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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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36 Comments

  1. July 12, 2010 at 1:27 pm —

    There are a lot of valid points people have. I will alter people at their request. Dark circles under eyes, yellow teeth and eyes, unwanted shadows, acne etc are things I correct without being asked. I agree that people should want to remember who they are not what they want to be, but they are the client and I want them to be happy even if it is removing a chin or two!

  2. July 12, 2010 at 1:01 pm —

    so far i have only used the liquify tool to reduce the appearance of a double chin (on request from the client). i do use skin touch ups regularly, reducing the appearance of dark undereye circles, blemishes, wrinkles etc but on a second layer so as not to remove everything entirely, just lessen it a little.

    my feeling is that i want to look how i think i look in my mind not how i actually look in the mirror (with bad skin and dark circles). i offer touch ups to my client and am happy to oblige if they choose. (though i wouldn’t want to have to use the liquify tool extensively on a number of photos from a session. wouldn’t that take forever?)

  3. July 12, 2010 at 12:52 pm —

    First, I’m going to admit that I’ve never used the Liquify filter. I don’t know anything about it, actually, and therefore I’d like that tutorial 🙂 Even if others exist, yours will be better.

    But, philosophically, I would have no objection to using it in photo-editing for a paying client. Portraits are a work-made-for-hire. You are using your artistic vision, your technical skill, and your professional experience to tell your client’s story in images. That means delivering images that allow them to see themselves as they want to be seen. Whether that is representative of how they really are is going depend on the client. But it’s their story to tell. We are the filter through which that story is told.

    Now, from a business standpoint….

    If a client is making specific requests for high fashion edits that would be time intensive, of course it’s not going to be cost effective to deliver their entire session with that level of editing. So, why not charge them accordingly? Or ask her to identify 5 images she would like to have fashion retouched and agree to lighter retouching on the rest of the session. Or, sell her digital negatives and refer her to a retouch artist.

  4. July 12, 2010 at 11:54 am —

    I do a lot of boudoir and yes, I liquify. I do not have a problem with it… they take these pictures to feel beautiful about them selves. So if I take some cellulite away, some under eye circles, give them a little tuck here and there… the reaction they give me is priceless. They just love it and its still them, just beautified. 🙂

  5. Dana
    July 12, 2010 at 11:50 am —

    I think Liquify tool is just that “a tool”. It’s another way that we can achieve the look we want. That being said, I prefer to smooth skin in a natural way, avoiding the overly perfect plastic look. When I use liquify, I won’t make a bride 6 sizes smaller, but I will make them look better than reality.

    I want them to still look like themselves, but I know they want the pictures to look how they felt that day. They felt special and beautiful and happy. Muffin top and heavy arms are real, but not how they felt. I will pull out the stops and use liquify to make them look amazing in a few pictures-especially the moments where I know they will want to look back and remember a moment.

    That being said, unless it is a special circumstance, regular portraits do not get the full on magical liquify treatment. I will do the trick you showed (transforming width to >96%) to subtly slim or touch up one or two spots.

    Exceptions are a mother with terminal infant/reprint of a picture with someone who passed on. Both cases get a full on treatment of anything/everything I can give them to erase imperfections and create a flawless memory.

  6. Christine
    July 12, 2010 at 11:12 am —

    I’ve only used the liquify tool once. I don’t normally do events or weddings, but a good friend asked me to photograph her small wedding vow renewal ceremony. She had a baby 3 weeks before and was wearing her original wedding dress. She looked great. While editing pictures, I found one that made her back very unflattering. The rest of the picture was great. I knew she wouldn’t want to display the picture the way it was and that was definitely not how I saw her throughout the day. So I eliminated the “back fat”. Like the others who have commented, I only remove blemishes and soften wrinkles. I want my clients to feel confident with how they look in the pictures, but I don’t want them to look unnatural.

