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5 Suggestions for Where to Draw the Line on Model Photo Retouching

Mercedes Castaneda of Fabletics delivers wisdom on how much is too much.

Head of Community at Creative Force
Head of Community at Creative Force

It's a conversation that feels like it's constantly resurfacing with photography content, and yet it's one that never feels like it's fully resolved—what's the ethical line when it comes to retouching models? Which edits are completely innocent, and which ones enable hurtful societal expectations?

There's long been cynicism toward celebrities on magazine covers being “phony” for having an appearance attained not by push-ups and lucky genes so much as post-production magic and clever retouchers. But the identity-positivity movement of the past 10 or 15 years has only increased criticism of asserting a particular appearance as aspirational. At the same time, we live in an age when everyday people have unprecedented access to image filters and photo-editing apps. So, isn't it accepted commonplace behavior to alter content?

At the e-commerce level, we see brands reconciling with these cultural shifts in dramatically different ways. At Target, for instance, there's been a choice to not retouch models used in their product photography, leaving them essentially as-is, and likewise, CVS has also transitioned toward unaltered imagery.

Is there a chance for e-commerce studios to create a universal line of ethics for retouching? To figure it out, Mercedes Castaneda, retoucher for the men's division at Fabletics, joins The Creative Operations Podcast. Her talk with host Daniel Jester is one you shouldn't miss. So be sure to stream it on Amazon Music, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or our website. For just some snippets of conversation, though, read on.

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow?

Mercedes has operated professionally by starting with a clear rule, that if a model's imperfection is something temporary that was incidentally captured in the image, then it's safe to edit out. "If there's something like a blemish or a hair that's out of place—something that could be there one day and gone the next—that's pretty safe to remove or edit in post-production," she says.

But like many simple rules, it reaches situations when it's not so simple at all—for instance, clearing up the skin for a cosmetics brand's product photography because your edit could be seen as false advertising.

Retouching Standards Slide for Celebrities

Following the skincare concern, that retouching could be seen as false advertising, Daniel adds the caveat that the ethical line looks different when you're shooting celebrities. A high-profile model slides the line for two reasons. First, that person has limited availability to book a shoot, so we're placing inordinate pressure on that model to maintain a level appearance that may be part of their social currency. Second, it can be downright distracting to see a blemish on a celeb.

Daniel gives the example of Beyonce having a bad skin day. If she's modeling apparel for a shoot, then some combination of makeup artists and retouchers can take out a zit—no questions asked because Queen Bey doesn't have time to wait for a clear-skin day to wrap this shoot. Here's where it gets tricky, though. If it's cosmetics, Daniel contends, the pimple needs to go because otherwise, it's the only thing showing in the image.

“When you photograph her blemishes and all, the blemishes now become the focal point, because people can sit there and pick apart an image in ways that are almost obscene because the nature of our interaction with imagery is different than with things in person,” he says.

But What About Altering Body Geometries?

"That's a whole different ethical question than removing acne or removing a stray hair—you're changing the structural body geometry of a person [to something] that's not reflective of who they actually are," Daniel says.

So we might ditch the blemish on a celebrity's cheek, but we wouldn't build a new waistline, would we? To Daniel, the ethical line rules out reshaped curves.

But before we rest on that conclusion, Mercedes points out that, since weight isn't static—we have ideal days as well as misrepresenting poor days with our weight, just like we do with our skin. So if we booked a model with a certain body type, but that person joins our set looking different from who we booked or feeling less than their best self, are we really bound to settle for unaltered, of-the-moment content?

"We're humans, we fluctuate," Mercedes says. "From a personal standpoint, getting real personal here, if I'm doing a headshot for a new professional photo, and I gain a little bit of weight, to be honest, I don't think that's the best reflection of me if I was going through a more stressful time of life. That was me just kind of on an off-season. If I'm in a better season of life, I'm working out more, I'm eating right—I'm just feeling good—that's the time I want my headshot scheduled for."

Seeing as e-commerce shots aren't the same as headshots—there's a bigger opportunity cost for a model to miss out on a shoot than for any of us to reschedule that next LinkedIn portrait—there are rational, ethical reasons for moving a model's photos closer to a body type they often represent or one the brand pursued the shoot.

What's the Tipping Point on Color Balance for Models?

"Cameras are not our eyes," Daniel says. "They capture things our eyes don't necessarily see, or they don't. They actually, in some cases, don't capture things, as well as our eyes, are used to adjusting." He cites white balance and the way our eyes can distinguish the hue of a wall at home, whether we're seeing it in natural light or under artificial light, because we innately convert the display in our minds, making sense of how light would've adjusted its color.

So how do we handle color adjustment when the subject isn't merely a wall but a human being?

"Cameras can really accentuate certain colors, especially reds in skin tones. So even if you see Mariah Carey without makeup on and she looks amazing, the camera may not be as forgiving as our eyes are."

Bringing it to an e-commerce example, Mercedes thinks about cosmetics companies and how they might retouch a model's eye color because the camera isn't capturing how well the model's real-life eyes look with the product.

"Maybe if we saw them on the street, we'd think, 'Hey, they look great,'" she says. "But from the perspective of the company—the beauty brand that's trying to sell their product of eyeshadow with super vibrant colors that look great and amazing—they could look so much more vibrant off camera, which typically they do. Typically, you need to put on so much more makeup for the camera to be able to read it correctly. You look like a clown in real life. That's a typical situation that happens often, but it's cases like that where we're trying to show you an example of what it could look like in person, maybe, if you had an eye color that complimented that eyeshadow well."

If the eye color, as rendered by photography, is detracting from the product, it's more ethical to adjust the model than the product. But we reach a more sensitive conversation when we go from adjusting eye color to shifting skin tone.

"In the work I do for Fabletics, we're really trying to show the fit of the garment, the flow of the fabric, the colors—make them pop,” Mercedes says. “We don't want a clashing skin tone. We don't want that to take away from the super vibrant, highlighter, exciting colors we have coming out, you know what I mean?"

Mercedes has heard the refrain of people asking if skin retouching crosses an ethical line, but as she sees it, it's important to remember a company is selling its product, not the model wearing it.

"We're really allowing the product and the vision to pop in this image," she says. "That's what we're trying to sell, and that's what you're coming to us to purchase. If we have customers that want to feel loud and bold and excited in these bright colors, we want to sell that vision. That might be a term some people don't like—sell the vision—but it's the name of the game."

Conclusion: Avoid Manipulation and Bias, Then Work Freely

So how do we reach any conclusion on the ever-arising concern about the ethics of Photoshopped models? For Daniel and Mercedes, it comes down to checking ourselves for manipulation and bias.

"Are we trying to do a good job at the work that we're doing?" Mercedes asks. "Or are we trying to manipulate in a way that's harmful to the consumer? Because even from a movie perspective, when they're changing the color, color grading—whatever they're doing—we don't see that as manipulation. We don't see it as them trying to harm us. We see them as trying to help us."

If we're not trying to mislead a shopper and we're being mindful not to reinforce detrimental bias regarding race, gender, exceptionalities, and body type, then we can focus on the purpose of e-commerce content and where it fits into an economic flow. These are pictures meant to showcase and sell goods, and if retouching helps inspire people to buy, we're all doing what we're asked and paid to do.

You probably picked up on this by now, but Mercedes' chat with Daniel is a can't-miss episode of The Creative Operations Podcast. For the whole conversation—and it's a wild one ranging from CVS label designers to celebrity leg insurance to Daniel's favorite Wes Anderson flick—you'll need to stream the whole thing. It's easy to do through Amazon Music, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or our website.