Edited vs. Retouched and Why You Should Let Your Photographer Handle the Printing

Dear Crabby:

One photographer says my pictures will be "edited."  Another says they will be "retouched."  I'm confused - what's the difference?!  Should I just print my own pictures?

-- Wondering 'Bout Wording

Dear Wondering:

The difference may be a few minutes . . . or it can take longer than you can imagine.

Most professional photographers take pictures in a RAW format.  The term RAW is not a description - it is an actual type of digital file.  A RAW file captures the image in as many megapixels as the camera's sensor can hold.  If you have a little camera, chances are you use a small card on which your camera "writes" the photos that you can insert into your computer or the photo printing kiosk at Sams Club, Costco, or Walgreens.  Professional photographers have similar cards that are much more expensive because they are designed to hold all those megapixels AND record the information quickly when the shutter is pressed.

A RAW file cannot be printed or displayed online.  Instead, software such as Adobe Photoshop is needed to access the file.  These programs are expensive and require knowledge in how to use them.  But these programs allow a photographer to edit and retouch your images. 


In a perfect world, a photographer and their client have the perfect weather conditions, a stylist and hair/makeup artist on hand, and all the time in the world to create a fabulous image.  

But we don't live in a perfect world.  Let's say the photographer is taking pictures at a wedding.  She gets to the wedding only to be advised by the minister that NO FLASH IS PERMITTED IN THE CHURCH.  Fair enough - a flash popping is great for the red carpet but distracts from a religious ceremony.  And the bride has chosen a lovely, old church for her wedding.  An lovely, old churches are lovely and old but as is often the case - they are also quite dark.  "But I can see just fine!" you think.  Yes, so can I - but human eyes are more sensitive to light whereas even a top of the line, professional camera is not.  To a camera, it's dark.

The good news is that professional cameras are designed to handle low light situations, but never as well as when there is good light.  Your photographer has to make several decisions with regard to their camera settings to capture the moment.  Keep the shutter open for a longer time?  More light comes in but the chances of a blurry picture goes up.  Crank up the sensitivity of the camera's sensor?  More light comes in but weird stuff called digital noise starts to happen.  Open wide the camera's aperture?  More light comes in but the depth of field gets shallow and things - and people - move out of focus.

So the photographer takes the shot and notes in her head that yes, it won't be in the best shape it can be in, but she will correct some of it in "editing."

In this image, no flash could be used and the church had a mixture of fluorescent and tungsten lights unevenly spaced throughout.  Why does that matter?  Because not all light is the same and different light bulbs give off light in different colors.  Ever take a picture of your Aunt Lulu at the potluck in the church basement with low-hanging fluorescent lights and wonder why she looks green?  Blame it on the lights.  

When a photographer is editing a picture, she is making adjustments to things like brightness, color, contrast and other factors.  Does it mean she is "fixing" or "correcting" the picture?  No, not really - what she is doing is taking a picture and optimizing it for the conditions that existed at the time.  Sometimes the conditions are great, while other times . . . well, let's just say for the camera, it could be better.  But a professional photographer works with that.

Which would you rather show your family and friends, unedited on the left or edited on the right?


You have looked through your proofs and you see an image that you think is the.  Greatest.  Picture.  Of.  Your.  Child.  Ever!  And one that you want to have printed in a 16 x 20 print to be framed and gazed at - adoringly - front and center in our family room.

Who wouldn't want that?  Okay, depending on their age, maybe the child, but too bad - you're the one paying for it.

You could take the edited image and print that.  And sometimes that is just fine.  But with many pictures, and especially with formal portraits, some retouching enhances the image.

Retouching a photograph involves editing and can require much more work, such as:

  • Brightening the eyes of the subject.
  • Fixing discolored or damaged teeth in a smile.
  • Minimizing acne or scars.
  • "Swapping out" a feature from another picture, such as when everyone in the group has their eyes open except for Uncle Harry.
  • Softening the bags under eyes and wrinkles.
  • Enhancing face shapes, waist lines, upper arms, and other body parts.
  • Removing distractions, such as the gum wrapper someone carelessly dropped in front of the bride or that power line in the background.

A beautiful girl to start but we were shooting on a day of some high heat and humidity, which can cause makeup to melt and shine on the face. 

