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The Dos and Don'ts of Headshot Retouching

, back in the days of black-and-white headshots, a photographer friend of mine took a great headshot of me," says Los Angeles-based actor Nicolette DiMaggio. "Well, it was almost great; it needed a little fixing around the eyes. So my acting teacher recommended I get some retouching and suggested I send the headshot to someone he knew who was an apparent expert at retouching. I sent the headshot, along with $250, off to this so-called expert. I repeat, $250," she exclaims with a regretful smile. "Anyway, a week later, I got the picture back. It was awful, the worst retouching job in the history of retouching jobs. I looked like a porcelain doll. My skin was all washed-out. My eyes were whitened to the point of looking bleached. I was very upset, and I couldn't use the headshot. Oh, did I mention it cost me $250?"

In today's competitive world of online casting, DiMaggio's horror story is a lesson to all actors seeking to increase their audition numbers by "fixing" their headshots. Retouching has become an industry unto itself. Specialized labs, photographers, and, as DiMaggio puts it, "so-called experts" offer their services to actors.

Retouching photographs is nothing new to Hollywood. In the 1930s, legendary photographer George Hurrell became famous for his sensual, highly dramatic, and stylized portraits of the glamorous stars of the day. According to Mark A. Vieira's book Hurrell's Hollywood Portraits, Hurrell's photographs were used as publicity tools by the major studios, transforming the industry's image of the Hollywood star. Using a special 8x10 camera and a revolutionary technique that mimicked the use of light in feature films, Hurrell's photographs were seen worldwide, adding to the allure of Hollywood.

The photography and lighting were flawless, but Hurrell's exhaustive work as a retoucher was just as important in capturing the dramatic final image. The photographer spent painstaking hours touching up the negative prior to developing the photo: He was said to have scrubbed each negative himself, working with graphite powder to smooth away blemishes and unwanted lines, eliminating stray hairs, even sketching in eyelashes to make them longer and more dramatic. Hurrell's visionary technique produced magical photographs of stars such as Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, and Jean Harlow. Today, Hurrell's legacy endures, as fashion magazines and movie posters regularly sprinkle their models with a hint of digital pixie dust. The craft has filtered down to the competitive world of headshots; retouching is standard now. But before actors put their headshots under the digital knife, they should keep in mind that a fine line separates good retouching from bad.

"The amazing thing about a photograph is that it's a captured moment of time," says headshot photographer Natalie Young. "In real life, when we're talking to each other, we're always moving and gesturing, and there's no time to freeze and investigate the details in each other's faces, like we do in a headshot. As a result, sometimes details in an 8x10 show up that we would not normally perceive in a person's face. And actors are sensitive to these details. So small changes can help, like softening or lightening under the eyes, or softly reducing smile lines around the mouth. But with all retouching, subtlety is the key."

"Retouching is 70 percent skill and 30 percent art," says master retoucher Sam Tabrizi, who works in the lab of Reproductions in Hollywood (the company also has an office in New York). "Every headshot needs retouching. It can be around the eyes or mouth, or maybe the color needs correcting, or the lighting has created a large shadow, but with every headshot there is something that needs to be fixed." Gayla Young of Ray the Retoucher, another bicoastal company, agrees. "Sometimes it's bloodshot eyes, or the teeth need whitening, or there are hairs that need to be removed," she says. "We get all kinds of requests. We've even removed the reflection of a Coca-Cola sign from the front of a guy's shirt."

"I have had people want me to change the shape of their face, or completely remove the bags from under their eyes," Natalie Young says. "I even had an actress who wanted me to remove her prominent freckles. But again, subtlety is the key. If an actor wants a smile line retouched, I don't remove the entire line, maybe just lighten it 25 percent, making it less noticeable. Texture is very important, especially with the high resolution of digital photography. Tiny details stick out a bunch more. Red-rimmed eyes, for example, are common with men. These wouldn't have shown up in the days of black-and-white headshots. So anytime I remove something, I do it in phases, a little at a time.

Retouching headshots has become much easier since the days of Hurrell's black-and-white portraits, thanks to advances in digital technology. "Ten years ago, retouching a film headshot was much more expensive and time-consuming than it is today," Natalie Young says. "The process began with getting an 8x10 print of the picture, then going to a lab and scanning it, then retouching it, then finally printing out a negative or another 8x10 of the image. By the time you were finished, you had lost some image quality, because you were using a second- or third-generation image."

But the new technology offers its own set of problems. With the industrywide shift to digital headshots, actors have more options as to who retouches their headshots and to what extent. The availability of image-editing software, such as Adobe Photoshop and Corel Paint Shop, even allows actors to retouch their own headshots. But experts offer a word of caution: Although digital technology has made the nuts and bolts of retouching much simpler, digital's high resolution has increased the level of skill necessary for an effective retouching job. Robert Browne, general manager of Reproductions in Hollywood, cautions actors against trying to manipulate their own headshots. In the past few years, he says, he has seen an increase in the number of actors who have attempted to retouch their own pictures and managed only to make the images worse. He suggests retouching be left to the professionals. "I can watch This Old House and see these guys renovating houses, or watch a mechanic and then grab my own tools and think I can go out and work on my car," Browne says. "But the truth is, whenever you watch an expert do something, they always make it look easy. And when you try it yourself, you find that there are so many details that they didn't tell you about."

