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Tricks of the Trade: Senior Retoucher


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BY Jonathan Napolitano March 01, 2011 · Published by Resource Magazine

Expert retoucher Stephan Sagmiller talks about why retouching is important, the difference between mechanical and aesthetic fixes, and why it's a good idea to bring a retoucher into the photography process early on.

This article has been contributed from the Spring 2010 issue of Resource Magazine, courtesy of the publisher. To subscribe to the magazine and explore Resource’s online features, visit the Resource Magazine website.






Photograph by Stephen Hurst.

Over a drink, Stephan Sagmiller, founder of Cyan Jack, a digital retouching team in New York City, discussed the art of his craft with an exceptional understanding for all concepts involved within the trade. Stephan’s work began after he secured a degree in 3D Modeling and Animation at Seattle University. He eventually made his way to New York City to work as a retoucher and established Cyan Jack nearly two years ago. Stephan has already had the opportunity of working with clients such as Tommy Hilfiger, SONY Records, DKNY, and Apple. With a strapping grasp of the business, Stephan looks forward to continuing to expand his experience.

To retouch or not to retouch?

Photographers always try to put their best foot forward and we’ve become accustomed to a certain level of precision within a photograph. There’s a certain standard that you have to achieve, and that standard is achieved through retouching. It’s almost jarring now to see an un-retouched image in a magazine.

Shoot it. Understand it.

I work on fine art projects continuously. I think that’s a lot of what photographers are drawn to when working with me. We can talk about images on a variety of different levels—not just technically but also about how the image will function emotionally, and maybe even on a cultural level. I have in-depth conversations with photographers about their projects and I think they appreciate that.

What are we looking at here?

There are a couple different types of retouching. There are mechanical-type fixes: when we need to move certain things around and do some basic color corrections. The skin might be too blue; it needs to look like skin. Certain objects need to be removed. Those are things that don’t require an artistic sensibility. They’re either on or off. Then there are emotional and aesthetic fixes, and that’s when I will give photographers multiple versions or different types of stylistic treatments. I may mimic certain types of film if the job calls for it. Typically, color treatments are mostly applied when giving a variety of different options. Color is a primary emotion driver.

Tech-know and concepts.

There are two aspects to my work. The first is technology and the other is aesthetics. I’m constantly keeping myself up to speed with new technologies. I’ve been using things like HDR (High Dynamic Range photography) for a long time—even before most photographers. I’m a beta tester for Photoshop so I always know about the next version of the software before other people do. I’m frequently reading up on many blogs. On the aesthetic side, I’m constantly going to museums and contemporary art shows to see what new ideas are out there. I also give myself a lot of personal projects that never see the light of day. I’m just always experimenting different techniques, trying out new looks, and I’m constantly refining my eye.

Instant connection.

When it comes to a photographer and a retoucher, they’re like a team. The sooner the retoucher can work with a photographer, the better. It saves a lot of time and money—and it always makes the images look better. Retouchers only have a certain amount of time to work on a project. If they spend all of it just fixing mistakes in lighting, styling or background, that’s time they could have spent enhancing the overall effect of the image. If I’m playing doctor, I’m only going to be able to make it look normal, but I’m not going to make it look exceptional. As a photographer I understand how you want to deliver the best image you possibly can, and by involving a retoucher early on, you could avoid some of those untimely mistakes, move things along more smoothly, and end up with a well-finished product.

Interviews and Profiles

Featured photographer: Stephen Hurst, Stephan Sagmiller

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