Photoshop’s Liquify Tool is a magic wand for pixels, tackling tasks from shedding pounds to adjusting flyaway hair. But that same Liquify Tool is also a can opener for the metaphorical tin of worms — is it wrong to give your subject a Photoshop diet? What about removing that double chin? The new Face Aware feature even means that tool can easily make the eyes larger or turn a frown into a smile.
Photoshop’s Liquify Tool, however is often misunderstood. The Liquify Filter isn’t solely a tool for conforming a person to society’s definition of beauty — it can fix flyaway hair, correct baggy or wrinkled clothing or occasionally correct minor posing errors. Before you write-off one of Photoshop’s most powerful tools, ask yourself these questions to see if it’s okay to use the Photoshop Liquify Tool on your clients.
What are you adjusting with the Liquify Tool?
The Liquify Tool isn’t solely a tool for shedding weight. The tool allows photographers to adjust pixels by making them larger or smaller or spreading them out to one side or another — or even turning them into a swirl, though the twirl tool has fewer real world uses. The ethics of the Liquify Tool start with exactly what you are liquifying.
The Liquify Tool is an excellent option for fixing a bulge or wrinkle in clothing. Using the brush, pulling an awkward bump on a jacket back in is simple and eliminates a distraction without affecting the subject’s body shape — just their clothing. If the wind happened to pick up and billow out a skirt, the tool allows photographers to put the clothing back in place. That same pixel-level control can also fix flyaway hair.
Occasionally, using the different brushes also affects the surrounding pixels, but the Freeze Mask also allows photographers to make those adjustments without affecting body shape at all. If you are pulling in stray hair, for example, painting a Freeze Mask over the face and neck will ensure you’re not inadvertently thinning the face.
Adjusting hair and garments is one thing, but once you move to liquifying body shape, that’s when you begin to get into a gray area. Are you fixing something temporary, like a squint or a slouch, or altering body shape? Fixing a squint from shooting in the sun is a bit different than using the Face Aware Liquify to enlarge the eyes simply because you think it looks better that way.
Occasionally, slight posing errors can be fixed with the Liquify Tool — even a thin bride in a strapless dress will have a bit of side bulge at the top of her dress if her shoulders are slouched. If you didn’t notice it as you were posing — or perhaps you were shooting a candid moment — some photographers will make that adjustment, while others stray away from any adjustment to body shape.
If you have that brush shaped poised over body shape and not clothing or hair, you need to ask yourself a few more questions before you grab that Pucker Brush.
What genre are you shooting?
Shooting a portrait is vastly different from shooting the cover of a fashion magazine. Different genres have different goals — and different expectations. The goal of a portrait is to capture a person’s essence and often, to make them feel beautiful. If a portrait client notices you put them on a virtual diet, do you really think they will look at that image and feel beautiful — or like themselves, for that matter?
Fashion and commercial work tends to be more accepting of making more drastic adjustments with the Liquify Tool — but this isn’t the case 100 percent of the time and vastly varies based on the brand, publication and audience. Some companies that reach out to teenage girls, arguably one of the groups impacted most by radical body alterations in Photoshop, have stopped retouching their models, including Aerie and even Seventeen Magazine.
Who are you photographing?
The use of the tool may also vary based on who you are photographing. If you are shooting headshots for a model, she may expect you to make the same adjustments the fashion magazines she’s hoping to impress would make.
In almost every case, however, the Liquify Tool shouldn’t be used to make drastic body alterations on babies, children or teenagers. For the older two groups, the adjustment could have a negative effect on body image. And babies? Parents are going to want to remember those cute little fat rolls.
What’s your photographic style?
Ultimately, every photographer needs to determine if using the Liquify Tool fits their overall style — a photographer that specializes in fashion-inspired portraits will have a different approach to retouching than a lifestyle photographer. But that isn’t a decision to make on a case-by-case basis. If a potential client asks you what retouching you use, you should have an answer ready.
As a portrait photographer with a photojournalism background, my approach to retouching is simple — I correct things that are temporary (like acne and wrinkled clothing) or exaggerated by the camera (like slightly whitening teeth after applying a warming preset). Beauty is subjective — who am I to decide whether slim or curvy hips are more beautiful than the other? If my client looks at their final photo and feels both beautiful and themselves, then I’ve done my job.
Photoshop’s Liquify Tools allows pixels to be pulled, bulged, pinched and warped. Ignoring it completely means missing out on simple fixes for wrinkled clothing and flyaway hair, while using it excessively runs the risk of offending clients and objectifying a certain standard of beauty. The answer on whether or not to use the Liquify Tool on clients will vary for every photographer based on genre, client and style — but it’s definitely a question that needs to be answered.
What’s your approach to retouching people — and why?