Like a master chef adding just the right amount of seasoning to bring out the flavor in a carefully prepared dish, there is a subtle hand that puts the finishing touches on the most expertly prepared photographs: the retoucher. It’s the retoucher who whisks the photographer’s raw image files away to a magical Technicolor land where their weaknesses are overcome and they become the images they were meant to be. We brought our questions about the craft to Jason Tuchman, who at 31 not only works at the highest levels of his field, but also runs his own shop, Pistol Studios.
Photos courtesy of Jason Tuchman.
Aimee Baldridge: How did you become a retoucher?
Jason Tuchman: My family owned a photo lab where they would colorize black-and-white photos. I wasn't involved in that as a kid, but I did get to see it. So that was my introduction to the idea that you could take a photo and manipulate it. My education stemmed from being from a family of creative artists. Then my real education happened when I got my first job. Straight out of high school I started working at a place called Shoot Digital. They were a big retouching company back when I started, around 2000. To do physical retouching and work with a photographer on a photo—there was something about it that I just completely fell in love with. The people who were working there were phenomenal retouchers. To this day, I'm still in awe at some of the work that group of people did. And the things that they taught me—that was my education. It was like a master/apprentice situation.
AB: How long have you been a business owner with employees, and how many retouchers work for you?
Jason Tuchman: I’ve been with the crew I have now about four years. I have eight people full time, and then we have freelancers. The first retoucher I hired was somebody I worked with for a long time, an amazing woman who was a great retoucher. She’s a photographer who lives in Paris now. It was pretty much just me and that one person in a tiny little room in SoHo. And then that one person became two, and then two became three . . .
AB: Tell me about the range of images you retouch.
Jason Tuchman: It's everything. Somehow I got known as a very good beauty and fashion retoucher. But the reality is that if you're a good retoucher, you can retouch anything. The range of things that I've worked on during my career has been very broad, from big, beautiful billboards of beauty campaigns and fashion to packaging. I do a lot of packaging work, which I enjoy. Recently I had to retouch a jaguar. They needed me to make it thinner, which I thought was a little ridiculous. But you can retouch anything if you can retouch beauty. Beauty is the hardest.
AB: What's hard about beauty?
Jason Tuchman: What's hard about beauty is the fact that everybody has a preconceived notion of what a person looks like. If you're retouching a car or something abstract, you can do whatever you want with it because there isn’t an idea in everyone’s brain of what it needs to look like. But when you spend your whole life looking at somebody's face, you have this idea of where everything should be—eyes, ears, nose, mouth. When you start manipulating that too much, it very quickly stands out. So you're restricted in what you can do, but that restriction forces you to get really good at it, to make it even more beautiful and interesting.
AB: What do people have to learn to be good retouchers?
Jason Tuchman: The word “stop.” The most important thing any retoucher needs to know is when to stop. You don’t always have to retouch. You can go in and fix up some small blemishes, but you don’t have to change the image completely. Like any other artists, retouchers want to be able to say, "This was my contribution to this image." But sometimes you just have to serve the image for what it is. A good photographer should be able to capture it all in-camera. So we're just here to make sure it prints properly and enhance it. Too many people take a good image and think they have to inject their 15 cents into it. They think they're making it an amazing image, but what they’re doing is making a good image bad by doing too much to it.
AB: What should people who are thinking about going into retouching be studying?
Jason Tuchman: For starters, look at the things that inspire you. That’s a cliché thing to say, but it's the absolute truth. I have hundreds of hundreds of hundreds of books on photography and visual things that I like. The studying doesn’t stop. You need to do it forever. If you have a favorite photographer, look at their work; memorize their work. What is it about it that you love? Try to emulate it. Then after you know how to do it, you can say, “I know the base. Now what can I do with that knowledge and where can I take it?” You need to keep a mental archive of images.
AB: What do you do during a typical day on the job?
Jason Tuchman: Being a business owner now makes things a little different, because I do have that responsibility. But as a retoucher, I spend the majority of my day retouching. If it’s a project that I like a lot, I'll spend all night working on it. I'm a bit of a workaholic, so I will work and work. But I like it. My studio is my home and my office, and my wife's also a retoucher, so we put on music and retouch all night, and it's fun.
