Photography, Retouching, and Life. 

The free-writing platform of Pratik Naik. A mix of curated content and personal writings. 

Interview With Pro Commercial Retoucher Sef McCullough

Interview With Pro Commercial Retoucher Sef McCullough

I have huge respect for Sef McCullough. Not only because of his work, but his personality. A funny story arose a couple of months ago on how we met in the first place. When I received an e-mail from Sef, he had contacted me because he already had a blog called and coincidentally, he wrote about the world of retouching as well! 

I panicked because I knew I was stupid to not have done appropriate research. It was my mistake, I thought I would have known if it had existed and it was a huge oversight. I was sad because I spent so long trying to come up with a name and even longer making a site that I could feel comfortable with writing on. I was about ready to just change my name but Sef being the gentleman he is, was very polite about it. Even though he had every reason to have been very upset, he wasn't. So being in the situation, he was totally cool with both of us co-existing since we're different identities and writing about different things. Instead, we used that as a positive since we can both be connected and share both of our worlds! Him, being more on the commercial end, and myself being more on the editorial side of things. 

So in a sense, we turned the situation into a positive. In true form, I had to interview Sef about his work that I feel like everyone could learn a lot about. It's a mysterious world and we're both in it to share what we love.  

Before jumping into it, you can check out Sef on Behance and Twitter!

1) Based on your work, you seem to work on an incredible array of clients! But it didn't start that way, what were your humble beginnings like in the world of retouching to get you to where you are today?

Yeah, I got hired as a lucky, under-qualified, somewhat artistically talented kid at a ‘multimedia’ company. There I learned Photoshop (2.0 I think?) and a variety of other tools for web production. I was animating comics in a really cool cutting edge vector art tool called FutureSplash (look that one up, dunno why they ever changed that name 😃 ) I worked in newsprint, web design, and graphic design while training as a fine art painter at California College of Art and later Pacific Northwest College of Art, doing retouching on the side at photo studios. When I graduated I got my first big break as a retoucher at the legendary ad agency Wieden+Kennedy. That opened the door to working with big brands like Nike and Coke and learning from the world class retouchers there.

Now I’m represented by Happy Finish who’s a world class creative production studio itself with some of the top global talent in retouching. I’m very lucky to be part of that, we get to work on some very cool stuff.

2) It's rare every retoucher does everything well. Were you more into doing composite work or beauty/fashion related work?

It was geographical. Starting in the SF Bay Area and going north from there, there’s so much tech, sports, and just e-commerce in general. The sheer amount of image work in that commercial sphere is huge. I sort of fell into doing more and more heavy compositing. 

I haven’t pursued work in fashion, but in the last couple of years I’ve been engaging with the community socially and paying attention to it from a technical standpoint. I’m really impressed by the number of people online who are trying to learn and break into fashion retouching, it’s crazy. There’s no community out there in commercial retouching with as many numbers, as much engagement and, well, fervor. The contrast is stark.

Technically I find that all the tools, workflows, and techniques that exist popularly in fashion fall within commercial as well. We use those methods, they are just put to slightly different ends. A lot of commercial sports retouching involves beauty work that is very much aligned with what’s done in Fashion, but there's definitely a different intentionality with skin - it's usually dialed back a bit.

The difference though is that in commercial retouching the images are often completely deconstructed, even the ones that appear as if they were never taken apart. I think coming from that tradition of heavy compositing we have a tendency to isolate every element, and if there’s more than a really general grade and cleanup, we’ll just start breaking it down immediately.

I get inspired by all the variety of grading in fashion.

3) If you had to sum up a set of skills needed to be a succesful retoucher outside of Photoshop knowledge, what would they be?

A background in painting or illustration would be best. Everything in retouching points to us being most like painters, more than anything else. We are much less like photographers than we are painters once we’re in post.

Anatomy - One of the biggest parts of our jobs when dealing with photographs of people is manipulating anatomy. To do that effectively requires understanding. Figure drawing is the best way to develop an authentic understanding of anatomy. Drawing is also the thinking process of all the arts.

Color - Color is the most evocative component in an image. Even the absence of color stands before form. So as Retouchers, to be most effective, we need to be in complete control of color in an image. We have to know color theory. Actually I should say applied color theory (nod to Dan Margulis) because knowing the theory itself (see Albers, etc) is neat, but understanding how to apply it is our priority, and painters have been working that shit out for millennia. So I look to painters there too.

Here’s my most recommended book Color Choices.

4) contains a lot of great information for people to educate themselves! What inspires you to keep sharing? What do you hope people walk away with? is going to continue to be more of a space for long form writing on the strategy, methodology and experience of Commercial Retouching instead of straight techniques and tutorials. Expect it to evolve in that direction, which I think is unique and gives enthusiasts value that they can't get elsewhere.

But I want to share technique too. That is going to be through comprehensive online courses and workshops. I want to teach in a way that would have been valuable to me when I was first starting out, because that's part of my main motivation - filling that gap in resources for the serious pursuit of commercial retouching. And I feel strongly that the current landscape of individual, unorganized tutorials is too inefficient for real working people. I mean, if you need to light type on fire, then go google it up. But if you need to learn how to do an entire 8 hour hero retouch on, say, an athletic shoe from creative brief to delivery of final files, well, forget it. Currently you have to get a job doing that to learn how to do that.

In addition to that, my Twitter feed has become my platform for sharing little ephemeral (but sometimes really powerful) tips about working. When I solve something esoteric, I just jot down what I did, and hopefully it helps somebody when they run into it. I think it's a great medium for that.

So in summary, I want people to walk away with an understanding about the broader concepts in Commercial Retouching on the one hand, the tools to learn comprehensive end-to-end workflows if they want to join the field or improve their skills and services, and easy access to my workday brain as a stream of consciousness.

5) In your opinion, is good retouching something that anyone can learn, or do you just have to have "it"?

Anyone can learn.

I wanted to give that answer a little breathing room before I start caveating.

Anyone can learn the fundamentals of retouching if they are a) motivated to b) have a basic foundation in art or photography and Photoshop, and c) have access to the right training. Right now it might seem impossible from the point of view of a beginner, because where to begin and what to learn is completely uncharted, which I’d like to help change. There are millions of YouTube videos out there that show marginally useful techniques that real retouchers don’t really use. The books on commercial retouching don’t teach the modern techniques and workflows that real retouchers use. They just don’t. I don’t think Tiered Clipping/Masking is actually covered in any book on the market. And that’s like one of the most fundamental steps in commercial retouching. And please, somebody tell me if I’m wrong about that - I’d love to be 😃

There is a lot of mythology out there about Retouching, a lot of idolatry and perpetuation of the wizard myth. I want to get the word out that this is bullshit.

6) Within a span of 10 years, do you have any future goals in your professional world as well the education world? 

Yeah I’d like to make High End Commercial Retouching more accessible, help people - especially young people - enter the field because there is tremendous demand and opportunity for good artists. It took me a long time to learn what I know and I feel like that learning curve can be shortened dramatically in the interest of getting people jobs and elevating the craft.

I'd like to contribute to everyone making better art.

I’d like to keep making better art. Always making better pictures by continually pulling from this massive history of visual research and development that’s come before us.

7) Random: You've been given a microphone and everyone's attention from around the world, with only enough time to say one sentence, what would that line be? 

Shit. Uh. Check. Check. Mic check. One two. This a loud ass mic 😃

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