Retouching: Art or cheating?

Where do you stand in the great Retouching debate?  Do you think that digital image manipulation is just another avenue of artistic expression or is it misleading and even possibly unethical to retouch images?

No matter what your personal opinions are, in the modern world there is no way to escape images that have been retouched.  We see them many times every day in places such as on the television and in magazines.  The majority of the time most people can’t even recognise if an image has been through the retouching process or not, but the general assumption is that most probably have.  Retouching is no longer something out of the ordinary and has become an accepted part of 21stcentury living.

Product photography retouching

Bearing these facts in mind, retouching is often thought to be some mystic art where huge changes are made to distort the original images.  However, there is often little attention given to the much more subtle forms or retouching that are used in product and advertising photography. These techniques can be used to huge effect with small and subtle changes leading to striking final images.

In this post, I want to take a look at this more subtle side of retouching and show you my workflow in Photoshop when editing and retouching a product image.

So, let’s have a look at the starting image (SOOC – Straight Out Of Camera) and the final image.

Apart from the obvious change in composition, you’ll notice that there are no major changes to the product itself.  The biggest change is the addition of a simple background to the image.

My workflow:

Retouching is very much about personal preference and I know that everyone has their own ideas on the best way of working and there will never be a definitive right way to do things.  I’m also not saying that what I do is the best way to work. All I’m saying is that this is the way that I currentlywork.  I say “currently” as workflow is an organic thing that is always changing as my skills and methods develop.


I always shoot tethered in the studio because it’s so much easier to check images on a propersized screen rather than the  one on the back of a camera.  Once the images have been captured the initial retouching is carried out in Adobe Lightroom which allows the full range of RAW information captured to be used if required. Firstly, all of the captured images are reviewed and rated, but none are deleted, as you never know if parts of these images may be in some part of a composite image during retouching! The selected images are then colour corrected, then exposure, contrast, and dynamic range adjustments are made. The selected images are then exported as TIFFs ready for the retouching to begin in Photoshop.


Instead of trying to write about how I went about the retouching of this image I decided to take a screen recording instead. This is because it’s a very dynamic process and although I had a vision of the final image before I started the retouching, there was a certain degree of trial and error through the process.

So that you don’t have to sit through the 90 minutes of retouching, the video has been sped up nearly 10 times! As you’ll notice, there a few points when I pause to assess the image and work out what to do next!

So there you have it, a speed edit of an advertising image. After retouching, I usually leave the image for 24 hours and then return to review it to look for any obvious errors or if any changes should be made. In this case, the following additional changes were made to the image which are not shown in the video above:

  • A shadow was added under the light swirl that wraps around the wand.
  • Selective sharpening using a High Pass filter and a layer mask around some areas of the curling wand.

The Final Image

Ian Knaggs Commercial Product Photographer - BaByliss Curling Wand

Sharing is Caring!

I hope that you’ve found this post interesting and helpful in understanding that retouching in product and advertising photographs does not have to distort reality. It can be used to make small and relatively subtle changes that highlight and refine a product.

I’d love to hear your comments or views on any of the topics covered above so feel free to enter them down below!