Sooner or later, every professional photographer runs into similar situations. Situations that are uncomfortable for the photographer and the client. One is the topic of post-production and retouching. Some clients might tell you that your retouching fee is too high. Others might tell you to not do any retouching. And then some others might ask you to send them all the pictures.
If those questions come up from a client’s side, it is the task of the photographer to clear the air. It is not a simple task, as things can easily be misunderstood, clients can get disappointed, and the photographer gets mad and frustrated. Those misunderstandings are rooted in misconceptions of a professional photographer’s work. Trying to make things as clear as possible, I’m going to outline the same process from both sides, the photographer’s and the client’s perspective.
Client: “My son/friend/cousin has a good camera. And I always see what he does. He goes out, has lots of fun, takes pictures, applies a filter and posts them to social media. It is not much work. And is it even work for him? He is so dedicated and has so much fun! He clicks the shutter and immediately has his result. It probably won’t take long to take a good picture.”
Photographer: “For those photos, I need to have free time, scout a location, schedule it with the weather and the client. I need to create a mock-up and mood board to visualize my concept to the client. I need to find out what the client really wants. Soo many things to do before the shoot. At the day of the shoot, I need to be prepared for any situation to take good pictures and deliver exactly what my client wants. At home, I need to go through all the images, select the best ones (for the client’s needs AND the photographer’s vision). In the end, I have to spend a lot of hours to make the vision come to life in Lightroom and Photoshop.”
The client may think the photographer comes, has fun, clicks the shutter, and that’s it. The photographer, on the other hand, knows how much work it is, which the client is not aware of.
Hence, photographers have to educate their clients (best would be before the shoot) on the entire creation process. This article tries to do exactly that. So we can send it to our clients to visually educate them, especially on the post-production end of the job. Quickly, they will understand that they want their pictures to be retouched, want to pay for it and don’t want all the other shots a photographer took during the shoot. So let’s get started!
A.) Clients do not want your unedited RAW pictures
Typically, any commercial and professional photographer (except e.g. photojournalists) capture their images as RAW files; uncompressed files, straight out of the camera. You need special software to convert them and make them look good. They have dull colors, low contrast, look flat and desaturated. Still, they are the go-to files for professionals as they contain all information to tailor the look of the image.
It’s like a painter who needs at first all different kinds of colors to create whatever he wants. Let’s look at photography back in the days: You brought your film to a photography studio or lab to get the film developed. With just the film in your hands, you can’t do anything with it. Hence, you paid an expert to translate your film/RAW data into a fully developed picture.
That is exactly what happens nowadays: Photographers take a RAW picture that doesn’t look good but contains all image information you need to get a perfect looking image. The final images are typically delivered in JPEG, a compressed version of the photo, so you as a client can easily store and post it online. In the past, you paid a specialist to develop your film, why wouldn’t you now?
B.) Clients don’t want ALL your images
I’ve heard it many times and other photographers did so, too. It’s the most horrifying question for every photographer:
“Good morning! Matthias, can you pass me on the rest of the photos as they are so I can have them! We have the ones you sent us. Then I will select them??!! The ones from the wedding as they are. Without any editing. Just pass them like that. If it’s okay.”
It is horrifying for the simple reason that you don’t want to let down your client, you don’t want to upset them or disappoint them. But the answer to that question of at least every semi-professional photographer is and should be usually “no”. Then the arguing starts and your client starts asking you why you don’t give them all your pictures.
Don’t get me wrong! I totally understand the client. I would ask that too! No one likes to give up control. Especially if you pay for it. It is hard to trust a person you barely know. Hence, they want to make sure to get the best shots they could possibly have. Totally understandable!
But here’s what the client usually does not know (and therefore doesn’t understand before you explain it to them): I, as the photographer, know exactly why I took certain pictures and what a large number of photos I might have shot to capture one single moment. For one picture, it can be up to 20 shots.
I am pretty sure that people wouldn’t really like to go through an entire wedding shoot and pick the best images themselves. That is an included service in my photography booking. It is a looot of work!
So if I give out 400-500 edited images of a wedding (even if I shot 3,500), I think there is still enough room for your client to pick the favorite moments they want to share with their friends. What I am trying to do here is to build a bridge between both very different perceptions of the creation process, between the hired specialist and the (often uneducated) client.
Let’s use another example for that: We all go to certain specialists in our daily life. We do so, searching for help with things we don’t know anything about: doctors, dentists, hairdressers, plumbers, you name it.
