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Interview With Fashion and Entertainment Retoucher Nick Leadlay


I recently had some time to chat with Nick Leadlay, a fashion, entertainment and advertising retoucher based in Toronto, Ontario. Nick has worked with some big names in the photography industry, and has retouched some of the biggest stars in Hollywood including Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, and many more. In this interview, Leadlay and I talked about several topics including how he got his start as a celebrity retouch artist, and even a few workflow tips. Let's take a look!

QWhat drew you to retouching? Why didn't you become a photographer or graphic designer?

I actually do come from both a photography and design background as well as music. So I suppose all those things drew me to retouching in some way. I have been a musician my whole life including playing/singing in full time touring bands throughout 2001-2008. At the same time as that in the earlier years, I was doing web design and print media. Most of my work was actually designing and building Flash sites, remember when Flash was cool? Haha. So that is sort of when I got into Photoshop on a heavier level.

By 2005, I had quit design to focus on my band and touring and I didn't really get back into it until 2008, when my band broke up. At that time I was sort of lost with no band and no real job prospects so I decided to leave music and get into the highly lucrative field of photography! Haha. You can imagine how happy my parents were.

I had always been interested in photography, but I didn't have the funds or time to get into it, as I was a broke musician and on the road all the time. So now the band was done, I dove in to it. I always loved computers and Photoshop, so I just got obsessed with it, and learning everything I could.

That was a few years ago and a lot of random things have happened since to get me where I am today. But really, what it came down to, is that I noticed early in fashion photography that retouching was a big part of the final image. So I thought I better learn how to do that so my images could improve. I never thought I would be paid by other people to retouch. That just sort of happened.

Photography by Andrew Soule.

QIt seems like you have always had some sort of creative hobby. When you were in a band, Photoshop seemed to be your hobby. Now that retouching is your profession, music seems to be your hobby. Is that an accurate assessment? How important do you think it is for artists to have creative hobbies that aren't related to their profession?

Yes, for sure that is pretty accurate. Once my band became more full-time, the Photoshop hobby pretty much fell off and it was all music. There really wasn't time for much else. But once the band ended, I jumped into photography and Photoshop full force. Then, over time those two have become the full time job and music has drastically fallen off. So I would say it's definitely nice to have hobbies outside of your main profession, but I don't think it's a requirement of course.

Arnold Schwarzenegger. Photography by Dustin Snipes.

QCelebrity retouching is a pretty niche industry, how did that come about?

My celebrity retouches happened quite organically really. In the sense I had been working with a client for a while and one day he sent me a celebrity photo and asked me to retouch it. I did, and then he ended up shooting quite a few more celebrities, which I also retouched.

Once other photographers saw that I could do that sort of retouching, they approached me to retouch similar projects they were involved in. So through a combination of referrals from my clients to other photographers, and people just seeing my portfolio, I got more celebrity shots. Kind of a "positive snowball" effect, as I like to call it.

Robert De Niro. Photography and color grading by Joey L.

QIt seems like getting that first celebrity client was really important to your career. Once that happened, everything else seemed to take shape. How important do you think it is for budding retouchers to surround themselves with the right people?

Yes, my first celebrity shot certainly took my career in a different direction. Up to that point, I had been almost exclusively working within the fashion industry, both editorial and commercial jobs of course. Then once I had those first few celebrity shots in my portfolio I started getting contacted by more people naturally. But I wouldn't say it was a night and day thing where business just blew up overnight. It has been a steady buildup just like my career had been up to that point. But yes I would agree it was important in terms of a noticeable change in direction.

I still do a lot of fashion work, but I seem to be doing more celebrity and entertainment jobs than fashion now, which is something I am perfectly ok with. I love working on fashion jobs too, but I've always been a big movie guy so working on entertainment images is kind of a dream job for me.

I think like anything in life surrounding yourself with the right people and especially positive people that encourage you and have similar goals is essential. I have been fortunate to have some very awesome people in my career that have helped me out with advice and offered help whenever I needed it. I continue to meet similar people and when I do I make sure to keep them close.

Jennifer Lawrence. Photography and color grading by Joey L.

QAny tools you can't live without?

I guess I can't live without my whole setup really. It is quite simple, actually. I have a 17" Macbook Pro that I have customized heavily for both retouching and on-set digital technician work. I have a 24" inch wide gamut monitor, a Wacom Intuos 4 Medium (I don't like the 5), an Apple bluetooth keyboard and mouse and that's about it.

I also have an iPad 3 that I use to watch Netflix and hockey while I retouch (so the laptop processor isn't being hogged trying to stream video). Other than that I have an iPhone 5 for running my day to day life/business as well as an unlocked 4s for world travel. I also have an iDisplay Pro for calibration and Photoshop CC and Capture One Pro 7 in terms of software.

George Clooney. Photography by Sam Hurd.

