Fashion Photography: What Is and Isn’t Real


I think most people these days are aware that the women on magazine covers do not represent the average woman. Models are chosen because they have unusually svelte physiques, and of course before any photographer is allowed near them, there are scores of hairstylists, makeup artists, and wardrobe specialists who get them looking their absolute best. Add in a professional studio, expensive lighting, and wind machines, and you have everything you need to make an already attractive model look nearly perfect.

But it doesn’t stop there, not by a long shot. Taking the pictures is just the first part of preparing images for glossy magazines. Fashion and celebrity photos are subject to all manner of airbrushing and retouching, and in recent years that software has become so sophisticated that literally any alterations can be made. A size 8 woman can be edited down to a size 2. An A cup can be plumped up to a C cup. Grey eyes can be transformed into glittering green jewels, while moles, blemishes, and facial lines are digitally buffed out.

As a part-time photo editor myself, experience has taught me this: if you think something might have been digitally altered, you’re probably right, and it’s likely there are ten more alterations you didn’t notice. If you have a look through any magazine on your coffee table, I’d be willing to bet that there’s not a photo in there that hasn’t been digitally edited to some extent. Even things like landscapes and plates of food have enhancements, color filters, and lighting effects added after the photo is taken.

Here are some basic things that commercial clients commonly ask for when I am commissioned to edit a photo of a female model:

  • Increase her bust one or two cup sizes
  • Decrease her waist by several inches (and the model may already have a 22-inch waist naturally)
  • Slim down her thighs, hips, and upper arms (sometimes by a factor of 20% or more)
  • Remove all moles, freckles, wrinkles, laugh lines, blemishes, scars, and birthmarks (some touched-up lines may be added back in later for texture)
  • Make lips and eyes larger; make chin and nose smaller
  • Change her eye color to emerald, sapphire, or topaz, remove any blood vessels from the whites of the eyes
  • Straighten and whiten her teeth

We haven’t even gotten to the airbrushing yet, making every inch of her skin look flawlessly smooth and glowing. Those are just the basics, things that I get asked to do on nearly every photo of a woman that crosses my editing table. I’m sure any other commercial photo editor can tell you a similar tale. Think about that: every single photo you ever see in a magazine is edited in some way, large or small. Even a woman like Kate Winslet, who has been very vocal about her dislike of digital editing, is edited. Magazines still “clean up” her face and enhance her hair and features, even when they are pressured not to alter the size or proportions of her body. In other words, they get away with as much as they can.

Although the fashion industry is allegedly trying to make changes that would mean less photo retouching and more reality, the truth is that they retouch because it’s what we want. How do they know that? Because we keep buying magazines, and apparently, the “better” the model on the front looks, the more we buy. Since it doesn’t look like digital editing is going to go away any time soon, it’s up to you to get your head straight about the facts. Bottom line, whatever photo you’re curious about, it is probably edited. No one really looks like that. Some of the ridiculous proportions the women in magazines have, if they had those bodies in real life it would be physically impossible for them to stand upright.

Magazine photos of women are not about beauty, they are about fantasy. You are not admiring the looks of a woman, you are admiring the talent of a skilled photo editor. As long as you keep that in mind, you’ll start to appreciate photos of women in magazines in the same way that you might appreciate a photo of a horse that has been transformed into a unicorn. It’s a nice piece of editing work, and that’s all it is. It has nothing to do with reality. Drill that message into your head, and pass it on to your daughters, especially the younger ones who are still forming their ideas about what they want to be and whom they want to emulate.

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