Gayla Young also has noticed the do-it-yourself Photoshop trend. "One thing that has started to happen is that people come to us, after having retouched their headshots at home, and are surprised when the printed image looks so much different than it did on their home computer," she explains. "Well, they're not using professional monitors, so their color settings are all off, and the resolution is not the highest quality." Natalie Young agrees: "Simply owning Photoshop does not qualify a person to be a good retoucher. Fashion magazines overretouch their models and remove all the lines in their faces, and I think people are used to seeing this. As a result, when they are working on their own photo, they have no limits. With retouching, a little goes a long way. One of the mistakes I see in amateur retouching is that the person doesn't know when to stop. They end up wiping the image clean." She notes that color and resolution have also raised the bar on the task of retouching. "With digital color headshots, the resolution is so much higher than it was with black-and-white film," she continues. "There's a grainy quality to film that you don't have in digital. This means that every detail is much more visible, every blemish and every whisker is clearer, and so is every retouching mistake."

"A good headshot is one that looks like the actor and also gives a little essence of their personality," says agent Carrie Johnson of Mitchell K. Stubbs & Associates, located in L.A. "I prefer headshots to be more natural, so I'll have actors touch up their headshots if there is a stray hair in the way, or a blemish, or their eyes are bloodshot. But I don't normally recommend that actors touch up any lines or wrinkles, because you don't want the headshot to lose character. You don't want it to look plastic." Natalie Young agrees with Johnson and adds that a good headshot should capture a person's energy. "The image has to match the person's look," she explains. "But even more important, a good headshot is one that looks like the actor and feels like the actor, encompassing their energy and what unique qualities separate them from the next guy. I always approach headshot photography from that standpoint, capturing a person's energy."

As a busy commercial agent, Johnson sees a wide variety of commercial headshots. She advises that actors who are seeking a retouch not attempt to sculpt their faces to perfection. If the headshot doesn't look like the actor, she points out, the headshot becomes virtually useless. "With today's online casting, very often you get called in for auditions based solely on the look of your headshot," she says. "If the headshot doesn't look like you, you're most likely not going to get the job. Casting directors want to see the person in the headshot. So you might as well send a realistic picture of yourself, showing them exactly who they can expect to see. If you're a character actor with interesting lines and rough skin, but your headshot is blown out, touched up, and you look like a mannequin, the difference will be obvious when you walk in the room."

Natalie Young, who includes retouching in her headshot package, says good preparation can cut down on the number of mistakes, going a long way toward creating a headshot that needs minimal retouching. Young, who has been shooting headshots for 10 years, always includes a stylist in a headshot session. "I believe the first step in retouching is to make sure you have a very good stylist," she says. "Almost every client that I shoot has some type of blemish that needs attention. They've either had a stressful week, or they're nervous about the photo shoot, or their skin is dry. There's almost always a small blemish to cover up. So when I shoot, I always use a stylist. And my stylist stays with me for the entire session, doing touchups, watching the hair, making sure the clothes aren't bunched up, keeping the makeup even. The end result is that we have less mistakes to retouch, because we've done so much preparation.

"Flattering lighting makes a huge difference in minimizing flaws and reducing the need for retouching," she continues. "On the other hand, improper or uncontrolled lighting creates unflattering shadows and can emphasize flaws, such as skin problems or unwanted hairs. Shooting in natural light is popular, but it does not just mean walking outside and standing in the sun.... The photographer must know how to control and shape the light so that [it] is flattering to the actor."

Browne agrees. "At Reproductions, what we concentrate most on is actors' headshots, taking the materials that the photographer has given them and enhancing it just enough," he says. "Sometimes a photographer will be using very soft light in a headshot, which is very flattering to the person's skin, but this light can tend to be very soft and dimensionless. This brings a certain set of challenges to the retouching process. Or sometimes a photographer can go in the opposite direction and use a very dramatic light. Well, with dramatic light, you're gonna see every flaw, every bump, every blemish. So we have a different approach to retouching this type of headshot. We want people to have the best image that they possibly can. We would much rather print images that are great examples of photography and headshots. Our goal is to contribute to people's success as best we can, by using our skills and our tools to optimize the image for our printing process."

"Obviously, the photographer has to be able to assess their own retouching skills, and if they don't have good retouching skills, they should not be doing it," Natalie Young says. "But, from a client's perspective, if the photographer is good at retouching or has a retoucher they use regularly, this will benefit them. When I am retouching a headshot, I'm the one who worked with the person in the photo. So I know what they looked like close up, and I have talked to them about what is a temporary feature of their face, a blemish or something, and what is permanent. I also know what age range they're going for, I know what demographic, I know about their career, whether they're a character actor, whether a leading type, younger roles, older roles. I know everything they are trying to achieve."

Many photographers don't offer retouching as part of their package. Tabrizi advises that actors don't skip over this important part of the process or underestimate the benefits a small retouch can accomplish. And, even more important, he cautions actors not to damage their headshots by doing their own retouching. His advice is simple. "You've gone through so much trouble to capture the headshot—think of all the time you've spent, the money, the effort. It only takes a second to ruin it. Don't try to retouch it yourself. Bring it to a professional."

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