THE BLOG
07/11/2013 07:01 GMT | Updated 07/11/2013 07:01 GMT

The Art of Digital Surgery: In Conversation With High End Retoucher Pratik Naik

As the controversy surrounding Kate Winslet's 'unrealistic' Vogue cover rages on, I meet with a world renowned high end retoucher, Pratik Naik (Vogue, Marie Claire, Elle, FHM, Cosmopolitan and The Observer) to discuss aesthetics, ethics and the more technical aspects of beautifying subjects on commission.

The cheek bones are so finely 'chiseled' the person looks like a mannequin, the skin so flawlessly smooth you wonder if it is made of plastic, the super white teeth dazzle so brightly they border on surreal, if you ever stood at a supermarket checkout you will know exactly the kind of magazine cover images I am referring to.

We know full well Scarlett Johansson's skin isn't really this smooth, that Katie Price's teeth cannot possibly be this white, that the model's jaw and waist lines have been digitally enhanced and yet we accept it.

It is a curious test to ethical stand that we seem to be forgiving of this 'open lie', until the manipulation goes 'over the top' that we are outraged, as in the case of Kate Winslet's recent Vogue cover shot where an aesthetic line has been crossed and the lie became too blatant to digest.

As the controversy surrounding Kate Winslet's 'unrealistic' Vogue cover rages on, I meet with a world renowned high end retoucher, Pratik Naik (Vogue, Marie Claire, Elle, FHM, Cosmopolitan and The Observer) to discuss aesthetics, ethics and the more technical aspects of beautifying subjects on commission. We speak of Photoshop, retouchers' tool of the trade and the rise of open source Gimp, why Wacom tablets reign supreme and his coming London seminar.

I start by observing that publishers' need to keep Photoshopping hidden is all but gone

Q Where at the very start of beauty retouching practitioners attempted to keep manipulation secret or at least subtle, it now an accepted, integral part of publishing any image. Looking at magazine covers, do you find that the level of manipulation applied is over the top at times? Have our eyes got so used to it that super white teeth and freakishly smooth skin seem like the norm?

A There was a time where people would go over the top with retouching. I still remember seeing images where every single pore was almost not visible, eyes where whitened to oblivion, and people looked very mannequin like. I believe one factor was the outcry from the public. Thankfully, we're not at that stage anymore from what I have seen. With digital photography, there is definitely a lot more beautiful detail now than ever before. Across the web, images that are done poorly are shamed as they're featured on websites like psdisasters.com. Even on social media, people point out terrible images and they aren't shy about it. It has made a huge shift in quality, almost immediately. It's not to say this is the only reason.

So there's definitely an obligation to keep things more realistic than before. The demands from photographers and editors are also going to the way of keeping things more realistic. These are the notes that come down from our clients internally. We are basically hired guns to execute any request our clients give us. So the next time you see an image, remember that it is due to a whole group of people's requests that are in charge of that specific job. It isn't always the case, but it is for many jobs. Another important aspect to note is depending on the output, the results can vary. For instance, beauty images for magazines can end up going further than an image used to market an image with a model showcasing a product. The latter usually will look more natural than the beauty image as well. The beauty image in magazine gives more a sense of fantasy than the commercial image. So there are many factors to keep in mind. Overall, I am pleased with the direction the industry is going.

Do you personally feel there should be any regulation when it comes to image manipulation within the media? For example say that news images should never be touched or that should be a message letting viewers/readers know that a particular image was subject to beautifying.Within my own work, I personally like to stay as natural as possible. Not all clients see eye to eye on direction and they always win on the level of work needed. Although that is understandable, I would like to see even more transparency on what is done to images for the benefit of people. For instance, some type of labeling that illustrates that images have been modified. I know it seems fairly obvious, but there are so many stories where people just don't know and believe they look exactly like the images they see. It would be great for self esteem and image in a time when everyone is even more concerned about it. There is now also a magazine called Verily where they do not use Photoshop to alter any photos within the magazineWill this happen to all magazines? Chances are that this will not happen, but society drives what people want to see. It will be interesting to see what happens in the future and to what extent retouching is limited or labeled.

Q What type of work do you execute ?

A I mostly stick to fashion or beauty work. This can range from anything that appears in magazines to commercial work, such as campaigns for products or shows. My favorite is definitely working on fashion images that are going to be published in magazines. Those images are always the most fun due to how many people are involved in creating the final image. When the model walks in on set, she gets taken care of by talented makeup artists, hair stylists, and wardrobe stylists. They transform her into the vision the photographer or art director on set wants. Then, she is placed in a beautiful location and the lighting completes the fairy tale like transformation. The images are then sent to me to give it that final touch, in regards to perfecting any flaws that could not be fixed in real life, all the way to adding the color and mood. 

If you were able to see what happens behind the scenes, it would look completely different to what the images look like. It's not very glamorous and everyone is working very hard to make it look effortless and alluring. People definitely need to know that. I really recommend this TED Talk by professional model Cameron Russel.

Q Where did the interest in high end retouching come from?

A Growing up, I had a love of drawing but did not know where it would take me. I just knew that being creative was always going to be a part of my life. When I reached high school, I learned Photoshop in one of my classes and it felt like a natural progression from drawing. I used to manipulate images for fun and it became quite a hobby. After picking up a camera and learning photography a couple of years after, it introduced me to the world of retouching. I found out that all the images you see in magazines were digitally altered to look as perfect as possible. With my already established knowledge of Photoshop, I attempted to replicate the effect. Granted, I had no formal training, the Internet allowed me to learn along the way. I made mistakes but I also did a few things right. After looking online and learning more, I found out how to do it properly. 

