfections that need to be removed.”

In the public’s consciousness, retouching of people is where the art form is most conspicuous, with models and celebrities routinely undergoing the airbrush treatment – but not always for the reasons you’d expect.

Model behaviour

“Some models look like they’ve just got out of bed, because they have,” says Feron. “I’ve had magazines tell me, ‘Make her look she came out of the make-up room instead of the bedroom, or we’ve no cover this month’.”

And with celebrities, the retouching goes beyond vanity, and into branding. “Celebrities control how their appearance is presented to the public as a tool for their branding, as they always have done,” says David Kliger,

“We see more with our brains than with our eyes; we filter out details we consider to be unimportant or distractions. The camera, though, records surface appearances very accurately. With celebrities, blemishes and wrinkles distract the eye much more in a photograph than in real life, and the removal of these distractions reveals the person behind the distractions.”

There is an ethical element to retouching, as the case study on the Swedish government illustrates (see Girl Power). Retouching is a form of misrepresentation, after all, however innocent it may be in most instances.

There are inevitably grey areas, which can leave the retoucher questioning whether what they’re being asked to do is morally right. Sandra Fretelliere is retouching manager at Sous Les Etoiles Studio, and she describes an incident where she was left feeling “uncomfortable” while working on an ad campaign for a health insurance company.

“The subject was a baby,” she says, “and the art director asked us to remove a little puffiness under its eyes. This sounded wrong, and we suggested it was not natural to remove them.