Retouching how will pay a bill

​Of course, the problem that most photographers have isn’t setting up a way to offer their retouching services, it is explaining to the client what is included in the service. If you sell your 8×10-inch prints for SI00 and vaguely tell the client that the images are completely enhanced, what do you do when the client looks at the final image and tells you they appear too fat in the photograph and you need to fix it? How many rolls and chins can you stretch and cover for $100 and still make a decent profit?

I have people come into the studio every day who think we can fix anything with the click of a mouse. They don’t understand that although almost any correction can be done, many corrections simply take too long to be cost effective. Communication is the key here. You have to inform your client, in writing, about what you do include and what you don’t include in your print price. If you charge a retouching fee, you have to outline very carefully what types of retouching procedures this covers and give examples of work that isn’t included.

In our studio, we work with high-school seniors. Seniors have traditionally been offered a lower price per 8x 10-inch print due to the fact that they purchase a package. I am not the person who came up with the idea, I just have to live with it and find a way to make the best profit I can. Because of this, we include a “pose-change charge” or “image fee.” This covers basic cleanup of the face eliminating acne, softening lines and wrinkles, and removing the darkness under the eyes. The fee is the same whether the person has one zit, no zits, or a face as red as a beet from acne scars and the client does not have the option to eliminate the fee if they don’t want retouching. Anytime you impose a pose-change charge, as is common in most senior-portrait studios, you will have frugal parents who don’t want to pay it. You will get comments like, “She looks good enough!” or “They don’t need retouching on that pose!” or “These are just for her friends!” To avoid this confrontation, we call this charge an image fee and explain that it covers the color correction, testing, and retouching of each image. This is a legitimate statement, because often the color correction and testing do take longer than the actual retouching and with senior packages, unlike normal portraiture, the first print isn’t priced significantly higher in order to cover these costs.


In my experience, most problems that arise between a business owner and a client are nothing more than a lack of communication. I believe in over-communication with my clients. When they call to make their appointment, they are sent a brochure and consultation CD, which explains what to bring in and how to plan for their session. It also discusses what retouching is, what is retouched, and what isn’t. It gives examples of bad choices, like wearing glasses that have glass in them, and informs them of how much the retouching for this type of mistake can cost. Suggestions are also given for avoiding common problems like wrinkled clothing, messy hair, white socks with dark pants, ugly toenail polish, etc. The whole idea here is to make the client aware of what their responsibilities are. If you don’t inform your clients as to what to do and not to do, you deserve to be sitting in front of your computer every night retouching problems that could easily have been avoided. Because this is such an important issue, we display posters in each sales area showing what normal retouching covers and additional corrections that can be done and billed to the client. To fill in the time after the session and before the image presentation, we also have a video set up. This explains the image-selection process, emphasizing that it will be easy and fun. It also explains retouching, noting that the images they are about to see are not yet retouched, describing what normal retouching is, what image fees are, and showing the available special effects options, like vignettes and black & white. It ends by explaining that a trained assistant will guide the client through all these options.

In taking all of these steps to inform our clients, we have ready reduced the conflicts that can arise from retouching. Most of the time clients will ask, “How much will it be to whiten her teeth?” or “How much will it be to remove that hair?” Digital correction is no different than any other service you offer in your studio. You have to establish prices that make it profitable, explain to the client how much you charge, and then monitor the actual time you take doing it to avoid reducing your profit.


By the time our clients see their first image they have been well educated. This is why our clients spend as much as they do and why, when a pose needs correction, they don’t argue about who’s paying for it. If digital retouching is requested, we show examples of similar corrections made for other clients (to give the client a realistic expectation). A complete explanation of the process is given and a total time and fee for the correction is written on the slip before the client signs it. If the correction is complex, we set up a time for the client to come in and view a test print to ensure they are happy with the correction before we print out the order and complete the correction on all the poses they have ordered. I can’t stress enough the importance of educating your client about the portrait-buying process. I talk with so many photographers who do nothing but complain about their “ridiculous clients.” Yet, when I ask what they did to educate their client about whatever issue created the problem, there is always a long pause or a completely dismissive comment. While this may be your thirty-thousandth session, often it is your client’s first, so teach them how to have a successful experience with your studio.


Because I think like a businessperson, I do everything I can to use Photoshop as little as possible. Some photographers question my philosophy about Photoshop and selling after the sale but as I was writing this section I went onto my Facebook account (the one I have for photographers, not clients). It was about 8:45PM here in California, but three photographers were posting that they had just finished editing down the images from the day’s sessions and these photographers were all from time zones one to two hours later than mine!

It made me think about thought how crazy this was. I had finished my last session at 4:00PM (almost five hours earlier) and walked out of my studio without a care in the world. My staff finished the last order at 6:00PM. Both my staff and I were totally off work free to enjoy our families and lives and the money from the day’s sessions was ready to go into the bank the following morning. These night-owls, on the other hand, were using the too-popular approach of over-shooting, editing down, creating a slide presentation, viewing a week later (if the client shows up), trying to sell prints (to client who has just seen a moving slideshow and now wants to buy that presentation), finally selling those prints, and then promising to fix everything in Photoshop. It’s no wonder so many photographers are completely stressed out!

There is no single right way to run a business, but there is a single way to evaluate your success: look at how much of your time it took to create a certain amount of profit. (And, yes, you must count the time you work at home. That is the most expensive time of all because family therapy and divorce attorneys don’t come cheap!) There are photographers who operate highly profitable businesses with average orders of $400. Hour for hour, these businesses out-earn studios with much higher per-session averages because they don’t invest countless hours of time making that $400 sale. This is why you’ll often hear photographers talking about session averages it makes them look successful! They don’t like to talk about their hourly averages, because that makes them look unsuccessful and not very smart.

It’s a simply process: you account for every second you spend on clients’ sessions and everything you have to do before and after the session. You total your time then you divide the total sale by the total hours. Doing this will quickly put the use of Photoshop into perspective. Photoshop is a great tool that should only be used when it is absolutely necessary and never by you, the photographer, on a client’s images. That’s a job you can hire someone to do. Always remember the golden rule: We are photographers. We make money with a camera. We consume time and lower our billable sales per hour on a computer.

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