At a hairdresser: Do you really care how he or she came to the end result? Once you committed to cutting the hair, there is no going back and you simply have to trust them. If the result was good, you go back to him the next time. If it wasn’t, you don’t go back. Either way, you let them finish his job and pay the money for it. You do not tell them “great job so far, I’ll take it from here” and continue cutting your hair yourself.
You wait till the very end to give your final judgment. You care about the end result, not the process getting there. You committed, gave up control and trusted an expert with year-long experience. Why wouldn’t you do the same with other service providers?
You don’t go to the dentist to get a filling, just interrupting him in the middle, changing your mind and wanting to do it yourself from there. Initially, you came to seek help for something you don’t know much about. Why would you know it suddenly better? You see, it’s the same with every service provider: hairdressers, dentists, doctors and yes, even photographers and professional retouchers.
Finally, coming back to photography, it’s time to become more transparent as a photographer, so others can understand why they should trust our judgment and can give up their control. So let’s get right into it:
There are many reasons for photographers to shoot way more pictures than they finally deliver to their client. Some of them are more obvious than others. Let’s start with 3 examples, advancing in complexity to the last:
1.) You don’t want all the images because they fall into at least one of the following categories: almost identical duplicates of each other, back-ups for the photographer, the outtakes of blurry images, children/animals/cars in the frame, eyes closed, hair in the face, unflattering posing or facial expression.
Just trust me, I gave you the best shots that were there. And there are reasons you don’t want them. Let’s take a look. Do you really think you need all of them? Is one picture not enough to tell that story?
The next example outlines how unforeseen events take place and why there are some shots that are simply ruined by distractions, such as kids running into the frame. Here’s another reason why I take more pictures than you actually might need in the end. To cut to the chase: I guarantee you, I want to present everyone involved in their best light, the people/object/subject pictured, the client and myself.
Would there be any reason for me to choose bad pictures?
2.) I take multiple pictures of the same event for another less obvious reason: To take the best part of each picture and put it together. Especially, when photographing groups of people, for fashion or wedding clients. It is almost impossible to make everyone look great at the same time.
The bigger the group, the harder it is. Some people won’t look into the camera, some people’s eyes are closed, kids run into the frame. Whatever it might be. In the end, you expect me as a photographer to deal with it and don’t care what happened. I am responsible to capture good images even though unforeseen events took place that ruined the picture.
Taking many images provides me with the option to combine all the good moments in one picture that was at that time impossible to capture. So I combine many mediocre shots into one good shot. If you as a client saw those pictures, you would not know my intentions and would be probably not capable of putting those shots together yourself.
In this example, I photographed the bride and the groom with one of their friends in the center.
In the first shot, the groom was distracted by someone calling out his name. In the second shot, the groom looks great but the bride is laughing and turning her head to the side. The only constantly flattering portrayed person is the least distracted one, the friend right in the middle. To solve this problem, I created a composite picture, manually putting both pictures together in Photoshop, so the bride and the groom both look good at the same time. That leaves us with an entirely new picture that has not existed before.
My client would most likely not have known what to do with those pictures, would call me out for doing a bad job because bride and groom don’t look good at the same time in one shot. THAT is the reason I take more images than I give out in the end! You would not even want them! And the client would not have gotten the composite shot if I had not taken more than only one that I delivered.
To break it down: You as a client need me to take more images and to pick and edit them myself. And you see, you don’t need and probably don’t want ALL pictures taken.
Even while shooting, I, as the photographer, am already aware of what I want to do in post-production. Sometimes, especially on weddings, you cannot call out everyone to get out of the frame or to remove certain things from the picture. You have to be quick! Consequently, I already pre-visualize a crop of the final picture in my head and know what I can get away with and whatnot.
Here in this shot, a simple crop and straightening of the picture solved already the main issues. Of course, I still color-graded the picture and if you look close enough, you can see that I also gave the godfather a new face that I pulled out from another shot.
You might think now: “Okay I understand that for weddings. But I booked you for architecture, real estate or landscape photography. How does that apply there?” Wait for it, we will get there!
Shooting other genres of photography, there are similar things that I already pre-visualize on the spot. I choose an angle from which it is easier to remove certain objects and distractions from the picture (pipes, wires, people, cars, dirt, trash, election banners). And you would not know that I planned on removing that and probably would not know how to pull it off. Let me show you an example!
