Pros Reveal How to Spot the Photoshop Tricks That Defy Reality

Stop wondering if she was born with it—it’s probably been photoshopped. Here’s how to know.

(Photo: Joan Vicent Canto Roig/Getty Images)

Dec 30, 2014· 5 MIN READ
A Wolfe has covered arts, entertainment, and politics for Good, Vice, Flaunt, and other publications.

Even before Roy A. Cui began his career in digital retouching, he remembers walking into stores and standing in front of theaters to deeply analyze the images on posters. He was looking for flaws—not flaws in the models but flaws in the retouching.

“I would look for any little pixel out of place,” Cui said. “I told myself that if I was retouching, I would never leave any discerning signs like that. Now I go by the name EyeConArtist because I con the eye. Anyone might be able to manipulate the hell out of an image, but a retoucher makes it forensically clean.”

Cui, an industry veteran who’s worked on commercial, editorial, and theatrical campaigns, has recently spoken out about his industry in congressional hearings for the Truth in Advertising bill and is still the only retoucher to do so.

Cui thinks that even though many people know these images are manipulated, he’s still not sure people realize how much they’ve been changed.

“If you see anybody’s skin that looks like it is completely porcelain and blemish-free, that is manipulated. That’s all the beauty products,” Cui said. “I think a lot of people don’t fully believe that those images have been manipulated, because only top-notch retouchers are going to be able to do that work and not have it look like it’s just airbrushed. A good retoucher can bring in the pores, make them really consistent and believable so nobody notices.”

(Photo: Getty Images)

It’s not unusual for a retoucher to spend days focusing only on getting the skin believably perfect on a single close-up image for a beauty campaign.

Amy Dresser, a longtime retoucher who’s done work on celebrity images and commercial campaigns, wants the public to understand that 100 percent of the images you see in magazines, on posters, or anywhere someone is trying to sell a product are manipulated. Dresser, like Cui, knows there’s a problem in the industry’s ability to deal with and address the “morality” of its image manipulation, but Dresser also said, “I think that the presence of ‘Photoshop disasters’ is useful to remind people that images are edited, and some of them are ridiculous mistakes. People need to shift from the idea that photos are total proof of reality. It hasn’t been the case in all of our own lifetimes.”

Images have been manipulated for beauty and other purposes almost since the invention of film cameras. The advancement of technology in camera equipment to capture higher-res and clearer images also seems to correlate in the advanced technology to correct those images. Most of us—even those who are being “corrected”—don’t know it’s happening.

“If there is a celebrity involved, they usually have final OK,” Dresser said. “But it is often the case that the production people will not let a celebrity see the raw images and will pre-retouch images for them to approve. I would assume that many celebrities don’t know that they are picking options that are ‘false raw’ images.”

So while Demi Moore can famously claim her cover for W was not retouched, she might actually be the last person who could know for sure. For the models who aren’t celebrities, everyone else—the art director, photographer, magazine, or client—has final OK, not the model or the retoucher.

Kat Gardiner, a former full-time retoucher focused on fashion e-commerce images, has similar feelings to Dresser on the subject of public knowledge, but it’s a tricky topic to breach in the industry.

“Retouchers are hired guns—technicians,” Gardiner said. “Every single thing they do has to be approved by someone else. They aren’t the money. They are just trying to give all of those people above them what they want. Sometimes they go too far; sometimes they are asked to go further. No one wants to see the fishing line that makes Wendy fly, but ultimately, they all want her in the air.”

For the moment, if we accept that all images are manipulated, the only defense is to be more aware of the magic involved. Gardiner says the element for which you should always be on the lookout in a manipulated image is a seamless background.

When a retoucher is using her Liquify tool in the Photoshop toolbox, she can pinch, pucker, and push a model’s body around any way she pleases by clicking on the center of body parts and the perimeter of the body, creating the perfect silhouette. If there is a seamless background—meaning a single, flat color with no angles or lines—the retoucher can manipulate the body without showing any effects of what’s happening to the background. Think every Glamour cover and Kim Kardashian’s champagne-on-the-butt image.

For an awe-inspiring time, try searching YouTube for Liquify tutorials, and you’ll come up with thousands of videos, from the amateur to professional, showing what’s possible. With Liquify, an amateur can create a completely new human from source material in five minutes. If that’s possible in five minutes, imagine what an expert like Cui, Dresser, or Gardiner can do with more time and skill.

Cui says that intensive Photoshop work can still be done with a complicated background if you use a freeze mask tool that isolates and protects certain parts of the image from the manipulation. Still, Cui says it’s important to look at the background and inspect any straight lines or right angles. If a palm tree is puckered and leaning in toward the model, you’ll know for sure that the image was altered on that horizontal plane.

Also, with a complicated background, a model may have originally been shot on a seamless background and dropped into the new background. What to look for if this happens? Shadows. Do the shadows cast seem normal and match the direction of the lighting on the model? Do they exist at all? If the model was placed in a completely new background, you really can’t trust anything in the image to be real.

“Anything you can think of as being disdainful to look at in public—cankles, varicose veins, knobby knees, anything that will catch your eye like that—you will never see in print,” Cui said. “Simply put, the companies advertising the products see those as a distraction from the product.”

A big distraction to those trying to sell bras and underwear are the little puckers of skin around elastic, which are always shaved off in Photoshop.

“We are 90 percent water,” Cui said. “Those indentations of the skin around the elastic are going to happen. But the art directors, the photographer, the client—they want all the attention to be on the product.”

Another culprit of distraction? Armpit rolls. The next time you see an image of a model with her arms at her sides, look closely at the armpit area. It’s often the first “problem area” to correct. Basically, if something does not fit in the context of smooth silhouette lines, they will be shaved. Dresser even remembers a time when a photographer made her smooth out the pointed elbows of all the models.

The moral of the story is that every image you see advertising a product—perhaps with the exception of ModCloth’s e-commerce site—has been retouched. Cui, Dresser, Gardiner, and other retouchers want you to know they’re not evil people with a plan to ruin your body image. The warped beauty standard we’ve developed has been a concerted effort between consumer and advertiser for over a century. But if consumers have the tools to recognize when something isn’t real, they’re far more likely to make informed decisions.

If you’re still not sure or doubtful of an image’s retouching, take a look at not-for-profit Beauty Redefined’s website and social media page, where thousands of female and male users discuss image manipulation and the tired beauty standard used to sell products. Beauty Redefined touts a three-step process to taking back beauty. The first step is recognizing the harmful images that steal our health and well-being. Here’s hoping we can better see the emperor without his clothes.

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction Jan. 8, 2015: An earlier version of this story misidentified Kat Gardiner, who is no longer a retoucher.

TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, is involved in the production and marketing of 'Merchants of Doubt'.