  7. July 12, 2010 at 11:10 am —

    I fix minor things (pimples), moderate things (under eye bags and wrinkles) and major things (crooked or too big nose, take off 5-10 pounds, etc). Sometimes I question whether it’s the right thing to do, but I know my clients love the way they look in my portraits. I figure they get pictures of what they actually look like whenever they take a snapshot. When they pay me a lot of money to come to photograph them they want something nicer. I don’t go overboard, they always just think it’s the lighting I used or the way in which I posed them. It’s a tough question, one every photographer has to answer for him or herself. And hey, I do it to the pictures I post of myself professionally. If I’m gonna do it for me, why not for them? 🙂

  8. July 12, 2010 at 11:04 am —

    I think, as with just about anything else in life, it is great when used in moderation; anything heavy handed in Photoshop looks bad and as photographers we should abstain from that. I find it hypocritical for photographers to say that they disagree with the use of a tool in Photoshop (specifically referring to the liquefy tool here, obviously) because they think people should embrace their imperfections or flaws. As far as that goes, why use PS at all? If you are altering one thing about the photo, then you are going against that motto (or whatever you want to call it). Heck, as far as that goes, why bother with makeup or covering up those gray hairs? I realize I am being extreme and exaggerating this a bit, but it all goes along the same principle.

    I firmly believe in photographing people as they are but also showing them as they want to be seen while still retaining the way they look. That’s one reason why they come to me instead of chain studios. People are paying a lot of money for custom photography and many only get to experience it a few times in their life, so when they have that big 20×30 canvas of their family hanging in their home for all to see, I want them to look on it fondly and not constantly be thinking about how they should have lost those extra few lbs before spending all that money. I want them to see their family and not their love handles or muffin top every time they look at it.

  9. John P
    July 12, 2010 at 11:03 am —

    It seems that we retouch our clients not merely by the usage of digital tools, but even more so by our posing them in ways that stretch the neck, thin the waist, and minimize their body size. E.g., in image at bottom of your post, I would bet that the actual pose you’re in made more of a difference on your appearance than your use of the liquify tool.

    So I feel that its a question of not, “Should we?” but “How far beyond reality should we go?”

  10. Kristi W.
    July 12, 2010 at 11:02 am —

    It’s a tricky topic for sure. I agree with some of the other comments. I think that flaws and imperfections are what make people unique. I will take out blemishes and I will soften wrinkles (I usually use another layer with lower opacity rather than take them out completely). I try not to do anything that drastically changes the person’s looks. Sure there are other tricks (lighting, angles, etc.) to make a person appear better. I do think that it’s a photographer’s job to capture their subjects in a flattering way. So I suppose I don’t have a problem with retouching so long it’s not overboard. I do think that magazine retouching is a problem though. It seems like they always go too far, and there’s never a disclaimer noting that the photo has been retouched. It absolutely perpetuates unrealistic standards. Young impressionable minds are not yet able to distinguish between a photo that has been massively retouched and one that is more real. I have even heard that celebrities pay someone to retouch their “candid” photos that appear on gossip blogs and magazines. It really is kind of ridiculous. I make it a point to educate all the young people (and especially young girls) that I know about how magazines heavily edit their models/subjects.

  11. July 12, 2010 at 10:44 am —

    I agree with Jessica here. I may fix minor blemishes such as scrapes, scratches and other temporary skin marks, plus maybe smooth the skin and under they eyes just slightly, but for the most part I would want the photo to reflect the person as they really are.

  12. July 12, 2010 at 9:56 am —

    I personally think liquify should be used sparringly. I never want the client to know that I used it but to just be pleased with the final portrait.

  13. Adrianne
    July 12, 2010 at 9:53 am —

    Having just finished by PSII class in college, this was something we spend about four hours discussing. Obviously, in the fashion industry, we have to know the tool and use it a lot. I personally don’t agree with that but if that is what I choose to do as a job, then I will knowing that is what is a part of the job. On individual portraits, the census’ among both the budding and seasoned photographer is that less is more. There is no problem doing little, subtle things to let the client feel more confident in themselves and showing the portrait to their friends and family. Skin smoothing, making wrinkles less noticable (but not erased) same with small breakouts. But unless you know the person being photographed well and they request something permanent removed, it should stay there. Moles, freckles, that sort of thing. As for weight issues, well, everyone has some sort of body image issues. If we start down that road, It’s a never-ending path. Removing an embarrassing pantyline or bra strap, maybe smoothing a lump or wrinkle in a dress, yes. Doing the fashion makeover on every photo is not. If for no other reason than financial, it’s not a good idea. In fashion, one photo is choosen and then worked on extensively. That is cost-effective. If you do a whole session or worse a whole event like this, you can not make money. The time alone, not to mention the hardware needed to handle doing all those pictures, is just not cost-effective.

