Trends in Retouching

Back in December of 2011, someone on a professional retouchers board asked for opinions on the future of retouching. Since the board is a for members only (links will not work for non-members), I’ve duplicated my response here.


A few things here. I see a growing trend in retouching, and I don’t think it has hit its peak yet. Alas, the vast majority of this growth is happening at the low and mid ranges of the work. At a hunch I’d say that for every piece of art one of us professionals crank out, 10 pieces of mid range art are done, and 100 pieces of crappy art are done.

This reflects a similar trend I see which is the growing knowledge of how to retouch. More and more people are starting out in photoshop, and doing their first composites, color corrections, etc. Again, like the statistics I guessed at above, I would bet over 90% of these newbies never get past the “amateur” phase. Probably 8-10% will develop their ability into the intermediate range, and only a small few will reach the rank of “pro”.

Both of these trends are made possible by the growing understanding or photo retouching in the general population. Most people know that one can do something interesting in Photoshop (although most would be fuzzy about the specifics). One can now use the verb “Photoshopped” or ‘shopped” or photochopped” and most English speaking people will know exactly what you mean.

All of these things are a boon for us. The largest hurdle in getting a new client to understand the value of what we do is to getting them to understand what we CAN do. Alas, like the numbers above, most of this new work will start out in the cheap range. They will either hire an amateur, or they will pass on the job to an employee. Most of these new potential photoshop clients will not develop the budgets, or the understanding, to hire a professional retoucher.

Still, I would bet professional retouching holds a consistent 5%-10% of the market share in terms of numbers of items retouched, and probably 50% or more of the market in terms of money earned.

At some point, and no I do not know when, I think the demand for retouching will start to decline, or at least flatten off. Yet numbers of people who gain the knowledge or retouching will probably not peak for quite some time after that. If this happens, then expect to see even the professional range of retouching slowly get saturated with too many retouchers. This will drive down prices, and quality. Neither of which is in our best interest. It will also start to place a greater value on certification of professional ability. Expect to see various ad hoc retouching groups get together and “certify” their professional ability, usually though some sort of professional organization.

All of that is about the work, but that is not all that is changing. The tools we use to retouch are also subject to change.

Sometime in the early 90s, digital retouching started to compete and then overcome traditional retouching. This was a revolutionary change, and not always for the better, as it left a lot of retouching professionals behind. It also made for a lot more work. The good news for us is that I do not see another revolution to our business coming soon. At least not on that scale. We will see some changes, but they will happen at a more moderate rate, and if we are careful, most of us should be able to transition with them successfully.

Our primary tool right now is Photoshop, and the program is definitely starting to get into  the bloated range of software. In many ways this is good for us. Without any serious competition, Photoshop will remain largely consistent, which means we can change with it. Adobe is more interested in finding stupid crap to put in it, so they can justify their goal, which is to get you to buy a new version of the software at least once a year. This is how most software companies make their money. The good news is this allows them to evolve the product slowly, the bad news is this tends to make the product more bloated with junk. I don’t expect to see any large changes to photoshop soon because I don’t expect to see any serious competition to it. Adobe has done an excellent job of watching the little guys, and adopting their better ideas. This is a good model for them, so expect to see more of it in the future.

Where I do expect to see change is in the interface with computers. I think iOS (like on the iPad, iPhone, or Android devices) represent the future of ALL computer work. Couple this trend with the higher resolution touch-screen monitors now coming out, and you start to see a glimmer of what our work will be like in the future. 10 years from now I doubt we will be using a keyboard on our computers. I think the majority of our work will be done with our hands right on the screen, and likely using a stylus of some type. If this is true, then expect to see our work areas go back to something like drafting tables, with large surface areas to rest our hands/arms while we work on the big screen. This more “hands on” approach will not be for everybody, but I expect it to eventually dominate because it more accurately reflects how people actually work. IN that sense, the work of retouching will more closely resemble the other arts, like drawing and painting.

Beyond that, expect to see computers getting faster and faster (over 7 times as fast at they are now in 10 years), files getting bigger and bigger, and the process of retouching being more and more automated. A lot of the easy and intermediate retouching work can be automated, especially with faster/smarter computers. The high end work will probably NOT be. I say this because 1) high end work is a highly complex task (in other words, its art), and 2) because there is not enough money in it to make it worth the investment.

Anyway, that’s some of what I see coming down the pipe. As you can guess, I’ve done a bit of thinking about this. I happen to read and write a lot of sic-fi, so projecting future trends is a bit of a hobby.