QDo you find that the Intuos 4 Medium is large enough to do your work? Have you thought about upgrading to a Cintiq?

I think the medium is the perfect size because it provides enough real estate while still fitting into a backpack for travel/remote purposes. If you look at my tablet it has a big round shinny spot right in the middle from excessive use so I clearly only use a little portion of it anyway.

I have tried the Cintiq 24 HD numerous times as one of my clients uses one. I cannot get into it at all. First and foremost the quality of the LCD is not very good, in my opinion. Everything looks slightly blurry, especially the text on menus, to me. Secondly, I don't like having my hand and arm blocking parts of the image. I like to be able to see everything, all the time, as it's essential for so many tasks in retouching.

Granted, I can lift my hand and arm off the screen, but I don't want to be doing that 1,000 times per image. It becomes a huge black hole of wasted time. If you think of all those seconds added up over the course of say a 40 image job it becomes very significant. I work very quickly now in terms of how my cursor races all over the screen. So anything disrupting that flow instantly frustrates me. I am very comfortable in my setup now so I'm inclined to leave it alone.

Denzel Washington. Photography by Sam Hurd.

QCan you tell me about any awesome workflow techniques that you use?

Honestly, my workflow has become so simple now that it would bore most people. Most of my portraits and fashion work contains only a few layers. Usually an empty layer for healing/cloning, a dodge/burn layer and then a curves layer or two for color correction and luminosity tweaks. I'd say 80% of the retouch takes place in the dodge/burn layer.

I pretty much only clone things that I can't dodge or burn, or would take way too long to do, like pimples and hair fly aways. I also do some color correction after the dodge and burn to fix the saturation shifts caused by dodging and burning. I usually do this by creating a blank layer and setting it's blend mode to "Color" and then setting its opacity quite low. Then, I sample a skin tone I want to match and paint that into the problem areas with a soft brush.

Obviously, there are other images, which involve a ton of compositing, and layer masks, and clipping masks, and hundreds of techniques for making selections, but these are quite rare. It all depends on the job of course. A clothing lookbook will involve a lot of tricks for removing wrinkles/creases and morie from the garments, where as a celebrity head shot or a beauty image for a fashion magazine will not. The latter would be just the dodge/burn "simple setup" more often than not.

Tom Hanks. Photography by Miller Mobely.

QCan you tell me anything particularly interesting about your background? Any interesting stories?

I guess I sort of ruined this question by telling you about my musical background in the first question. But I guess people find that aspect of my life interesting as it kind of goes against the usual path people take after high school of going to university.

Other than that, I was actually born and raised until the age of 7 in England. Grew up beyond that in Ottawa, Canada and then at 21 moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, then back to Ottawa for a few years. Then (I moved) to Toronto two years ago. Currently, I'm working towards moving to NYC/LA in the next year. So I guess I'm a bit of a gypsy in that sense.

Also, many people don't even know I do photography at all. It's not something I talk about on my retouching site for branding reasons. Yet, I think it has helped me with retouching tremendously. Especially in terms of knowing how light works and being able to recreate things with the light falling naturally in images. I also do a lot of digital technician work for some established fashion shooters and major fashion publications, as well as digitech/assisting work for commercial and entertainment photographers that come up to Canada to shoot.

I also have lots more secrets I can't tell you about yet though. By the way you can check out my photography if you are into that sort of thing.

Alec Baldwin. Photography by Sam Hurd.

QAs a celebrity and fashion retoucher, how important do you think it is to be located in and around the NYC and LA areas?

Well, as I type this, I am sitting on a patio in Los Angeles, but that is entirely a fluke as I am on vacation for a few weeks. I know numerous retouchers who are not located in major markets and they do very well. That being said, I think it is a huge advantage if you can be in a major market as you can meet with so many more photographers and agencies. Nothing beats a real face-to-face meeting when it comes to networking. Also, if you go the route I did by building you network through assisting photographers then being in a large market is obviously going to aid your career a great deal.

Mariska Hargitay. Photography by Sam Hurd.

QShould a retoucher also have an interest in photography? How will that experience help them create better imagery?

Again, I know quite a few very successful retouchers who have no interest in taking photos themselves at all. Most of them come from a painting or graphic arts background and then get into retouching. That being said, I think having some knowledge of photography, and especially lighting, is a massive asset to possess as a retoucher.

I rely on my lighting and photography knowledge constantly. Right now, I'm working on a portrait, which is a composite that was shot at a very wide aperture on a medium format camera so the depth of field is very shallow. So knowing how lenses behave is something I am relying on heavily now.

I'm trying to cut out this gentleman and realistically comp him into a background. For example, I can't just cut out all his hair perfectly and have it all with razor sharp edges when in the original photo. It's only the front portion of his head that is in sharp focus. I have to make the focus fall off naturally to match the image.

