I’m going to ‘touch on’ (haha, no pun intended) a subject that is a little controversial among wedding photographers – photo retouching. Each photographer will have their own way of addressing this issue, so I can only speak to what works in my own business at the current time. 

That said, I would hope that a lot of what I’ll outline in this blog post will hold true for other professional wedding photographers, too. 

What we’ll cover in this blog post focuses around what retouching is, whether retouching is included, what happens when you ask your photographer for certain images to be Photoshopped, any costs involved, and how to avoid the need to photo retouching for your wedding. 

This blog post goes hand-in-hand with this other post I wrote, linked below. Make sure you read this one first, as this gives the overview of what goes into the post-production process!

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What is retouching?

Retouching is simply the process of altering the appearance of a photo, so that it appears more pleasing than the original. When talking about digital photography, retouching is performed using photo editing software such as Lightroom and Photoshop. 

Words like ‘retouching’, ‘editing’, and ‘post-processing’ get thrown around a lot. And, to be honest, they are used almost interchangeably. While that’s not a debate I’m going to get into in this article, I’m going to explain my terms carefully so as not to cause any more confusion!

understanding what photo retouching is in the world of wedding photography
A large number of people in the background have been removed from this engagement photo

Is retouching the same as editing?

There is really no fixed consensus, so I use my best judgment to define these terms. Retouching refers to fine-image adjustments, typically using Photoshop. Editing (or post-processing) is performed typically in Lightroom. The changes are made to the whole image, not simply fixing one small part of it. 

So, when I’m talking about ‘retouching’ in this article, I’m referring to ‘fine-image’ work. (Though you will find different, even opposite, definitions used elsewhere on your search). It’s a bit of a minefield out there. 

So what does ‘fine-image’ retouching mean, exactly? Well, just to be as straightforward as possible, it’s when the adjustments are made:

  1. To just a small area of the image (i.e. changes are local, not global). 
  2. Using Photoshop (similar software exists that does the same thing, but the word ‘Photoshopping’ has a meaning I think we all understand.)

What level of image editing is standard? 

All photographers will perform some level of editing, typically using Lightroom. Lightroom is industry-standard software in which you make changes that generally apply to the whole image. Of course, there are other types of software aside from the Adobe suite. 

Being able to add polish and finesse to basic RAW files is what makes a photographer a photographer. RAW files are absolutely intended to be edited. That’s why they have a ‘flat’ profile, typically looking very dull straight out of camera (or ‘SOOC’ as photographers say). 

Examples of ‘global adjustments’ include changing the exposure, color temperature, adjusting the shadows, highlights, cropping and straightening. 

Anyone who considers themselves a professional photographer will need to know Lightroom or a similar software. They use that software for processing their images in their signature style. 

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Lightroom is not great for fixing tiny, local issues such as flyaway hair, removing eyeglass glare or zapping a pimple.

For true ‘retouching’, Photoshop is required. This allows pixel-perfect adjustments to be made. 

However, there’s a catch! Many professional photographers are not Photoshop experts. I myself am not a trained retoucher. This is an entirely different skillset. 

As you can imagine, picking up a camera and working as a professional photographer is a far cry from magazine-style airbrushing, which people dedicate whole careers to. 

So what can you actually expect from your wedding photographer?

Look at their portfolio and ask to see an actual finished gallery, exactly as was delivered to the client. Take a look and ask yourself if you see elements within the photos that jump out at you. 

Is something not quite right? Are you seeing things in the photos that you would not like to see in your photos? 

Most importantly, ask the photographer! 

Of course, you will not know if the photographer has made someone’s arms look slimmer, or removed zits. 

That’s right – when Photoshop is done right, the client does not notice! 

example of standard wedding photography photoshop request by zoe larkin photography
Example of visible under garments being removed from the ‘edited’ image (left) to the ‘retouched’ image (right).

Do I, as a wedding photographer, retouch photos? 

In my business, I have come to understand that some level of fine-detail retouching is required for almost every wedding. As much as a talk about capturing everything ‘exactly as it is, the truth is that there is certain level of polish that is expected from the final images.

The sorts of things I commonly Photoshop out might be: 

  • People in the background
  • Ugly items like garbage or garbage cans
  • Light switches and fire alarms
  • Distracting elements at the edge of the frame

The important thing to note is that this work is all done at the photographer’s discretion. A good photographer should have a sense for what elements need to be removed. 

I’m someone who has been eating, breathing and sleeping wedding photography for over 5 years. As a result, editing and delivering wedding photos are skills I’m very accomplished at. You should definitely trust your photographer to do the same!

Just so you guys know, I actually outsource anything that is beyond my skill set. 

Rather than butcher an image or spend an hour editing one photo, I use a firm that takes care of my photo retouching efficiently and works to a high standard. 

