starting a career in digital post-production / photo retouching
January 6, 2008 12:44 PM   Subscribe

I would like to do digital post-production / photo retouching as a career. Is this realistic, i.e. something I can actually make a living at? And, if so, where do I start?

I graduated college a few years ago with a degree in a completely unrelated field. Since then, I've worked at a few customer service and clerical / research type jobs. (Yeah, I didn't really know what I wanted to do.) An acquantaince of mine made her living retouching glamour portraits for a photography studio. I tried it out myself and discovered that it was a lot of fun and something I had a bit of a knack for myself. Since then, I've been working hard to improve my skills by taking classes at a local community college and studying Photoshop books on my own (not just glamour portraits, but Photoshop and photo retouching in general).

I've gotten pretty obsessed and it's getting to the point where I'd love nothing more than to make photo retouching my full-time career. However, I've been researching the field and the information I've found has been confusing and discouraging. It seems like the sweet little glamour portrait retouching job my acquaintance had is the exception rather than the rule. (Unfortunately, I can't turn to her for further guidance on the photo retouching field in general since this is just a job she stumbled into while pursuing other goals.)

So, aside from browsing Craigslist, which I suspect provides a limited picture, where do I turn to find get a realistic idea of the opportunities available? Am I being hopelessly naïve in imagining that I could turn this into a career at this relatively early stage? If it's possible, where should I be looking, aside from Craigslist? Is a bad-ass portfolio (which I don't have yet, but am working on) going to be enough to get my foot in the door?

Also: if photo retouching and Photoshop skills alone aren't a strong enough basis for a viable career, what other complementary skills should I be cultivating?

Other relevant particulars:

I'm currently living in Southern California, but I would be willing to move for the chance to do what I love.

Although I am going to school, I don't have any sort of graphic design credentials. My current course of study has been tailored to my interests and strengths rather than the attainment of a credential. Undoubtedly not a smart move on my part, but there it is. I'm already up to my ears in student loan debt and am barely scraping by as it is, but I'd consider going back to school for a graphic arts degree if it's impossible to get work without one.

I'm an enthusiastic amateur photographer. I don't have any plans at this point of trying to become a professional photographer, but I am intrigued by the idea of working for one.

My skills are past basic at this point but still light-years from advanced, although I am pushing hard to keep improving.

Thanks in advance for your perspective, and for being patient with my newbie-ness.

Anonymous because of my current job.
email: iknowimcluelessbut@gmail dot com.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (8 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Very successful photographers employ teams of people to help process images. Some teams are small, some are not. Some are permanent employees, many are freelance.

Consider becoming a photographer's apprentice, and be paid to hone your retouching skills. Follow your passion, follow your heart.

Read PDN Magazine about some of these photographers, and read the ads for studios offering retouching services. Contact these companies, get an informational interview - particularly good advice if you are still in school.
posted by seawallrunner at 1:06 PM on January 6, 2008

this is absolutely a career. i hire people to do this all the time. i'm in the bay area, but just to give you an idea of the kinds of places to be looking, here are some of the sorts of vendors i would work with:

yes, you can work mostly with photographers. for that kind of work i think you would be mostly retouching for on-screen viewing in RGB. if you went to one of the prepress houses, you would have to also be familiar w/CMYK printing. you'd have to be sure that not only does your work look pretty, but can be accurately reproduced. my sense is that you would have to be a serious photoshop rockstar to work directly w/the photographers, but you could probably get some sort of entry-level situation with a prepress house and work your way up.

i doubt having a design degree is necessary--maybe a photography background would be more helpful. i bet the most important thing would be having a great portfolio of work. for retouching i would want to see before and after shots.

here are the sorts of things art directors or photographers would ask of you, usually scribbled in semi-illegible sharpie over the proof:

looks flat, make it pop
bring out detail
open up highlights
make photo A for hue but photo B for saturation

good luck!
posted by apostrophe at 1:20 PM on January 6, 2008

p.s. if you were to go back to school for this, i would recommend cal poly's graphic communication program rather than any plain old design degree.
posted by apostrophe at 1:22 PM on January 6, 2008

as others have said, photographers assistants do that a lot. magazines have to hire retouch people to make their models look more presentable, hide track marks, etc.

also, you're in L.A., there's so much DI (Digital intermediate) work on features it's not even funny. have fun!
posted by matteo at 1:40 PM on January 6, 2008

Yep! I used to do this, for a newspaper. Lots of pre-press houses and printer's shops will have people on staff doing this as well.
posted by bonaldi at 5:25 PM on January 6, 2008

I'll just chime in my two cents worth here as well. I managed the lab of very large and successful portrait chain. Yes you can make a living at it. How well of a living is going to depend on 3 things.

1. Your speed. Whether you work for a large studio or chain operation, they will be counting your HPH (head per hour).

2. Your ability. And I mean 'all around ability' - attitude, ability to work under pressure and deadlines, working with coworkers, oh yeah... and how well you retouch.

3. Self Promotion. Your ability to become known amongst labs and photographers for your ability to do #2 above. If you work for a single lab or outfit, you may be tying yourself down to future employment opportunities. Most labs farm the stuff out to a cadre of folks and have a few 'in house' that they pay hourly as well year round.

Good luck!
posted by bytemover at 7:56 PM on January 6, 2008

Absolutely... there's good money to be made as a graphic arts guy, particularly if you do stuff like pre-press or catalog asembly or other graphics-related stuff. You don't need a degree, just a willingness to learn and a foot in the door.

I'd just start calling the local graphics places, get a feel for what's going on in the industry. Maybe talk to the manager of the department, pick his or her brain for a few minutes about what particular skills they feel are necessary for a given job, that kind of thing. There's always work for a skilled computer person... and trust me, being a normal, reliable, hardworking person in that industry goes a long way.

Alternatively, if you wanna go pure retouch and do a ton of that stuff, check out the places that process team and school photography. Tons of work there, 'specially for person getting in at the bottom. You'll have to pass a basic retouching test or something, but it's a foot in the door in a good, probably totally casual workplace.
posted by ph00dz at 10:03 PM on January 6, 2008

I knew someone who worked as a bartender in a strip club. She had some computer skills, including photoshop, and got a bunch of gigs retouching porn. You may want to start there...
posted by frecklefaerie at 7:41 AM on January 7, 2008

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