If you are going to display a picture, whether on your living room or Facebook wall, at which you really want people to take a good look, then it is worth having your photographer prepare it by retouching it.

I love my son.  But I want to remember the cool kid he was at 14 more than the amount of acne he had.  Did I take all of it off?  Well, no - sometimes when a person has a distinguishing feature such as a birthmark, it is a part of who they are and to remove it completely takes away from capturing a good and true portrait of them.  That is a conversation that the photographer needs to have with the person.

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Can Photoshop fix everything?

No and frankly, nor should it.  We have all seen examples of bad Photoshop where a person's skin has been softened to the point where all texture is gone.  It look unnatural because it IS unnatural. 

But how much Photoshop can also depend on the use of the image.  Is it for your modeling portfolio?  If I was photographing my son above for that, all acne would be gone.  As it was, I just wanted to capture him at 14, fresh from getting a hair cut before he mussed it up.  I want to capture that time in his life as he transitions from boy to man - so some "gawkiness," like acne, adds to that goal.  

That is why it is important to have good communications between you and your photographer.  While we photographers are artists, we are also here to provide a service to you, the customer.

People are not the only ones where retouching can help.  Recently, I was commissioned to photograph Mt. Hermon United Methodist Church during the Christmas season and at night.  The power lines and handicap parking signs were a distraction that took away from an image of a lovely old country church and were removed via Photoshop.  

Retouching can take a lot of time, depending on the image.  Generally, commercial images are delivered in a retouched state but cost more,as are formal portraits but have fewer images -  whereas weddings and photo shoots are delivered as edited images with more images and retouching is done for those that will receive special treatment.

So why should I have the photographer do the printing for me?

Honestly, it rarely makes a big difference for smaller prints - those less than 5x7 - to have to do retouching and preparation.  That is why I provide for weddings the edited digital images for small prints.  This allows my customer to share images with friends and family - maybe they will never be printed but at least everyone gets the chance to view them without breaking the bank of the customer.

But when it comes to larger prints or prints that may be displayed, a professional photographer does more than send them out for printing.  To take a great image and make it into a great print, a photographer:

  • Retouches the image, not only for people in the picture but the surroundings as well.  
  • Properly crops the picture, if needed.  Have you ever ordered a 5x7 from Sams Club and it comes back missing half a face?  The reason is because professional cameras take a picture at a 2:3 ratio.  So when you see your image, nothing will be cropped out if you print it at a size of 4x6, 8x12, 12x18, etc.  Unfortunately, frame manufacturers tend to sell frames at sizes such as 5x7, 8x10, 11x14, or 16x20.  This means that some of the image has to be cropped.  A photographer will see if the image can be cropped without losing the qualities that make it a good composition and be able to show you what it will look like before you commit to buying the print.
  • Sizes the image based upon the dimensions chosen.  The quality of a print is determined by the number of pixels per inch (ppi) going to the printer.  For social media like Facebook, 72 ppi is just fine.  For a larger print, at least 300 ppi is needed.  Let's say you want a professional head shot for your portfolio at 8x10.  The photographer must take the original image and ensure its dimensions are reduced not by inches, but by pixels - in this case, 2400x3000 - to produce a quality image.
  • Sharpens the image for the printer depending on the surface on which the image will be printed.  An image sharpened for printing on photographic paper may look too "crunchy" if printed on metal.  Likewise, an image printed on wood may need more sharpening.
  • Works with professional color labs.  If you are ordering a large canvas gallery wrap that may cost in excess of $500, this is a job properly handled by a company that is known for its quality product and attention to detail.  In addition, a professional photographer will work with a lab to ensure the color reproduction is true, whether that means calibrating their monitor or working with what are called ICC profiles provided by the lab.  
  • We have ideas.  I am always looking for new and imaginative ways to display your images.  Prints are great but how about iPhone cases?  Or USB drives?  If we did a photo shoot for your sweet baby, why not a professionally printed "brag book" for Grandma to show off to her friends?  Can you get a shower curtain made for your image?  You bet!

We photographers do more than push a shutter - behind every image are hours of practice, expensive gear and software, attending conferences, long conversations with our colleagues, membership in professional guilds, etc.  I put a lot of myself in the pictures I take - why wouldn't I want them to look their best for the people that will see them?

I hope this clears up any confusion for people.  Got a question?  It's free to ask - send me an email and I will be glad to answer it.

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