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As all of this is by my own discretion, there is nothing for my clients to pay. I wouldn’t dream of taking you to a crowded location, then charging you more on top of what you’ve already paid for my services, to Photoshop out the people in the background of every image. That would be kind of scummy!

Example of a very minor photoshop request in wedding photography - removing background elements
A person and a car in the background of the first image, have been removed in the retouched version.

Big and small jobs in Photoshop

It always surprises couples to learn how much goes into photo retouching. My contract even contains specific examples so clients are aware of what constitutes ‘extensive’ vs. ‘minor’ retouching. Minor basically means no big deal, I can zap that in Photoshop in a matter of seconds. 

Anything in the ‘extensive’ category typically takes anything from 10 minutes through to an hour or more. Or, if it isn’t worth your photographer’s time, it may be outsourced by them and the bill will either be passed to you, or the photographer may eat the cost themselves if they’re just a super nice person. 

Remember, these are just examples. Retouching requests and working out any associated costs are always on a per-image basis. 

Minor retouching (typically quick)

  • Removal of fine alarm
  • Removal of garbage on the ground
  • Removal of single zit
  • Spot removal on clothing 
  • Correcting color fringing effects 
  • Correcting lens distortion, for example wide lens on a tall building (may not always be possible)

Extensive retouching (takes a long time, or needs a trained professional)

  • Removal of people in the background 
  • Removal of eyeglass glare
  • Liquefying to appear slimmer
  • Reduction of wrinkles and under-eye bags
  • Skin smoothing to create flawless complexion (for example, acne or uneven complexion)
  • Head swap (for example if a subject blinked in posed shot)
  • Wardrobe malfunction (something was showing)
  • Lessen reddening in the skin (can be easy but depends on what technique must be used)
  • Altering the color of single element 
  • Altering the lighting (dodge/burn; lessen highlights/increase shadows)
  • Recover highlights 
  • Flyaway hair or hair smoothing

Can you ask your wedding photographer to Photoshop something?

I think the real issue at hand here is this. Say, you receive your finished wedding gallery but then you have some additional retouching requests. 

What happens then?

Well, this is a really tricky one because here’s the thing. We want our clients to be happy with their wedding pictures. Otherwise, what’s the point in having them, right? In my business, I try to do everything I can to make sure the client’s not just satisfied, but thrilled. 

First thing is – if you do have a request for some fine-image editing to be performed, I suggest bringing it up with the photographer pretty quickly. Photographers cannot leave your file open forever. After a set amount of time, usually around 4 – 6 weeks after image delivery, it will be assumed you’re happy with your photos. Our transaction is concluded. 

At some point, all of the photos the photographer didn’t deliver from your wedding will be deleted. Sometimes, however, those dud photos are the key to being able to complete a client’s request. 

For example, let’s say a family photograph slipped through the net. In this photo, someone’s eyes were closed. (It’s not ideal, but it may happen from time to time). 

What can be done to remedy this particular problem? Well, we need to look through all the out-takes and find ONE where the person’s eyes were open and their expression was good! That can only be done if we have all the non-delivered RAW files. 

All in all, photographers are very reasonable people. If you want something to be fixed or changed, it can normally be done without an extra fee because we want you to be happy. 

However, please remember that each photographer operates differently. You will have to ask them directly. The information in this article will hopefully help you to keep any requests in line with that’s reasonable. 

Before and after photoshop wedding photos
An example of Photoshop work undertaken free of charge for a client of Zoe Larkin Photography

Do you have to pay for extra retouching of wedding photos?

Just be aware, though, that a large volume of custom requests will have to incur a fee. If you have, say 50+ photos that you want worked on, that’s an entire 8 hour work day that you’re asking your photographer to do. 

Sure, we want you to be super happy. But that’s work we will have to charge for – even with the best will in the world. 

Some photographers may charge per hour, some per image. Some may simply pass on to you the costs from their image outsourcing company. Other photographers may be determined to complete the work themselves, at no cost, but it may take a while as it has to fit into their existing schedules. 

Simply ask – it’s usually a bespoke arrangement, not a one-size-fits-all. There may even be some options you can choose from.

A lot of it depends on the pricing structure of the photographer. Do they charge absolute bargain basement pricing? Then don’t expect any freebies.

My business has a little wiggle room with being able to throw in additional items for free. I don’t charge rock bottom rates, so that I can use some of that buffer to make sure the client is completely happy without the need to upcharge for every tiny thing on top.

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What to do to make a Photoshop request to your wedding photographer

Instead of an overwhelming request, why not narrow it down to the top 5 photos that you have earmarked for a purpose – for a wedding album or to create some wall art, for example? 

If you use your wedding photographer to create those products, and they are benefitting from some extra income, then more likely than not, they will throw in the retouching on those photos for free!

You can then make sure you receive not only your product but the retouched files in your digital wedding gallery. 

Basically, be reasonable about it and respectful of the photographer’s time.

