Humanoids: Beauty, Photo Retouching and the Uncanny Valley


Full disclosure: I’ve never done commercial photography and don’t exactly know what goes into making a picture for an advertisement. The only knowledge I have on this subject is the hours of behind the scenes work I’ve watched, the hundreds of magazines, blogs and tutorials I’ve read and, obviously, the billions of ads that have bombarded my field of view since the first moment I began to comprehend visual information.

When you’re in the process of building a photographic portfolio, you think long and hard about what type of photographer you’d like to be. I’ve read over and over that it’s important to choose a specific area of the business in order to obtain the type of clients you’re looking for. Before I began this research, I was under the impression that I wanted to be a commercial photographer.

Looking at the portfolios of well-known and not-so-well-known commercial photographers, I came to the conclusion that the name of the game in this field is photo retouching. I’d argue, from what I can tell, that it’s more about the post-processing in this field than about the actual clicking of the shutter.


I’m not a photo retoucher. Besides a bit of cloning, stamping, dodging and burning I’ve never really tried my hand at it. But I know that, like all things, it can be done tastefully or done poorly.

I’ll get some flack for saying this, and I’m certain it will be warranted, but when I look at ads or portraits taken of celebrities, a good number of them raise this antenna in my brain. Sometimes, they just don’t look human. Most times, in fact.

It’s been said a billion times, but worth noting again: people don’t look like people in a majority of commercial photographs. They don’t have pores. They don’t have wrinkles. Stray hairs and blemishes are not to be seen. Even the pictures that are done tastefully still lack that sense of natural imperfection. In other words, humans look more like ‘humanoids’ — like creatures from a bizarro Earth.

This isn’t something that’s been invented during the pixel cutting age we live in. This kind of thing dates back years. Just look at advertisements from the 1950s. The people look every bit as fake as our images from today; sometimes even cartoon fake. Instead of a mouse and computer, they used an airbrush.

I didn’t used to think this. When I was less aware of the art and craft of photography, I’d see a picture of a woman and think that these celebrities and models all lived in some strange land that is inhabited by people with no faults. It seems hard to believe, but many people walking around don’t understand how easily someone can be made to look perfect (whatever your idea of perfect might be).


I understand the vanity aspect: the subjects of a lot of these pictures would rather not have the world looking at their blackheads or blotchy skin. But what I don’t see talked about more often than not is how these reworked people don’t look attractive. If you glance at a picture of a Victoria’s Secret model, sure, they look amazing. But look a bit closer. Look at their skin. Look at the way the light is hitting their body. It looks, well, a bit weird. Don’t you think?

There’s this thing called “the uncanny valley”. Wikipedia defines the phenomenon as “a hypothesis in the field of human aesthetics which holds that when human features look and move almost, but not perfectly, like natural human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers.”

When I’m walking down the hallway of a movie theatre and I see a picture of Ben Stiller that looks like this, the “uncanny valley” comes to mind:


Usually, this term is used in reference to robotics or animation. I don’t typically hear it when I’m talking about actual people, but it fits in some circumstances, and that’s quite strange.

Of course, there’s always the other side of the coin. One could argue that using diffusion on a lens or lighting a face or body a certain way distorts (or beautifies) the truth/subject just like digital retouching does. This is a valid point, but like anything, there needs to be a line drawn in the sand.

A diagram showing the uncanny valley

A diagram showing the uncanny valley

When someone is bending their torso a certain way, we should see the skin stretch. If somebody furrows their brow, we should see a wrinkle in their forehead. When you start changing the way a body is shaped, or the way a body moves, it starts to look fake and awkward.

As photographers, do we have to play this game? I think so. If you want to work within a specific field, you have to adhere to the confines of that genre. Sure, there are those that get away with the less drastic forms of photo retouching, but as I said before, a majority of things I see don’t look realistic and it seems like they never will. Trends like this get worse, not better. At best, it’ll just stay the same.

Talk about a tangent. I started off writing about building a photographic portfolio and have ended up talking about humanoids. This means one of two things: I’ve either been watching too much Star Trek, or I really don’t have the heart for commercial photography.

All I know is this: If I photographed Mr. Spock, I’d wanna leave his ears just the way they are.

Image credits: Poster from the film Artificial Intelligence, Retouch7 by angelo_abary, poster from the film Little Fockers.

  • Anon

    *gets out my bag of popcorn*

  • Victor

    This reminds me of the dummy copy a designer would use in a layout to show where the real story will be added later.

  • Chris

    I’ve never done commercial photography, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

  • AdminHarald

    With all due respect to author Mr. Campanella, this could have been a more interesting article if (A) it had been written by someone who actually does beauty/fashion photography and/or is a retoucher who is familiar with the Uncanny Valley, or (B) included quotes from the same.

    So let me tell you a little story…

    Back when I was a young art director in Hollywood doing work in “entertainment merchandising,” one of our clients was Donna Summer (RIP), who was in her Queen of Disco heyday. We were creating posters, ads, and concert books about her that would be seen by millions, and I was in charge of creating and art-directing all the visual imagery, which of course included photography. And part of my job was interfacing with the L.A. retouch studios (using real airbrushes!) that were working on “improving” the images. And some of the “improvements” were ridiculous. I didn’t know about the Uncanny Valley then, but I knew when something looked fake. And I was seeing at one retouched photo after another that made Donna look like a porcelain doll, not like an actual human. I was unhappy and showed these images to her managers, expecting them to agree with me that this stuff was way overboard and we needed to start over. They stared at me for a moment then said: “This is the way we want Donna to look, now shut up and do your job.” I did, and those are the images than went out. We just vaulted right over the Uncanny Valley.