I can't comp in a tack sharp background because that would scream fake right? Then beyond that knowing lighting is essential for making sure the light matches on the subject and the background. I would say the lighting knowledge is even more important than the camera and lens information. Since, as a retoucher we are constantly sculpting features of the face you have to know how the light would be "in real life" so that the changes you make look realistic and blend in undetected. Obviously, dodging and burning is 100% about manipulating light. So if you plan to do most of the heavy lifting in your retouch using dodge and burn, like I do, then knowing light is pretty important as you can imagine.

Jessica Chastain. Photography and color grading by Joey L.

QDo you mind talking a bit about your digital technician and assisting work? What does that involve? What skills should some one learn if they want to do this, as well?

Coming from a photography background and working as an assistant for a few years I managed to not only build my network, but also my knowledge of gear and lighting setups of course. So I am able to be on-set as a 1st or 2nd assistant and know exactly what needs to be done.

After about a year of assisting, I got into digital technician work as the main production agency I work for in Toronto caught wind of my retouching abilities. They asked if I "knew a lot about computers", which is a pretty hilarious thing to ask me in hindsight.

So I said yeah and we talked about my retouching too. In fact that was a major turning point for my career too since, as a result of that conversation I started getting a lot of retouching work from them as well as digital tech work. They have been very good to me and I am forever indebted to them. As luck would have it one of their newly signed photographers (the amazing Andrew Soule, an absolute lighting master) had just moved back to Toronto after shooting fashion in Milan for 16 years and he needed a team for shoots.

So I started digital teching and retouching for Andrew and I have been with him since. Along with my good buddy Luis Mora, we get to travel and shoot awesome stories for major fashion magazines in Canada. It's an absolute dream job and at this point is pretty much the only assisting/tech work I do.

Retouching is so busy that I just don't have time to assist much else. I do also get to tech some of my clients shoots when they come up to Canada though. For example, I teched a Brad Pitt shoot for Miller Mobley for "The Hollywood Reporter" this past summer. So that was cool. Brad Pitt...super nice guy. Also I tech for Joey L. sometimes too when he comes up to Canada to shoot.

As far as skills, it's all about knowing the Capture One software for a tethered workflow. Also, being extremely organized is an essential skill. Beyond that, the usual qualities you need to be on-set like the ability to get along with people and work well in a team. Bonus skills include having assisting abilities too so you can be a nice tech and help out with the setup and tear downs.

Obviously, having an advanced knowledge of cameras and lenses and really anything photography related helps a great deal. I'm a huge tech nerd and that obviously helps. If you have retouching skills then you can really help out on set as you can let the photographer know things during the course of the shoot that might help or hurt the post production later.

My favorite jobs are the ones where I get to tech and retouch them. That way I can fix things on set right away that I know are going to be an issue later for me in post. Moving a stray hair or a garment clip on set might take 10 seconds versus 20 minutes in Photoshop later, for example. I also tend to be the guy cracking lame jokes on set to keep the vibe light and enjoyable. So having a fun personality is always a plus. At least I think it is. Maybe my co-workers hate me.

Photography by Andrew Soule.

QI am sure that our readers would love to know more about your workflow. You mentioned that you use a dodge and burn workflow to smooth our imperfections on the skin. Can you tell us a bit more about the process?

There are a few different ways you can setup your PSD in order to dodge and burn. The method I prefer to use is a 50% gray layer set to the "soft light" blending mode. Essentially the "soft light" blending mode renders the gray transparent so once setup your image looks no different.

One of the many uses for dodging and burning is to smooth out transitions and imperfections in skin. By selectively lightening (dodging) and darkening (burning) areas that are too bright or too dark you can create a smooth transition while retaining 100% of the skin's texture. The reason the texture is preserved is that you aren't moving pixels like you would when healing/cloning. You are simply changing the pixel's luminosity.

To do this, we use a paint brush with a soft edge and white or black paint. Anything we paint white will become lighter and anything we paint black will become darker. I recommend starting with a low opacity on your brush of 5% or less. As you become more comfortable you can increase the opacity to speed up your results.

The most important part of dodging and burning is learning what needs to be dodged versus burned or not touched at all. This isn't something that can be taught simply, and certainly not in this brief write up. I will say it's important to start observing how the light falls on people's faces. Notice how the cheek bones are lighter on top and darker below (usually if lit from above) and how the eye sockets catch light. If you were to lighten the bottom side of the cheekbone and darken the top side you would no longer have any definition and it would simply look flat. Obviously not a good look. Since light is what provides the form of an object, you need to be very careful how you shape the light using these techniques.

Setting custom brush presets help to save time.

Example of Layers panel.

Setting up actions can speed up the process.

This is what your dodge and burn layer will look like after it is finished.

Before and after the dodge and burn process. Photography by Mackenzie Duncan.

Nick Leadlay in the Web

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