There's definitely a major creative problem-solving aspect to every single day, and I don’t know what it's going to be until I start my day. When I wake up, I'll speak to my production manager or look at my e-mails and say, “Okay, this is the problem-solving part of the day. Let me take a step back and figure this out.” That’s really fun, actually.
AB: Do you ever go on set?
Jason Tuchman: I prefer working in my studio. I get asked to come on set just to see what's going on, and to get an idea of the job I'm about to get. Especially if it’s a high profile campaign, because everyone needs to kind of get ready for those things, to see what they’re shooting, and look at the art director’s layouts and the images they’re using for inspiration.
When retouchers are working on set, it's for instant gratification. When a client is doing a treatment, they really just want a retoucher there to apply the treatment as they shoot so that they can get a better idea of it. It's never full-blown retouching. It's just for the presentation purposes of that day. Then you take it to your office, undo what you did on set—because it's usually sloppy—and do it properly.
AB: Do you work with capture techs?
Jason Tuchman: Every day. Especially if the techs are doing something special in the capture program, I’ve got to make sure that when I get their files, I get those capture settings. If I'm not on set, and I don’t know what they're envisioning, they need to send me a reference. When I get the raw file, it's flat. There's no color applied to it. It's miles away from what the photographer is thinking. So that's where we have to start communicating about what the photographer wants.
AB: What's the longest you've ever spent on a single image?
Jason Tuchman: If you spend a long time on an image, something’s going wrong. That means you're doing a bad job or the creatives are getting out of control. I've spent a month on an image before, but it was because the days of digital weren’t quite here yet. It was still analog scans, and you had to do things back then that took a long time. Now, no one has that time. If you can't do it fast, then they’re going to give it to someone else. The average turnaround for an editorial these days for us is running around a week for final delivery, which is very, very fast for an editorial. It’s a quarter the amount of time it was five years ago.
AB: What are the tools of your trade, aside from Photoshop?
Jason Tuchman: God bless Photoshop. We branch out into a lot of different fields. We do a lot of layout stuff for clients, and a lot of illustration. So it's primarily the Adobe Creative Suite—Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign. Companies are delving into 3D. It’s a little bit of the Wild West right now when it comes to that aspect of the industry. People are using Maya and 3dsMax. There are a lot of 3D programs out there that people are experimenting with. But the 3D aspect of retouching isn’t like the 2D aspect. Everybody uses Adobe Photoshop for that. There are standard settings. The reason I'm not really getting into 3D just yet is because there's no standard.
AB: What is 3D being used for?
Jason Tuchman: The obvious, easy stuff. It can be used very effectively when it comes to products. Or a background. If you shoot a woman in a studio, you can have a 3D set made, without having to hire a set stylist and get props. It's for the static things in an image, the objects. 3D people aren't quite there. I get a lot of 3D elements from advertising agencies and other 3D companies. They look very 3D, very fake, because there's no texture. They’re too perfect. I know people have this idea that retouchers make things perfect, but that’s the complete opposite of what we actually do. So when we get this perfect-looking 3D image, we’ve got to make it look like it fits in the real world in a photograph. I think when 3D starts taking off it's going to be part of the service. They're going to come to a retouching house, and we're going to have to have to offer retouching and 3D services. That seems to be where things are headed.
AB: Are there art forms aside from photography that inform your work?
Jason Tuchman: I think they all interact with each other, especially when you work in fashion and advertising, because fashion creeps its way into everything, fortunately and unfortunately. Look at movies. A director might see a photograph with a color treatment that they love and base a whole movie on it. I’m not saying this is what they did, but take Fight Club, for example. Fight Club looks like a Steven Klein-esque photo. It has a very Maisel/Klein–type look. They might have opened up an Italian Vogue, seen one of the editorials and said, “Wow, this is what we want.” They'll do a whole movie out of it, and then a retoucher or an artist will see that movie, and say, “Wow, I love that color. I want to shoot a photo like that,” or “I want to paint a painting with those colors schemes.” They all interconnect. I’m a big music buff too. To me, movies, photo, and music are the big three. There are a lot of offshoots of those industries that create whole other creative industries. A lot of the inspiration comes from those three, I think.
AB: What do you dislike about your job?
