So today I had the pleasure of being interviewed! I decided it might make an interesting read for anyone interested in becoming a retoucher, or a photographer for that matter. Here you go:
1. How did you get your start in the industry?
I got my start in retouching during college. I liked retouching and thought it would be a good skill to use for income between photo jobs. I had a teacher who was a working photographer, Ed McCullough, and he told me how his retoucher found him. So I did the same thing. I took a deep breath and emailed my favorite photographers asking if they'd like to do a test. That means editing one or two of their images for free, or for a low price, just to show them what you can do and see if they'd like to use you for future projects. Of course, I was contacting some of the best photographers in the world, so I only had one of them hire me for actual work since they can afford the best (and I wasn't the best). And the one who hired me stopped hiring me after 3 jobs.
So you shouldn't assume no one will bother with you, but you should also be prepared to fail. It's part of life. On one of my first big fitness shoots for a national company, everything went great. I made $1200 in one day just for shooting (subbing for their in-house guy). It was amazing. Months later I called asking for a tear sheet or some of the images I shot and was told that they couldn't find the shots because they re-shot everything I did. They never told me why, but you can imagine how discouraging that is. Stuff like that happens. But you just keep going and do your best and improve your craft. I continued doing the work I could get, including small-time work, and practicing with my own photos as well. I've also offered those services at a discount to fellow students now that I'm graduated to help them get a good portfolio ready, and establish some relationships to get future work.
2. Was there a specific moment where you were like, “This is what I want to do”?
Honestly, I wanted to be an artist. And then an illustrator. And then a 3-D animator. My degree is in illustration. And then I realized that I could tell my stories and illustrate my ideas faster and more realistically with a camera than with a pencil, so I started to dabble and mostly taught myself photography. My favorite photography has always been the most high-production, highly idealized, highly retouched work, so I was fascinated with retouching as a tool for getting the look I wanted. So photography and retouching wasn't my life calling from the beginning, but it has become my goal and occupation and I'm content with it.
When you're an artist, all you hear your whole life is, "You will starve." "It's VERY competitive." You should do something where you can make money." And those things make me want to punch faces. But instead of punching faces, I just channel that desire into proving them all wrong. Regarding the idea that you're a photographer or painter or whatever and that's your one true calling, I don't buy it. It's good to know what you want and go for it, but being too bound to one idea of your identity or your future is limiting. I prefer to have a strong direction and pursue it until it leads me somewhere. And if it leads into another discipline that's a better fit, why, I'm going to go with it and see where that leads.
3. What sort of services do you provide your clients?
I'm primarily a photographer. I've done portraits for magazines, photographed cars, shot product full-time, shot models for portfolios, musicians, won contests, and I've done families and babies and weddings and all that, too. And with that variety has come a wide variety of retouching skills, which I offer as a service as well. I've shot a wide range of subjects, because just like art led me to photography, I had to see where photography was going to lead me. And I started where most start. With families and weddings. But the work I like best is advertising work, so once I realized that, that's where I started directing my branding and marketing.
4. In what ways do you work with your clients to maintain unity in a composite?
It's ideal to be on set with a photographer to make sure they do the things that result in a successful composite. This doesn't happen most of the time, though. I did a retouch yesterday for a photographer of two images. It required compositing a background into another image. It was supposed to be a plate image, but the photographer had shot it at a different distance, and with the lighting on the opposite side of him. Both of which are total no-nos. Rather than make him re-shoot, which I don't think he would have done, I just flipped the plate image and did some warping to align the images the best I could. Sometimes the material you receive is hard to work with, but they're hiring you to make the image better than they know how to make it. So I just did my best, and it looked great. And then, of course, on delivery I mentioned some pointers about what to do in the future to ensure a successful retouch.
5. If you were to hire someone what sort of technical and/or aesthetic skills would you seek in a potential employee?
I have a full-time job as a product photographer, and I recently interviewed some people for a photographer/retoucher position with my company. In order of priority, here's what I was looking for:
- Portfolio quality: No haloing, no weird filter effects or over-sharpening, basically no bad technique. Images that related to the job I was hiring for. For example, don't bring fashion work to a product photog job.
- Education: People will tell you that having a degree doesn't matter, and for some specialties that's true, but if you want full-time work, it does make a difference.
- Experience: We looked for candidates who have done what we do before. I got the job on the merits of my portfolio, but I prefer to work with someone who has been proven, who knows a workflow and has some work ethic. There are lots of divas in the photo world.
- The tie-breaker when it came down to two qualified folks was that one just wanted a better job than what they had, while the other wanted it to learn and improve her knowledge and craft. The manager and I chose the latter, because to me, that's the most important priority. And I'd rather work with someone who can take criticism without getting defensive.
6. Would there be a technical test for applicants?
There would be a technical test. I would want to know that the applicant had either abilities and experience similar to my own, or that they could demonstrate good basics and some mad teachability. I don't mind training someone if they're not a weasel. Tests for retouchers usually involve retouching something, or in interviews they will sometimes just ask what tool you'd use for a certain task, etc. If the idea of a test like that scares you at all, go practice immediately.
7. What qualities would you look for in a portfolio?
The most important thing about your portfolio is not necessarily high technical skill. Most applicants for photo jobs send in images that are irrelevant to the position. If you're applying for a fashion retoucher job and you send in world-class car interior photos, you'll lose to the person who sent in basic lookbook photos of girls in clothes on a white background. Start there. Once you know what you're applying for, then just make sure your work is impressive, consistent, and aesthetically similar to the style of the company's current branding. If you do all three of those and your work is relevant to the job, your chances are very good.
8. What would your advice be to someone just starting out and seeking work as a retouch artist?
If you're just starting out, you need to build a portfolio of GOOD images. If you make anything that looks lame to you the instant it's done, it's not going in your portfolio. That was practice. Figure out what you did wrong, and learn how to do it right. Then try again. When you have 10-20 images you're really proud of, and you know they're pretty good, then start sending out links to your work to photographers you admire and build relationships. Ask for tests. Photographers are much more happy to help than you think, because we all realize how hard it was to get where we are, so we're usually happy to help others who are really trying. If you never reach out, you'll never get hired. Getting used to rejection is step 1 of any marketing effort. Most 'no's are simply because the photographer isn't looking for help, etc. It's nothing personal. It may or may not be about your work. Just keep learning, keep improving. If your work is world-class, people will say yes. And the big secret is, they say yes before that, too, which helps you become world-class. I'm still improving my craft. Still working at it. I'm not where I want to be yet. It's totally normal to feel like a newb at first, or after 5 years, or later.