Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Helena Perminger, a freelance retoucher from Stockholm, Sweden. In this interview, we talked about several topics ranging from her experience as a student, to how to build a great team, to some common mistakes that retouchers make, and much more. Let's take a look!
QHi Helena, thanks for taking the time to talk with us today. Can you begin by telling us a bit about your background? Where are you from? How did you get your start as a retoucher?
My name is Helena and I am a 26-year-old retoucher living and working in Stockholm, Sweden. I work with photographers in many different fields, which has given me wide experience, and a lot of joy!
I have always expressed myself creatively through different channels. When I got my first camera, it was the perfect fit. I brought it everywhere; I always documented big events in pictures. The photos always brought back more than just color and contrast, sounds and smells were all connected in that rectangular shaped diary of my life.
I started using Photoshop when I was around 12 for photomontages and self-portraits. When it came to picking what direction to choose in school I decided for two; Photography and Graphic Communication, which for me mostly meant Adobe Photoshop and working in the dark room. It was perfect!
After a few years of working part time as photographer, taking a part time class in photography and traveling with my camera, I settled down and worked very hard to get into a Digital Imaging Editing School.
QYou mentioned that you went to a school that may be the first full-time professional program for Digital Imaging in the world. Can you tell us a bit more about the school? What did you study there? How has it helped you?
Yes, as far as I know, the 2-year full-time program for Digital Image Editing at Stockholm School of Photography may be the only digital image postproduction education in the world. The program consists of modern professional education focused on today’s workflow in close collaboration with the industry. We studied the ways of fine art-printing, color management, prepress and the art of retouching with some of the most highly renowned teachers in the business.
What I learned most was the importance of control in all steps in the digital post process to get the most out of every production. So many people are self-taught in the photography business and only know one way to get results. More and more people are coming to me who can deal with problems from more than one angle and therefore get the job done both smoother and better.
I also learned not to loose your creativity when turning your long-loved hobby into your profession. It has been very important for me to keep time and mind open for new inspirational projects.
QWhat are your favorite type of projects to work on, and why?
I wish to work with inspirational people with amazing ideas. It could be as basic as shooting a project on film or as big as a photographer’s life-long project. I strive to be a part of bringing creative people's amazing projects to life.
But if I were to choose, I would say projects with humans or animals, like fashion, lifestyle, and most of all portraits, are the ones that fascinate me the most. But as long as there is a burning soul in the project, I’m all in!
QWhat projects do you find to be the most challenging?
The most challenging, and at the same time thrilling, are those projects with quick late changes.
Communication is absolutely vital when working with people. The whole project’s outcome depends on a good working relationship. If there is good communication, the biggest of challenges can be overcome much more smoothly. In this business there always seem to be late changes and if you can't handle them professionally and keep your stress level low, a project can fall apart.
QYou said that you loved to work on fashion projects. Why do you like to work on fashion projects so much? Are there any fashion projects that you have worked on that you are especially proud of?
When fashion projects come my way, they often come with a great visionary idea. This puts a lot of creative pressure on the retoucher, especially when there are skin tones to take into account. Fashion pushes itself to break new ground, and to make something where you don't have just one solution. This has always intrigued me.
I prefer to work with living subjects as opposed to in animate objects. I have always gotten a great deal of satisfaction from retouching skin. The industry has changed a lot over the last few years. In the past, everyone wanted photos to look retouched. Now, if a retoucher has done a good job the picture should not look digitally enhanced at all.
This has created problems for the retouchers here in Sweden where retouching is seen as something bad and usually we don't even get our byline with a work that has been published. That makes it very hard to get recognition for your work, especially in the fashion business. But when more and more photographers can't handle the post process and come to us for help, everyone will hopefully start realizing how much we are needed.
QWhen you look at the work of people who are just getting started as a retoucher? What mistakes do you see them make the most? How would you advise them to correct those mistakes?
First of all, there is big gap between being creative with Photoshop and working as a retoucher. When I started playing around in Photoshop, I really went all the way. I over-used brushes to create "cool" effects like scratches and dirt and I can't say now I'm that proud of what I created. But all that creativity without boundaries pushed me forward to keep on going and learn more.
When it comes to building a career as a retoucher, there is so much more to know than just how to use different tools and effects in Photoshop. A retoucher needs to know the entire postproduction process to be able to deliver high-quality work. You also have to be able to appreciate the basic importance of how light falls; you need what I would call a visual eye. I see way too many people in the business that don’t know how to enhance an image for different media or just don’t know how to retouch skin without leaving it totally smudged.
Something else many people don't know about, is the importance of a light controlled workspace. While it is important for a retoucher to have a perfectly calibrated monitor, it is also important to control the light in and around your workspace so that none of the ambient light in your office doesn’t interfere with the colors being projected from your monitor.
The easiest advice I can give would be to get experience, take a drawing class and look over the basics of a proper workstation. But most important thing you can do is to discuss your work with others, the best way of going forward in a creative field is to be open to other people’s opinions, after all; those are the ones you'll be showing your work to in the end anyway.
All this asked, I still push my boundaries and play around on my free time!
QIn retouching, it can be important to work with a really good team of photographers, stylists, make up artists, etc. Can you give our readers some advice on how to build a great team?
That is one of the most interesting aspects of it all! I find that when working with someone new, it’s always best to communicate your ideas and thoughts early on. The faster you get to know each other, the faster you'll start creating amazing things.
I always try to get the opportunity to be there at the photo shoot, to be able to get all the information I need before I start my part of the process. I try to be as open and thorough as possible when getting the whole vision of the project, the best way for this is to talk to everyone involved. It’s the process of working towards same vision and goal that binds a team together, so I would say find people that fill the gaps in those areas where you lack strengths, and who share, challenge and take your visions further.
This would be my preferred way of collaborating, but it’s usually not the case. I often get called in when the photos have already been taken and I just communicate with the photographer. This usually makes things easier although I would prefer being a bigger part of the creative process from the beginning.
But when it comes to personal projects, which I do in close collaboration with, for example, a photographer, I usually do it because of a similar interest or vision that brings us together from the start. This is something I love and I’m always up for finding new inspirational projects!
I love my job and the great energy it gives me to work with amazing people and get the confidence of taking their work to the next level.
QAre you working on or have you worked on any exciting projects that you would like to share with our readers?
This summer I worked together with Max Modén, a great Swedish photographer, on two very special and beautiful projects.
One of the projects I am working on is a series of portraits taken of young boys in homage to great photographers like Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. The other one is of young girls where I was given a bit more creative freedom in the retouch. Both series are black and white and with high-end styling. I delicately worked with enhancing these already beautiful images, together with Max, to create to two great stories. These stories will be published in the magazine La Petite later this year.
QThanks so much for taking the time to talk with us today. Any last minute advice that you would like to share?
Thank you, this was a lot of fun! Advice I can give those who are looking to freelance as a retoucher; It is a harsh business where you need to work hard to get what you want. Being social and open to constructive criticism will get you far!