TPP recently sat down with the dashing Alberto Milazzo of LaBoutique NY to discuss the state of the art… of retouching.
TPP: How did you get started in the industry and where?
AM: I’ve been a retoucher for 9 years. I originally went into Graphic Design and went to school for it in the UK, I liked it but I started enjoying manipulating images and incorporating them in my design pieces more than the actual “designing” of the project. So after I was done I did a lot of self teaching at home, while I was working for Blockbuster Video and trying to break into acting. My agent told me to go get some headshots. I went to a photographer they recommended and turns out, he was in need of of a graphic designer/digital retoucher to set up his new digital department. I jumped at the chance. Acting quickly became secondary, and after I had proven my worth, I ended up working full time for him. I started retouching wedding shots and drool off of baby’s mouths – and I loved it.
As I retouched more, I became faster and more confident. Through that job I started meeting other photographers and was suddenly thrust into the industry where I learned a lot, fast. After a couple of years there I started freelancing for the big boys and really got my face out there to whomever had a minute to see me. As I grew my skill base I also grew a portfolio, which was starting to circulate… even all the way across the seas to NYC.
I got a call from a friend who had moved there and were in need of good retouchers. To my surprise, they offered me a freelance gig in NYC. I was on the plane before I could say yes. Two weeks later the company offered me a sponsorship and a full time job. That was 5 years ago and I have worked very hard in the industry since then and have worked with many professional photographers, clients and fellow retouchers.
TPP: You are one of the most sought after retouchers in the business – what would you say is your philosophy when taking on a new client or project?
AM: Clear, concise and honest communication. I take direction very well and its all down to taking the time to listen and asking the questions that will lead to a great image, story or campaign. I have also taken the time to grow strength in previously tough areas such as product retouching, which is more technical and precise when compared to fashion or beauty. I am a well rounded retoucher. Another huge advantage when working with new clients is knowing when I need to put my ego aside. This industry can lead anyone with a creative streak or skill to question their abilities or to get personally effected by an unhappy client. You can’t please everyone. I do my best and apply all that I have learned plus a dash of passion & commitment into what I’m working on. I believe this is key when meeting a new client or starting a project.
TPP: You clearly take a creative approach to retouching – what/whom are your current influences/inspirations?
AM: There are many photographers that I admire and who inspire me. To name a few in an otherwise long list; there’s Guy Aroch, Mert & Marcus Piggott, Richard Avedon, Ben Hassett and Tyen. I find myself being inspired by so many of the images that I see both consciously and subconsciously. I mentally log a specific color, a certain density, a particular contrast or palette they use when I retouch, this enables me to stay focused on new trends and augment my skill base to keep up with the demands of new and existing clients. It is very important for a retoucher to be versatile , you need to remain as unbiased with your technique or/and creative opinion, to stay as flexible as possible when tending and respecting one photographer’s style to another.
TPP: A lot is changing in the photo industry right now – what are some of the current challenges facing the retouching industry right now?
AM: A lot has changed, this is definitely true. I have seen a huge shift in the 9 years I’ve been working as a professional retoucher. One of the biggest changes I’ve seen is the lack of boutique-style retouching that I was originally taught in London – to sit with either the client or photographer when working. At least for the first or second ’round’ – to build a solid working relationship whereby making sure that no markup-up or direction is lost in translation. These days all a clients need to do is call and upload files and instruct a retoucher to “do the usual”. This can be very challenging and sometimes arduous. I struggled with this for a while until I managed to shift my way of working to suit this “in and out” method which is also brought on by small retouching budgets. No one wants to pay for good retouching anymore it seems. It pains me to see a wonderfully shot subject or story by a talented photographer ruined by sloppy cheap retouching.
TPP: I know retouchers get crazy requests – without naming names, can you tell us about some or one of the most outrageous/challenging requests you’ve had?