The mystery of the industry really pulled me in. These digital magicians weren't as known as photographers and they also hid behind the scenes. They became these illusive artists. It fascinated me and I had to find out as much as possible. From that point forward, my career grew as I jumped right in the field. I began networking with photographers and retouchers with just a small sample of my work. With my knowledge of photography, I applied that and marketed myself as a retoucher who understood the needs of other photographers. I knew what they went through to get each image and understood the level of quality they wanted to achieve from that point forward. Tell us about the coming

Is Photoshop your main tool?A It is, Adobe Photoshop is the industry standard program we use to retouch images. It is where work is done in altering the photograph, perfecting skin, fixing hair and makeup, and so much more. It's almost like digital surgery. I even think of it like plastic surgery, you know when a job is done poorly, but rarely will you notice a good job. The jobs that are done well are not noticable because they will look so natural that you wouldn't suspect anything is done. Similarly, with retouching, you'll notice the image looks good but you won't know exactly what was done in specific.

Q Why is a graphics tablet a must for ayone serious about becoming a retoucher?

A From what I've seen, they really allow fluid motion when creating art. It doesn't even have to be for retouching, but the transition from drawing to using a tablet is very familiar. When you use a mouse, it's hard to make clean brush strokes or lines. It's as comfortable as holding a pen. It also enables pen pressure simulation, so it gives creatives a whole set of options for creativity. The end result is work that looks very beautiful and clean. Even if you aren't a retoucher and would like to try one out for creativity purposes, they are very affordable, starting at $99, just see Wacom's site.

Q Which tablet is your favourite and why?A My favorite tablets are ones from Wacom. These graphic tablets are not the same as the tablets most people know about, such as iPads or the Nexus tablets. Instead, these tablets are basically devices that allows artists to transform a pen-like stylus into a mouse cursor. Instead of a right click button, the user taps the pen onto a surface which initiates a click. This allows artists to 'draw' right onto the screen. Here's a quick video that showcases one of the products.

Q What must you do if you wish to become a high end retoucher ?

Can you perhaps tell us about your coming London collaboration with Wacom, 15-17th of November and visitors can expect to see.

If you had a true passion of getting into retouching, it never hurts to start by shooting your own images and practicing retouching them. This will allow you to learn Photography as well. I recommend this because that is how I started. Aside from that, familiarize yourself with the basics of Photoshop with sites like good-tutorials.comThere's also great courses on websites like lynda.com. Retouching specifically, retouchpro.com is a great source. I also teach personal classes as well for anyone who is very serious about getting up to speed retouchingclasses.com. Aside from knowledge, it's all about getting immersed in your industry and connecting with photographers and searching your local area. Meeting with other like minded creatives and searching up other retouchers online and asking them questions can help too. With the Internet, is has become much easier to find resources and ask around. There's also great DVDs and tutorials on retouching online too. You can also reach out to retouching studios and ask for any opportunities or internships. There's no one path, as every retoucher I've spoken with has set their own. The main commonality is persistence.

The London event is a great place to start. It's a one day course where students can either register on November 16th or 17th. It's geared to photographers who enjoy shooting beauty, fashion, or portraiture. We cover everything from understanding how to retouch images in a timely manner, the best techniques to date, a great work flow, and bringing their level of efficiency when retouching higher. It covers various tools and methods in achieving the end result. I not only bring my own personal knowledge, but the collective knowledge of every technique I've come across to give students a diversity of techniques. With the amount of techniques out there online, photographers want to know the best ones available and they also want to spend the least time possible retouching. I show them just that. With the great feedback from my previous classes, I continue to teach what I know because I am passionate about it.

Students also get the benefit of having me as someone they can ask questions to well beyond the event itself. Also, we save time for individual questions, so everyone gets something out of it no matter what level they are at. You can be sure to check out more details on the website for the program and for inquiries.

Q Have you given Gimp a go by any chance? it seems to be building quite a following with many US colleges adopting it.

A I am glad to see open source programs like Gimp gain steam. I haven't tried it out personally but it's a great program to start with from what I have heard.

Q what Photoshop tool/effect can you not live without?

A The healing brush! For those of you not familiar, it is a brush that actually heals skin and other things. It's better if you take a look at a video of it in action - http://youtu.be/mlUt5rsvJMk

Even if you aren't familiar with Photoshop, it shows exactly how it works. Pretty magical, isn't it? Yes, yes it is.

Q If you could wish for a new Photoshop tool/effect or to expand an existing one, what would you wish for?

A I would love to see a tool that automatically detects skin flaws and fixes them automatically. Although this may be just a dream, it isn't quite possible just yet because it requires a lot of user input. Retouching is basically this process. You dictate what is a flaw and how to fix it. What is a flaw to one person isn't a flaw to another.

Wacom is sponsoring the Train to Create and Pratik Naik (aka Solsticeretouch) photo retouching series that consists of a seminar at and a one day intensive workshop. Taking place from 15th-17th November in London, the world-renowned beauty retoucher will share his techniques including his use of Wacom tablets, as well as provide hands-on mentoring to attendees. Pratik is best known for his work with Vogue, Marie Claire, Elle, FHM, Cosmopolitan and The Observer.