March 13, 2017

The 10% Rule - Chicago Photographer Elizabeth McQuern on Editing

Every savvy consumer of our material culture understands that every photograph you see in the media is Photoshopped (or otherwise edited). I hate the degree to which our exposure to these literally false ideals change the way we think of ourselves, make us feel insufficient, and propel us to stores to buy all the "stuff" we think will make us beautiful and therefore happy.

I recently saw and before-and-after photo of Beyonce (forgive me for not being able to include the accent mark on her name!) and was shocked - they hadn't just done the usual things like I do - brighten teeth and eyes a bit, brighten highlights in hair a little, put a tiny twinkle in my subject's eye.

But what shocked me was how much they changed the tone of her skin, and the actual shape of her face and features. They changed the shape of her face and of her nose and of her jaw. The changed the shape of her brow ridge. She was a different person.

Photoshopping is possibly my favorite part of the photography process (okay, it's second to the shoot itself, especially the fun or experimental ones), and I'm entirely self-taught, but there are certain rules of thumb I've put together for editing/retouching, and specific goals with each project.

I don't have rules in any particular order, but my general goal for my editing is to show someone at their very best, in a very natural way. I don't want to change who they are. I don't want to make them unrecognizable.

I don't want to "fix their face." Nobody's face needs "fixing." I'm trying to create the best photograph that I can, so I mostly make changes in light (or lack thereof) and color. Sure, some people have a blemish, I'll touch that up, but the moles on my chin? Those are part of my face! That's what I look like.

Like a lot of newbies, I've been guilty of learning a new editing trick and then overdoing it, spurred by the excitement and the novelty of the new power.

My general rule is 10%. Brighten eyes or teeth - but not more than 10%. Beyond that, it seems more artificial. It's not natural looking. Lightly touch up the highlights in someone's hair - 10%. Otherwise, you're making them look like people they aren't. 

Of course, there are other reasons to Photoshop - sometimes when I can't control my environment and get sufficient light, I choose to shoot with a lower ISO, resulting in a darker, but higher quality image I can easily increase expose with today's amazing editing programs.

Sometimes somebody has a crazy curl that just won't sit down like the others. I don't feel like it's dishonest to clone that curl out. Sometimes (all too often, actually), my three-year old son runs through the shot in his underpants. Once, when I was doing a fun outdoor portrait session with author Zoe Zolbrod, we had framed a gorgeous photo of her on a park bench, the beach and water and greenery behind her, a lighthouse poetically off to one side...and suddenly a chocolate lab hunching over and doing his business. Believe me, if that had been the perfect shot but for the photobomb, I would have cloned out the dog and considered it a success.

Sure, sometimes I go crazy, exploring new techniques and doing crazy things with colors - changing shirt colors just to see if I can do it, trying contouring and adding makeup to people's faces (same reason).

But, of course a photo for a client needs to be the way THEY want it to be. We talk our project ahead of time, explore the possibilities, clarify expectations. And that's when I can feel pretty confident (and edit more quickly) if I use the 10% rule.

Thanks for reading, and feel free to check out more of my work at