As small business owners, that’s time that they didn’t plan on spending on your wedding, which may have been weeks or months prior. That’s time they could have spent with their family, other clients, or drumming up new business. 

The way it works with any service business is that each client is expected to take up a certain set maximum amount of time. Obviously with it being weddings, this expected timeframe can be very high. 

But anything that goes well over what’s considered standard (and the price you’ve paid goes into that), now qualifies as potentially extra billable work. 

Setting expectations around editing and retouching in wedding photography 

The first thing to think about is that ‘perfection’ isn’t necessarily the goal here. Especially with the more candid style of wedding photography that is the norm now, it’s unreasonable to expect that every one of the hundreds or even thousand+ photos, looks like a spread from Vogue. 

I for one deliver quite a lot of photos, not because I value quantity over quality – I don’t. 

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But, to be fair, what you are getting is a large number of moments that will vary a little in their significance, their technical perfection and ultimately how much value they hold to you. 

I do this because I would rather give you more than have you feel cheated. 

I never want someone to look at their wedding gallery and say, ‘wait, is this it?!’ Part of my value proposition is that I will give you a wide range of artistically captured moments that you didn’t know were happening. You can then pick and choose the ones you want to memorialize in printed images and more lasting means. 

I try to include as many faces as I can, so that in the years to come I can confidently say, ‘no, truly I gave you all the photos of Great Uncle Joe that I took (… may he rest in peace).’

So, let’s talk about expectations. It’s so hard to talk about this without it sounding patronizing, so if it sounds like that I apologize. That isn’t my intention. 

Brides who are not clued-up about what to expect with their wedding photography may mistakenly assume there’s no need to diet because ‘the photographer can make me look slimmer’.

Or a groom who’s spilled a drink down his shirt may not worry about tidying himself up because ‘meh, the photographer can Photoshop that out’. 

Now, it’s not for me to interrupt the day. Plus, I don’t know which couples will love the fact that I captured every darn thing and how it really felt, in all its beer-soaked, rosy-cheeked, bum-bearing glory! 

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Others may later tell me, with chagrin, ‘why didn’t you tell me I had spilled beer down my front?’. This is why it’s important to get to know your photographer, so they can get a better sense of what kind of couple you are. 

There are times we need to step in and adjust something (like a wardrobe malfunction) and other times we just snap away without interfering. 

I’m getting better at judging which course of action to take, when. It takes a lot of practice and making mistakes. What looks like a wardrobe malfunction to you, may appear to me like an intentional part of your outfit. 

What looks to me like a blemish, may be a beauty spot you rock with pride. 

It’s better to get it right in camera

Of course, there needs to be a commitment on both sides, for the photos to be as good as they can in the moment. That may mean the photographer waits a couple of minutes to ensure there are no people in the background of the photo. 

Or that the couple tells the photographer if there are aspects about their appearance they are insecure about. That way, photos can be taken that flatter your perceived imperfection, by utilizing certain angles and skillful posing. 

Photographers basically feel that their clients are perfect as they are.

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We’d never dream of shaving 20lb off you, or making you look 10 years younger! It’s always best to address anything you aren’t comfortable about at the time, rather than trying to fix it later. This is yet another reason to choose a photographer you feel good around – there is a certain vulnerability involved when it comes to events as intimate as weddings. 

Fixing photos ‘in post’ – by retouching – is likely to cost you money and/ or use up your photographer’s time, and retouched photos are never quite as good as getting it right in the moment. 

To conclude

Like everything in wedding photography, retouching is a bespoke arrangement. It’s always good to have an honest conversation with your photographer if there’s anything you’re unhappy about. It’s even better to have a conversation before entering into a contract so you are absolutely sure what to expect from your wedding photography experience. 

Pin your choice of graphic to your Pinterest board and be sure to follow @zoelarkinphoto on Pinterest!

In this VERY in-depth blog post written by a working wedding photographer, I'll cover what retouching is, whether retouching is included in your wedding photography package, what happens when you ask your wedding photographer for photos to be Photoshopped, any costs involved, and how to avoid the need to photo retouching for your wedding. Some Photoshop work is usually required, but at the photographer's discretion. Understand what YOUR photographer's policies are before you book!
What can you do it you want something retouched or 'Photoshopped' in your wedding photos? What kind of work is an easy fix + what is more advanced? Are you supposed to pay extra for custom retouching work, or is it included in your wedding photographer's services? What if the contract doesn't specify if they will retouch photos? I know you have a lot of questions - I have the answers! All about wedding photography Photoshop editing requests - what's reasonable, and what you can expect!
Zoe Larkin
Zoe Larkin

I’m Zoe, a wedding photographer based in San Francisco! I also help fellow wedding photographers attract their dream clients with actionable SEO & digital marketing strategies. When I’m not shooting weddings, creating content is my passion! Follow along the blog, Insta and my new YouTube channel for photographers! 

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