    Harald Johnson

  • MMielech

    “This is the way we want Donna to look, now shut up and do your job.”

    Thank you Harald, for so succinctly expressing what I try to tell the whiners who are always going on and on about retouching too much or too little or retouching in general. The final arbiter, of course, is the client buying these photos, and, if that’s what they want, that’s what they get. Who am I to say? Their check is as good as the rest.

    btw, I am a retoucher, and, you know, that Ben Stiller pic looks pretty good to me.

    btwII: The author should have stopped here: “I’ve never done commercial photography and don’t exactly know what goes into making a picture for an advertisement.”

  • Joseph Campanella

    Harald and MMielech

    I don’t understand the anger from the both of you.

    You’re practically agreeing with everything I said.

    The meat of what I wrote is basically, “to do commercial photography, it seems, you have to retouch beyond what you find to be in good taste”. Seems that both of you agree with that sentiment.

    At least Harald does.

    As for your “whiners” comment. I don’t see how Harald is any less of a whiner when he asked his bosses why they wanted such a drastic and unrealistic retouch done. It’s basically the same exact thing I bring up throughout this entire piece?

    Sure I’ve never done any work like this, but for the past 3 months I’ve been weighing my options. Should I go plunk down thousands of dollars to learn to retouch, learn the programs and the technique all so I could go work and be asked to do something I don’t feel is right?

  • Joseph Campanella

    And since you think that Stiller one is well done, I’d be curious to think what you think of this Deniro one. Looks like the guy doesn’t have 1 wrinkle on his entire head!

  • MMielech

    Dude, it won’t cost you thousands of dollars. I know of no institution that will train you to become a top flight retoucher, at almost any price. Of course, our fine for profit post high school education industry would argue that, but, they’re the ones cashing your student loan check.
    Here’s what you do. Buy a copy of Photoshop, a fairly powerful Mac, and start moving through the Adobe tutorials, page by page. Then, land a job in the real world, which would probably be lower pay and lousy hours compared to what the senior people are making in that shop. Watch and learn. This may take about ten years total, before you should be competent enough to build a solid portfolio and to wax critically about the profession and it’s place in the world of commercial photography. Get back to us when you get there. Although I sense that you won’t, because you are already emotionally biased against the whole concept of commercial retouching. Hard way to start a career.

  • MMielech

    Well, first, that isn’t the Stiller shot. I would say that somebody, yes, went too far with Bobby. But, did they? There it is, and, it was bought and published. Somebody liked it.

    Movie posters, and, most entertainment advertising product is notorious for it’s amount of retouching. This is nothing new. Go back to the glamour shots of the early thirties, and follow it up to now. It’s a world of fiction and fantasy being sold, after all.

  • AdminHarald


    A. I’m not angry. What I did was give a real-world illustration that illuminates (I hope) the topic a bit.

    B. I see that you’re a a freelance writer. In my experience (also as a writer), when a writer explores a technical or specialist area that they’re not familiar with (as you admit), they talk people who are. And then they quote them. It gives validity to what they write.

    C. My Donna Summer example was at one extreme end of “commercial photography.” It’s the Beauty/Fashion/Celebrity end. Everyone knows that there’s lots of retouching going on there. Same with Automotive. But there are lots of other sub-areas in Commercial where retouching is minimal. I once had to shoot pix of trade show booths. The extent of my retouching was: crop, hit Auto on PS Curves, and maybe sharpen a bit. So your theory of “to do commercial photography… you have to retouch beyond what you find to be in good taste” does not apply generally.

    P.S. I like the Ben Stiller and Robert DeNiro images.

  • harumph

    “The meat of what I wrote…”

    I think the general complaint here was that there wasn’t any meat to what you wrote. And I think that complaint was filed without anger from anyone. Nobody is really disagreeing with you, because you didn’t really say anything with this article.

  • Stephanie Lay

    I’m a researcher investigating the uncanny valley phenomenon and think what you’ve identified here is actually an example of something else. In my experience, entities that fall into the uncanny valley give you a sense of unease or eeriness: Ben Stiller up there doesn’t look creepy, he looks plastic. We’re familiar with photo processing, we don’t expect people in pictures to look real. If his eyes were slightly larger than we’d expect, or if that was a video and his movement was jerky and unpredictable, we might find it unsettling but that image isn’t scary. And I think that’s because we’re in do doubt as to the fact that the picture is clearly of a recognisable, familiar human. There’s no doubt in our minds there and so the image isn’t creepy.

    In the early stages of my project, I started a gallery of images that I felt were unsettling because they were almost human but there was something about their appearance that was just not quite right. You’re welcome to have a browse – I’d be interested in your thoughts!

  • herzco

    I’m not a professional photographer, I’m not a professional retoucher, and I pretty much have no idea what I am talking about, but let me write this article now that I have gotten all the mea culpas out of the way. If you admit you don’t know what you are talking about, why write the article?