Jason Tuchman: That’s pretty tough. I don’t think anybody likes being rushed, especially when it's something that you really are working on and enjoying, and you know that if you're just given a little more time, you can do something a little better. But you have to accept the fact that deadlines exist, and things are going to be printing and going online.
AB: Is retouching a good field for people to get into from a practical standpoint?
Jason Tuchman: There are two things you can do as a retoucher. You can make it your absolute life, love, and passion, and go very far with it. To me, this is my art form, and I've taken it very far for what it is. But if you know how to retouch, and your passion isn’t to become the greatest retoucher in the world, it’s a great way to make easy money. There's a lot of retouching out there that doesn’t need to be these really high-end images. There’s quick work that’s going on the Web and just needs to look pretty. It’s a good gateway to other things that you may want to do creatively. People always think there are just good retouchers and bad retouchers, but there are a million shades of gray in between.
AB: Is there anything you've done that was against conventional knowledge but worked out well?
Jason Tuchman: My motto is “Keep it simple.” I am not a “tips and tricks” retoucher. You shouldn’t have to show off the technology that you have at the time. You should use it in its basic form to achieve what you need to do. So I do a very stripped-down version of what some people might be doing. If something is overly complex looking, or if your file is out of control, you're doing something wrong. People confuse “simple” with “not advanced.” No. There's a beauty in the simplicity of just serving an image.
As a business owner, I was told when I started Pistol, “Don't befriend your employees; separate yourself from that.” But I want my employees to have a good working experience. Now, do I let everyone run amok? No. But I try to keep it as friendly and fun as possible. At the end of the day you’re working with creative people, and creative people have creative problems. You have to let them go through their working process, and their process may be different than your process. My job is to just to corral them together so that everyone has a cohesive goal, because anything else would be a mess.
AB: Should people who are serious about being a retoucher be in New York?
Jason Tuchman: To me, New York is the center of the world. I love New York. But to answer your question, yes. If you want to be a retoucher, or a photographer, New York is where it's at. Things move here; they have to. If you stand still, you'll get hit by a taxi. That’s what I love about New York: There’s very little middle ground. You have to go for it. I’d advise anyone who wants to do anything to move to a place like that, because you have to do it or you have to leave. It lights a fire under your ass. Nobody wants to live in a 200-square-foot apartment in the Lower East Side for their entire life.
AB: What would you tell somebody today who wants to do what you're doing?
Jason Tuchman: I always wanted to be a business owner. I love the creative industry, and I love to collaborate with people. But I knew I wanted to do it on a higher level than just being a guy at a company that does it. I wanted to be able to hire people who are amazing retouchers, and give them a format to do what they love to do.
But running a business, especially in any sort of creative field, is a very tricky thing to do. It definitely can take away from your original goal if you want to be the best at what you’re doing. You have to dedicate yourself to that. If you start a business too soon, you may have hindered your learning experience, because you're going to have to focus on a lot of other things to run a business. You're going to have to put some of the learning curve of your craft aside to just get that business going. So just focus on your craft. Then you’ll hit a point where you feel like you know everything you need to know and your learning has peaked. When you’ll really reach that point is five or ten years from then. When you first feel you know everything you could possibly learn, you’re just cocky. You're just reaching that phase. God knows I did. You need to wait sometimes.
On top of that, all quality of work aside, be nice to work with. I deal with a lot of people who think you need to be mean or you need to be that kind of creative person who walks around and yells at everyone because their creative vision is so amazing that no one else counts in the world. I don’t think that’s necessary. You don’t need to be this hyper hip or cool or aggressive person. Whatever you’re doing, just be good at it.
The "Breaking In" series asks successful young professionals in photo- and video-related fields about what it took to get into their line of work, what it's like to make a living doing what they do, and how they made the transition from student days to working life.
This article first appeared in Resource Magazine, a quarterly photo and video publication for forward-thinking image makers worldwide. Dedicated to working and aspiring industry professionals, it is a comprehensive photo, video, and lifestyle platform offering readers the latest insight on photography skills, tech news, gear, and marketing techniques, all brought together with awe-inspiring images. Resource offers a unique, fresh perspective on the innovative, quickly evolving photographic world, emphasizing the work, art, and power of imagery.
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