What Constitutes the Ethical Dilemma in Retouched Portrait Photos?

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Retouched portrait photos invite some sort of dilemma, concerning what is ethical and what is unethical. This dilemma exists predominantly because of the way people perceive portrait photo retouching services. The work of an editor plays a key role in how others perceive a retouched portrait. The instructions or desires of a client hardly come into the equation.

Although much like other art forms such as portrait painting or make-up, the public mainly thinks of only the mastermind behind the photo refinement job. There lies a difference between the role of photo retouching services and the perception outside the industry. There is a lack of nuance in the common public.

Things such as color correction, perspective correction, and removing distractions improve a photograph. It is the job of a professional photo editing service to get the best results, as a client would put it forth. The public may scrutinize and form opinions about the quality of output, but editing with respect to those things may not cause people to question ethics. On the contrary, ethics often come into play when portrait photo editors change a person’s physical or facial appearance.

The practice of manipulating photos by stitching together elements from two different images has been around since the prevalence of Adobe Photoshop. The use of Photoshop is prevalent in retouching, so much so people often term a manipulated photo as a “Photoshopped” work. Although that catchphrase has positive connotations too – portraits subjected to a professional photo editing service involving Adobe Photoshop can be called “Photoshopped” outputs. However, when it comes to portrait photos, editors run the risk of manipulation.

A Historical Example

Often portrait photos are published in a magazine or a journal, sometimes as part of a commercial involving a model. The headshots of models are bound to invite people’s attention especially when they appear more on magazine covers. Thus, it is important for the retouched portraits to show actualities as they are. In other words, the portrait edits should not have gone too far so as to alter or misrepresent a subject’s physical features.

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It becomes even more of a dilemma, which tilts people’s moral compass from right to wrong, when a headshot is involved but that is not to say full portraits are not prone to scrutiny. Think of a life-size portrait of Abraham Lincoln, whose head does not conform to the rest of the body. The body in what is claimed to be a 19th Century portrait is actually John Calhoun’s. The Lincoln portrait depicts him in a regal pose and it is one of the earliest examples of a “Photoshopped” image.

A historical figure, who is as iconic as Honest Abe, does not deserve that kind of treatment on hindsight. Having said that, to get him in a regal pose required some editing perhaps because his photograph was not readily available. Retouching is done not exactly with political intentions but to improve aesthetics.

The Dilemma of Retouched Portraits

Then again, the dilemma remains in people’s minds – why are retouching professionals to be blamed for manipulation? The answer to that is perhaps the obvious one – because photo retouching services are easy targets.

Even when an editor works with an in-house studio of a magazine – he or she is under guidelines from the superiors or the clients themselves. Photo retouching editors are not the ones with intent – their tasks start and end with refining a portrait. Whether it is as part of a wedding album creation, a commercial advertisement agency, the clients dictate the output. As far as they are concerned, the final images have to be perfected and polished. When it comes to a magazine photo, the ultimate objective is to persuade customers to buy into a product or a service. Oftentimes, nobody but the client would want to know how a photo was retouched a particular way. When that question comes from someone else – the tone will be completely different.

Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. Portraits of women are often subjected to retouching of the highest sort for purely beautification purposes. The retouching of skin is especially required in the fashion world; the cosmetic advertisement industry thrives on it. When edits completely take out any facial features that constitute a model’s identity, it could lead to a potential fallout with a client. Truth be told common people do not understand how exactly a professional photo editing service works or who holds the authority to make decisions. Sometimes common people are clients themselves.

The main takeout from this is that it is important for studios to talk with their clients regarding what to include and avoid in portrait retouching. Be on the same page with your professional photo editing service provider if you require bulk-volume portraits retouched to get around ethical matters.