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Retouching with the Liquify Tool in Photoshop: Is It Right or Wrong?

Free Photoshop Actions and Lightroom Presets by MCP™

Retouching with the Liquify Tool in Photoshop: Is It Right or Wrong?

I sit here with microphone in hand.  I was about to record a tutorial showing how to use the Liquify Tool in Photoshop. But then I stopped.  I paused.  And I decided rather than teach you how to use it, after all you can Google Liquify Tutorial, that I wanted to better understand how photographers feel about using it.

The Liquify Tool can be used for dozens of things, not just people pictures.  For portrait photographers it is most frequently used to do retouching.  The liquify tool can change the shape of the eyes, the nose, the lips and other facial features.  It can also be used to slightly or drastically alter body size and shape.  Next time you look at a fashion magazine, know that what you see is not likely what was photographed.  Longer legs, slimmer thighs, bigger or lifted breasts, leaner arms, hour-glass figures, smaller waists, fuller lips, wider eyes, more defined cheek bones, bump-free noses…. and so much more seen in magazines is courtesy of the liquify tool.

So the question of the day, “Is it right or wrong?” Should magazines make bodies and faces that are more pleasing to the eyes?  Or by doing that are they creating unrealistic ideals and a society of poor body image, self-esteem and self-confidence?

And to take this a step further, “should we as photographers liquify, alter, reshape, or slim our customers for their portraits?” Do we help or hurt them if we instantly make them lose that extra 15-20 pounds in Photoshop?

And once you make up your mind, then think about other retouching, such as skin?  We can smooth skin in Photoshop, reduce wrinkles, make blemishes disappear, reduce bags under the eyes and so much more… Do you feel as photographers that it is our job to retouch customers so that they are happy with themselves?  Should we leave skin, body shape and size, and overall appearance alone?  Or does it “just depend?”

We all want to look good.  But who defines what looks good?  Magazines? Photographers? Society?

I would love your thoughts and input in the comment section below.  Please also share this article with friends so they can “weigh” in. I am curious what a sampling of people have to say.

And for fun, here I am, liquified in Northern Michigan.

using liquify tool in photoshop

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  1. July 12, 2010 at 2:24 pm —

    I never want my clients to notice my retouching. I want them to still see their moles & freckles, but maybe not remember that huge zit on their chin. I want people to still see their wrinkles and lines, but I use lighting or photoshop to soften them. I don’t want to change a size 12 into a size 4, but with lighting, posing, & yes, sometimes a little photoshop, I can help them feel sexy.

    Portraiture is not photojournalism where documenting the absolute truth is a necessity. It’s okay to make people look like themselves, but slightly more beautiful than usual. That’s why we often light with soft lights instead of harsh spotlights. That’s why we learn how to pose our subjects in flattering poses. It’s ok to use photoshop subtly.

  2. July 12, 2010 at 4:27 pm —

    I dont like to modify the body, but many clients ask for, but I only make a few changes

  3. July 12, 2010 at 5:44 pm —

    I think it’s fine in moderation. No teen wants photos where they can look back and remember how painful that acne was, and a mom would probably appreciate the dark circles under her eyes being removed showing how tired she is. I never want my clients to look photoshopped, I do want them however, to feel good about themselves when they get their pictures back. I’ve never reshaped eyes, noes, removed moles or freckles, because those are what make people who they are.

  4. July 12, 2010 at 6:27 pm —

    While I do use the Liquify Tool, I use it sparingly not so much to alter someone, but to enhance them. A 15-20 lbs weight loss is significant in real life let alone in an image. I use it more for a little chin tuck here and there, and a slight arm toning. We all know that what we do is not something that people need, but want. So in order to keep it that way we as photographers will likely benefit from making our clients look their best (within reason).

  5. July 12, 2010 at 8:09 pm —

    Photographer for Hire
    5 Bucks for a photo of what you look like
    20 Bucks for a photo of what you THINK you look like

    I think a good photographer can and should use every tool in their arsenal. That includes slimming clothes, flattering angles, flattering light, great posing, and even liquify when needed. Heck, a simple bump in curves can lift undereye shadows, brighten eyes, add the slightest bit of skin smoothing and that’s so common that no one has any moral plights about it. I want to give a client an image of what they look like on their best day! Not with the undereye shadows that come with having 2 kids under 2, or with the arm bulge that comes from just having birthed a baby, or with the acne that comes from being 17 years old. I’m not talking a 20 pound reduction, but just enough to give them a slightly idealized image of themselves.

  6. July 12, 2010 at 9:06 pm —

    If you use it in one photo, you must use it in other photos. Which means – you become a work horse/digital trainer. I am very fortunate to be lean, trim, thing, skinny – whatever you want to call it and definitely take the bags out of my eyes on every image, but doing it for a wedding or portrait session can be a curse. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard, “She can photoshop that.” I mean really? Photoshop is a tool, not a savior… Therefore, I feel that the less use of those complicated and timely tools, the better.