AM: I have retouched many celebrities. I have worked with all sorts of clients. Among the usual head switching, body shaping, acne removal and skin coloring, here are a handful of the most absurd comments and requests I have encountered : “Make her look like a Barbie doll”, “This is one image needs to be composed from 32 shots”, “Make her breasts look natural”,”lets change her skin color, I’d like her to look latin”, “Whatever you do, DO NOT touch the mole on the face, its her trademark”, “I don’t like her body shape, use body from a shots of (another person) and lets see” ( After 13 rounds of changes ), “I still don’t like it, lets go back to the first round and start over” and my favorite of all time : “We need to change her face completely, she looks awful, but its important that she still looks like her as her fans won’t recognize her”.
TPP: Any before and after’s you can show us? If so, can you walk us through your strategy in approaching this image?
AM: It is generally understood that showing any before and afters of work a retoucher has been paid for is out of the question, so, I took the liberty of shooting someone myself to show a typical beauty before & after. As you can see, its a huge difference. I chose a beauty image because they typically involve a lot more skin work, hence the dramatic difference. This is only scratching the surface of how different some images end up looking after rounds and rounds of changes. Here I started shaping the face, more symmetrical ( considered more attractive ), Then I moved on to some light general color moves and density/contrast shifts to generate a pleasant result. Then comes the skin and hair work which takes the most amount of time. There are a few techniques for retouching skin, I choose the ‘dogde and burn’ method in Photoshop, which was originally used in film photography to manipulate exposure of a selected area(s) on an exposed print. Dodging decreases the exposure for areas of the print that the photographer wishes to be lighter, while burning increases the exposure to areas of the print that should be darker. I use this to lighten unwanted shadows, a blemish mark, brightening up eyes or to enhance shine of lips or to darken a bright spot etc. For this particular image I had to completely replace her left eye from another shot, the original eye was too dark and the shape was unflattering.
TPP: Retouching is so much about staying ahead of current trends and technology. Can you tell us a little bit about how you stay on top of these developments?
AM: I am always in a constant state of absorption. A vast amount of information is presented to me daily from my clients. The camera equipment used for a particular shot, the lighting effects as well as particular color choices are all part of a photographers style. Knowing your client/photographer, their work, and what they expect from you is important in understanding the trends that are being set. As far as technology goes, it is imperative to stay current. I am always reading articles online about emerging products that will aid or change the industry. I try to stay on top o fall the latest camera technology, hardware to software… it can get exhausting when the industry perpetually pumps out new products throughout the year. I also find it imperative that if in fact some new product emerges that we incorporate it onto our practice if I feel it will benefit me or my clients. For example: In the studio we use EIZO screens. Theses screens are the top of their class. They allow consistency with color and give one of the best monitor-to-print matches around. Color calibration and consistency/prepress industry standards are crucial to the retouching industry. With technology such as this we are able to deliver more accurate results to our clients.
TPP: What is your favorite tool in Photoshop and why?
AM: Without a breath of hesitation, my favorite tool in photo shop is known as “curves” which is a color adjustment tool. The reason is simple: I love color. Whether you are looking at a photograph, a work of art, or out your window color is what makes the world around us interesting. Having the curve adjustment tool gives me the option to change the color and intensity of any given image and/or area. Its comparable to giving someone a blank canvas and an infinite amount of color and saying… Have at it! This tool allows me to set the mood of an image by making color moves. I can make the image warm, cool, give it the appearance of being vintage, or poppy and fresh regardless of the images subject matter which I find exciting. Color is everything!
TPP: Any advice for anyone who is interested in becoming a retoucher?
AM: I know so many different people from all walks of life who enter into this industry. In all honesty I believe it is a career choice that most retouchers fall into. For instance I studied graphic design and photography, and for me the transition was predictable. However, I know of some very successful and talented retouchers who have emerged from the hairdressing business, music and modeling industries. To my knowledge there are no decent retouching classes available. If there are, and I am mistaken, I would just like to ask where are all the good retouchers? I mean it is very hard to find a skilled and talented retoucher. Anyone can buy a copy of Photoshop and learn the basics by means of one vehicle or another but there is so much more to retouching than software or hardware. There is a sensibility involved, knowing just how far to push a color, a pixel, or even someone’s nose. Coupling tact with technique is key. The greatest advice I can give to someone is to cultivate your abilities through practice after learning the basics, and to not become to greedy with Photoshop; develop the sense to know when to stop pushing an image and you’re already in the right direction. Have fun with it!