Better Retouching Results With These Three Questions

When it comes to retouching, or more concretely, the removal of unwanted objects from photos, there are a few things you can do to make the editing a lot easier. In this article, I share three questions you can ask yourself in the field before taking your photos. Those questions will help you to get much better starting material for your retouching.

When I photograph landscapes and architecture, it’s quite common that I notice objects in the frame that draw my attention away from the main subject. Such objects that add nothing to the composition and the subject can be ever so tiny. If they don’t blend into the environment, they stand out to me.

For landscape photos, such objects are often man-made. Examples are fences, signs, power lines, and the like. With architecture, it might be cars that are parked in the background or, even worse, somewhere in the foreground, people walking through the frame or tower cranes.

While I shy away from large changes to my photos during post-production like dropping in a sky that wasn’t there or removing major elements, some cleanup is usually necessary. And depending on the scene, it can be more or less challenging. And that’s why I usually ask myself three questions in the field once I notice elements that I don’t want in my photos.

And here’s the key: To be able to ask those questions, it’s important to train your eye to notice such distractions while taking the photo. Look for elements that are much brighter or darker than their surroundings as well as elements with intense color or texture that just don’t match. Zoom in on the corners and edges of your frame and check for distractions there. With some practice, even little distractions will become apparent. Then, the following questions will help you to get better retouching results.

Can I Avoid Retouching?

You get the best retouching result if you can do it in the field. Ask yourself if and how you can avoid retouching in post-production. Is there a way you can slightly alter your composition by rotating or repositioning the camera to exclude distracting elements from the frame? Sometimes, just minor changes are necessary, which will otherwise not significantly change the content of your photo.

Another way to avoid retouching might be to clean up the space. In interior photography, you might want to declutter the area you photograph. In architecture photography, you might want to remove some trash or just wait for a car or pedestrian to move out of your frame. Landscape photography is similar. There might be twigs covering the ground, which you can remove without interfering with nature too much.

In the woodland photo above, I did just that. After composing my photo, I zoomed in with live view and went around the edges, looking for twigs or branches sticking into the frame. First, I made some adjustments to the composition to exclude larger branches, then I went in and removed some fallen logs and twigs from the ground. There was no need to make the ground look super clean, as this would be unrealistic. But especially at the edges in the foreground, I was able to remove some distracting elements to achieve the final result.

How Can I Make Retouching Easier?

It will not always be possible to avoid the need for retouching. So, after asking the first question, think about ways to make the retouching easier. Take an architectural photo of a popular building, for example. You might never get the chance to photograph it without any people in the frame if it’s a busy place. So, what can you do to make the retouching easier?

A solution would be to take many photos with your camera on a tripod, making sure that you get enough frames where the people are located in different areas of the frame. Then, you can later just load all the layers into Photoshop and use masks to remove the people.

An alternative might be a very long exposure. This works if the people are moving and not standing in one place. Multiple photos that you later average out can have the same effect of removing the people from the frame.

Another example is my self-portrait above, which I photographed in the dunes of the Erg Chigaga in Morocco a few years ago. I had to walk a bit through the frame to get to the spot I’m sitting in the middle ground. For this, I left footprints in the frame, which I later would have had to clone out. While this would not have been the hardest retouching job, I could have made it a lot simpler by just taking a photo without me in the frame first. This way, I was able to capture those pristine dunes without any footprints. The second photo would then be captured with me and my footprints in the frame. In Photoshop, I would load both photos into separate layers and use a mask to remove the footprints. An alternative would have been to walk outside of the edges of the frame and then come to my sitting position from behind the dune.

What Are My Capabilities With Retouching?

Sometimes, you can neither avoid nor simplify the retouching. There are scenes where the distractions are static and attention-grabbing. Here, it is important to know your capabilities and those of the software you use when it comes to retouching. When you take a photo that includes distracting elements, you should know beforehand if you’ll be able to clone those out later or if you have to live with them.

In the photo of the Rio Agrio waterfall in Costa Rica, for example, I cloned a large sign. For me, this sign was taking away from the raw beauty of the place. I wanted to capture this waterfall how must have looked five years ago before it was made more accessible. Because of the textures around the sign, I knew that it wouldn’t be too hard to get a convincing retouching result.

If I would have had doubts about this, I would have gone back to question one and tried to find compositions closer to the waterfall that excluded the sign. But the stronger composition was farther away from the falls, and it was good to know that I didn’t have to compromise.

In the featured video of this article, I walk you through a photoshoot where I had to do some larger retouching. Asking those three questions helped me to get a convincing result in the end.

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