Would you have guessed that I planned on removing an entire staircase that takes up a big part of the image? Would you have known I wanted to clean up the road, clone out all people, traffic signs and the red truck? I think you would rather have not chosen this picture, due to all of the things I just mentioned. Pre-visualization takes place on-location, while culling the images at home, and while editing them. And in the end, you need to have the experience and technical knowledge to create a shot from a perspective that other photographers without this skill set are not able to capture.
In the following picture, I was not able to close all the windows, take out the radiator, pull away the announcement board or take out the reflections. Still, I knew about my Photoshop skills and pre-visualized this shot as a very minimalistic shot. At first, it did not look like that at all. But after my retouching, it is free of distractions and solely focusses on the clean shapes the architect of the building intended to show.
3.) The last part is the most complex part and hence the most difficult to understand for a client: Artistic choices! On the way to the conclusion, we just need to cover one more topic beforehand: Color grading.
Many times I have heard similar statements to the following one:
“Your day rate for post-production and retouching is almost as high as the one of your photography on-location day-rate. That is expensive! You just click two times, apply a filter and charge so much money for that.”
My answer to that is: You get what you pay for! Aa simple as that. I think I have already outlined more than enough — I do not simply apply a filter to an image and call that retouching. Yes, there are many people out there doing exactly that. Taking a bad picture, buying presets from influencers on Instagram, and publishing a cheaply edited picture in small resolution on Instagram. Then they put up “before-and-after” examples and call it retouching. Consequently, it’s their fault, not my client’s fault to misperceive the word retouching. Retouching is an actual business and profession — in which I work for 4 years already.
Having that out of the way, we can start talking about color. Every photographer has his own preferences towards colors. It is part of the signature. Therefore, I as a professional photographer and retoucher judge every picture (series) individually, address color issues, such as color casts created by different light temperatures (outside and inside).
I also match skin tones and create a consistent genuine look across the entire picture series, even though the light situation might have differed drastically. To achieve this effect, you need to do more than simply applying a one-click preset. You need professional experience to evaluate each different issue in each different picture of one series, address them and then put them together in a consistent picture series.
Color plays an important role to convey a message, to create a feeling, and a memory. If the colors are off — I guess you can see that — the pictures are not appealing or worthwhile. You just see them, don’t care and forget about them. All intentions of being captivated by it (either personally or for your clients’ advertisement) just evaporates.
That is where professional color treatment comes into play: Creating something unique that you want to look at for a long time, that evokes emotions and resonates with your audience. Let me show you some more extreme examples, in which selective color changes in Photoshop (retouching) has changed the entire mood of the pictures.
The next and final part of this article builds upon everything we talked about before: taking multiple images, pre-visualization, improvisation, back-up files for the photographer and color grading. Let me give you the number one reason why you want me to retouch my own photos.
It is a combination of technical knowledge, improvising due to bad weather situations, unforeseen events or simply for creating a unique high-quality shot that has not been created before. Isn’t that the reason you hire me? To create the wow-effect hero shot that makes people buy your product? To exactly do that, I first decide on one composition, lock my camera on a tripod, observe the weather and light to change.
In architecture, I often use techniques of illuminating different parts of the picture on top of that. For each different change of the base picture that I want to capture, I need an extra picture. Sometimes, I end up with 10-20 pictures blending them together to one final image. In the end, I finesse it with those elements that would cause too much work on the spot (e.g. turning on the fire in an oven). That’s my signature!
That is why you need my retouching, why you can’t do it yourself or give it to any other retoucher. No one else than me knows my intentions, uses my color palette and is not even always supplied with all files needed to compose the final shot.
Especially for exterior architectural imagery, other retouchers would not have access to all files needed, as I curate my own personal sky library with different weather and moods so that I have the full creative freedom and control about light and weather. That allows me to consistently deliver high-quality unique content to my clients no matter the weather (except for rain of course). That is the reason you want me to photograph your project, to take more pictures than I deliver, to retouch the pictures by myself and to pay me with a good price for it. You pay for yourself, your flexibility, your control of the project and the time you safe!
I hope this article can help to bridge the gap between photographer and client, to outline the work that goes into photography, and to demystify the process of retouching. I wanted to create an understanding between both sides. Better communication leads to better client education, more transparency, less trouble, and better cooperation overall.
About the author: Matthias Dengler is a professional photographer and retoucher based in Nuremberg, Germany. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Dengler’s work on his website and Instagram. This article was also published here.