  7. July 12, 2010 at 10:09 pm —

    Wow! I think these are great ?’s. And I totally agree that shouldn’t we at some point be happy with what we are? I’ve been doing body image on my personal blog and even posted pictures of myself in a black sports bra and black bike shorts. It took everything I had to do it. I wanted to use the liquify tool but felt like I would be cheating myself out of what I really am. Me!

  8. July 12, 2010 at 10:33 pm —

    I have never used the liquify tool but did know that it existed. I don’t agree with them using it in magazines or on Hollywood stars. Because when you look through a magazine you should see the real person. It does make society think we have to be skin and bones to be beautiful. I don’t see tons of harm smoothing out skin as long as it still looks realistic. I think most people who are photographed want to look the best and feel beautiful.

  9. July 13, 2010 at 12:07 am —

    I want to see the before picture of you!?

  10. July 13, 2010 at 12:19 am —

    The thing about photographs is they are a moment frozen in time. And sometimes, that moment is not always the most flattering. In daily life, I rarely notice someone’s backfat, or muffin top – but still photographs are scrutinized and viewed in much greater detail than we’re normally LOOKED AT. So yes, I definitely liquify. But only to make soneone seem how they appear in real life. The camera DOES add 10 lbs – I don’t want a client looking at my photos thinking “Damn, she made me 3 sizes smaller”. But I DO want them looking at their pictures thinking how beautiful they looked, although not quite knowing why. We’re so hung up on body issues. I have teenagers thinking they are “unphotogenic” and size 4 brides thinking they are fat and have a bad side. It’s so sad!!! And I want my clients walking away from a session with me with pictures of themselves looking as I see them – beautiful no matter what size they are.

  11. Lily
    July 13, 2010 at 2:28 am —

    Such a thought-provoking question. I will always enhance teeth and skin, not to the point where it looks fake or plastic, but enough so that any obvious issues are taken care of.

    I have not yet used the liquify tool for a client. Particularly if portraits are going to be blown up large, I might enhance areas ever so slightly, so that areas that need a little help will be more flattering. But not so much that anyone would be able to pinpoint what was done (so no making someone 15-20 pounds lighter; maybe 5 pounds). And by enhance, I mean smooth over a bulge and make it a little less prominent; reasonable yet pleasing results.

    I would not do this level of enhancement for a wedding or portrait session without charging for it, however. Skin, teeth, included; liquify or other enhancements, additional paid time.

  12. Lorraine Reynolds
    July 13, 2010 at 3:01 am —

    Firstly I must say I’m not a professional photographer, just a mum at home taking photos of my kids lives for their memories. I’ve had a hard time even doing the basic edits to the snapshots of our lives. Recently when editing photos of our sand dunes trip in South Australia I wanted to brighten my photos but not leave reality behind the sand had to stay close to the right colour.
    But I have also worked in youth work and know first hand how damaging the whole body issue thing can be for some girls.
    My brother works for a newspaper, and has worked in fashion so I’ve seen how far editing can go.
    I would say that if I was a professional photographer I would do as little as I could, unless specifically asked, and not just in fashion.

    We went to Mallacoota last year and went out of our way to see this ‘bright red’ lichen on some rocks that I had read and seen in photos. It took us over an hour of 4WD and then a long trip down a rickety path to the beach only to find very bland brown/tan – nowhere near the red. I wanted to get each and every photographer who had published this lie and slap them around – especially since we had a three year old, and autistic six year old in tow. I was not happy, to have wasted my families time. Thanks goodness there was same sandhills to roll down on that same beach!
    I think there needs to be a little reality in there somewhere.

  13. July 15, 2010 at 12:04 pm —

    I use liquify sparingly – double chin’s etc. It’s facinating, but dangerous at the same time.

  14. July 15, 2010 at 12:34 pm —

    To alter or not to alter… that is the question I ask myself every time I find what the client might consider a flaw. The only “weight” alteration I commit to doing on a regular basis is the dreaded double chin. My thought is if I didn’t catch poor posing while shooting, or the mom couldn’t help but look down at her little love, it’s my job to help the situation. Acne is something I will correct every time, without going to “supermodel skin”. I do lighten under eye circles because I know too well how there are days they are worse than others due to allergies or fatigue. Wrinkles, I might soften them, but those are earned! Eye color change – NO. Eye brightening, a tad!
    Thanks for all your tools and tutoring, Jodi!!!

  15. skin.9
    July 30, 2010 at 12:45 am —

    Great site, I didnt have the chance to noticemcpactions.com before in my browsing! Keep up the good work!

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Retouching with the Liquify Tool in Photoshop: Is It Right or Wrong?