Every time a new "The Evils of Photoshop" article or video gets published, retouchers everywhere shake their heads, then get back to work knowing that there is no way for the average person to realize the full extent of what they do, what they don't do, and why.
I've got the luck of both photographing and retouching my own work, so I know what this process looks like from beginning to end, and I feel there are a few things that need to be said.
First, let's just get something straight; people who earn a living using editing software to perfect images before they're used in advertisements are called Retouchers; not Photoshoppers. It's their job to take the raw material that the photographer and their team have used to create imagery and tweak it until it fits what their client needs to sell product. The bulk of retouching, what makes the biggest difference to the viewer of an image, has nothing to do with making a model appear thinner or rounder or to have more perfect skin because, to be frank, most of the working models who appear in advertisements truly are gorgeous creatures blessed with great genetics and who work hard to maintain their appearance.
Retouchers approach their work in much the same way that a painter does. They look at composition, color density, light quality, and mood. They're responsible for making sure that the color palette suits the intention of the advertisement, that the focus is where it's intended to be by carefully adjusting the light, that little details that could distract from the purpose of the image, such as flying hairs in a models eye, are removed.
As a photographer, I can tell you that the cameras and lenses photographers use both distort reality and capture insane amounts of detail that you do not see with the naked eye. When standing before the subject of a photograph in person, you're connected to their expression, tone of voice and body language...not their pores or whether their bra gives them a side bulge. Most of us don't see the tiny blackheads in someone's nose while we're talking to them but a 40 megapixel camera does. That's not exactly the kind of thing that viewers want to see when they're curious about how a certain makeup color looks on hazel eyes.
Many times, photographers will import photos after a shoot and see things they missed while pressing the shutter. Why? Because eight million things were happening at once during the shoot and there is only so much time to get the images they need. Since clients have allocated a fixed amount of money to spend on a project, reshooting is out of the question and it becomes a Retoucher's job to pick up the slack. Maybe the palette has changed because of new packaging and now the nail polish in an image needs to be purple instead of blue. Maybe a stray wind pulled hair the wrong way, or the bathing suit was tighter than expected and pinched skin at the model's hips. Maybe the light that made the clothing look amazing showed too much texture in the model's skin , or the lens choice and angle made the windows look like they curved outward at the top of the frame. Was it a winter shoot but not enough snow in the air? This is the realm of the Retoucher and these are only a few examples of the kinds of things Retouchers handle regularly.
Are there abuses of power in this profession? Yes. Just as in every profession there are those who take their work too far, or are asked to do something they'd rather not do at a client's request. However, the majority of retouching goes unnoticed and unremarked upon. The photographer will get all the credit for taking amazing photographs because there is some skilled retoucher out there finessing colors, straightening lines, removing distractions, perfecting light, and working hard to bring a vision fully to life.
The next time you see a salacious, clickbait article about how Photoshop is evil and creating unrealistic standards, please know that the bulk of retouching is not about making models thinner because, let's face it, most of them are in great shape; it's about perfecting an image in an artistic way that makes viewers stop and catch their breath.