  14. July 12, 2010 at 9:51 am —

    I learned a great lesson from an 18 year old client a few years ago. She had looked at my previous photos at the time and her only request for her sr. photos was that I not retouch her face at all. She wanted to be natural. How she really looked, not over-touched. It got me thinking about the way I editted. How I presented my product to people and I started to realize that in over-editing I wasn’t giving them a true picture of themselves. All of my family pictures from youth, done at professional studios, still showed who I was. A few blemishes removed or toned down, but overall, it’s who I was and I’m thankful for those pictures now as my parents have passed on. This is who we were, who they were. I can see the ruggedness of my father’s skin, the cornflower blue of mom’s eyes. There wasn’t heavy retouching, these were film photos for pete’s sake. I think the digital world opened up the ability to over touch and in doing so we lost something. So, only on my sr. portraits and brides do I offer blemish touch up. I no longer introduce clients to the idea of deeper editing. I present a more real product and what I have found is very happy clients. In the end if they want something surreal (like losing 25 pounds instantly or plastic skin) I’m probably not the right photographer for them, and I’m not worried about telling them that anymore. I want a postive outcome for both of us and I don’t think over editing is the way to find that happiness.

  15. July 12, 2010 at 9:45 am —

    Bobby Earle had some really good thoughts on this subject on his blog recently. – http://bobbyearle.com/blog/retouching-is-at-an-ethical-problem/ .I agree with him. As long as the retouching is “slight”, and not overdone. Secondly, with all the talk of improving young girls’ self esteem, I think it can actually help for them to see what a difference some retouching can make – so they realize they are comparing their “natural” self to the retouched models in those magazines and ads.

  16. jessica
    July 12, 2010 at 9:42 am —

    when i photograph someone, i want them to look as good as i see them. so, i will soften a few wrinkles. i want the image to reflect who they are … not the pimple they happened to have had that day.

  17. July 12, 2010 at 9:36 am —

    First, let me say I LOVE the liquify tool. I only just recently figured it out and I am blown away by how amazing it is. Having said that, I have to be honest, I don’t like using it that much. I have two little girls and I don’t want to bring them up in a house where mommy changes everyone to look perfect. That’s going to give them a complex, I’m sure of it. So, yes, I do use it, and I do smooth out skin, but I use it very sparingly. I don’t change anyone drastically. Mostly I use it to smooth out clothes or maybe a double chin or a little muffin top. God knows I use it on myself! I won’t use it on babies or children, teens etc. I was once asked to change a woman’s nose to be smaller. I did it, because she was a client and the customer is always right. But I didn’t feel right doing it. She loved them, but it didn’t look like her anymore and that made me sad. Anyway, that’s my take on it. I use it, but very sparingly, and nothing too drastic.

  18. Michele
    July 12, 2010 at 9:33 am —

    I refuse to do the liquify tool. I photograph people to create memories – not supermodels. I will correct a blemish, but not take off freckles. We are all individuals, we have imperfections. I believe we should own them – embrace them.

  19. July 12, 2010 at 9:26 am —

    Your thoughtful comments on the Liquify Tool couldn’t come a better time. I am contracted with several brides who have requested the use of the Liquify Tool. They know about it and want it used – a lot. I am uncomfortable not to mention potentially overworked at the thought of using this tool to painstakingly re-work a bride in each and every photo. I have reached a sort-of compromise with each that I will eliminate muffin tops where I see them spilling out over their strapless gowns in the back, but as far as re-shaping them into size 6’s when they are clearly size 12’s is not something I’m going for. As an example, I have been asked to completely eliminate double chins, heavy arms, thick necks, pudgy cheeks, and wide waist lines. I would hope, as an industry, we would encourage brides to see themselves for who they are and not those that grace the covers of countless bridal magazines. Those highly paid models show brides a level and standard of beauty that is rarely attenable for the average woman. Afterall, statistics now claim that 50% of American women are plus sized. We are badly in need a dose of realism, especially when the abundance of low self esteem brides knocking at my door seems to increasing with each wedding season.

  20. Deb Zorn
    July 12, 2010 at 9:25 am —

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with a little “touch up.” Everyone wants to look their best. Magazines make me crazy. Is there really a 45, 55 year old that has absolutely no lines? They (magazine editors) make everybody look plastic. And, yes, we read magazines because we like the beautiful people, but I would like it better if the older actors and models looked a little bit more like the people we see all around us.

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