Photo Editing, Retouching, and Manipulation: Know the Difference

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When most people take photos, it is used to preserve a moment or experience. They can record momentous events like weddings, or a birthday, or just tell people what you had for lunch. In the hands of a photographer though, a photo tells a story. Photographers know that depending on their use of light, focus, color, and composition, one subject can tell dozens of different stories. An important tool in the photographer’s kit is professional photo retouching. For those who are just getting into photography, or are thinking of hiring a professional to edit their photos, it’s important to know the difference between photo editing, retouching, and manipulation.

To the uninitiated, all three refer to the same thing: you want changes to a photograph and the photo editing service you hired is going to implement them. However, the complexity of your project and the skill required to pull it off will require clarification of what exactly you want done, and how much it will cost to touch up your photos.

Different photographers and photo editing services may have different definitions of what exactly these three levels entail, but the following are the general definitions most can agree on:


Editing is the baseline of photo manipulation. At this level, an experienced photo editor would be able to edit hundreds of photos in a single day, as this involves simple tasks like cropping, resizing, and adjusting the level, colors and contrast. These are processes that are now automated by photo editing software, such as Adobe Photoshop.

Which is not to say that photo editing requires little skill- it still takes a practiced eye to pick out how manipulating the levels of red (for example) can even out a model’s skin tone, or bring out an element in the background. Photo editing can make a picture look crisp, or soft, or stark, depending on the digital treatment given to the image.


photo retouching

Retouching is a higher level of editing that requires subtlety. Ever noticed how everyone looks so good on magazines, or how that model has such smooth skin? That’s retouching. Photo editors can remove or soften blemishes in portraits, or remove simple elements that you don’t want in the photo, like a cable in the background or some wiring, or a shadow.

Experienced photo retouchers know when to stop though — overly-retouched photos often start venturing into the uncanny valley, or the uncomfortable reaction people have to images that appear human-like, but not quite human. If someone has absolutely no blemishes or wrinkles, it becomes unnatural and can trigger this reaction. Photo retouchers are careful to preserve these small details to keep their photo subjects human, relatable, and appealing.


This is the pinnacle of a photo retoucher’s craft. Here an image can be made by combining different photos (compositing), by manually drawing in details, or adding/taking out complex elements, like hair or trees. It takes a lot of effort, experience, and expertise to make it look real, but, if done properly, can have the most impact. Many of the most striking images you’ll see on a fashion editorial, movie poster, or sports billboard is the result of photo manipulation, as they use unusual elements in the picture to grab the viewers’ attention. The results are often fantastic, and also have a high price tag.

Know the Difference

Editing, retouching, and manipulation take different levels of skill. These determine how long it will take, and how expensive the job will be. Knowing the difference can help you communicate with your photo editor what exactly you want to do with a picture, and what story you want to tell.

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