Interview With Famed Retoucher Nick Leadlay
Nick Leadlay is a retoucher who has been an integral part of my life, as a friend and a colleague. Many years ago, we met online and I realized soon enough that he was very similar to me in terms of his work ethic, speed of communication, quality of work, and just someone who knows how to joke around!
I was on a big job with Joey L and I needed help on finishing the job for the deadline. I called on Nick's help at the time and he really came through. From then, we've stayed friends and have stayed connected. Accordingly, I decided to interview him and about his take on working as a retoucher, being on set, as a photographer, and the future of retouching! Yup, he's a multi-talented dude.
You've been retouching for a long time, just like myself! Do you have a preference on what genre of work you take, and how did you find what you love most?
I find my tastes have shifted a little over time but my core interests have remained the same. I think I fell in love with retouching by working on beauty images in the fashion industry. So while I still do love that kind of work, I find that I have slowed down on fashion slightly and instead seem to be working more on entertainment and advertising jobs. A lot of the entertainment portraits are beauty cropped in nature so it’s not that different than working on beauty images. The main difference is you simply don’t push it as far.
I also do a fair amount of advertising work, which I enjoy because it’s often more technical and challenging. Fashion and entertainment work is generally pretty straight forward in nature. It’s more often or not just skin and hair cleanup. By contrast, a lot of the advertising work requires more creative problem solving and using a different set of skills to complete. Usually a fair amount of compositing and sneaky stuff like that.
Aside from retouching, I know you retouch on set as well. What is that process like? I imagine the deadlines must be crazy!
Yeah haha, It can get pretty insane, but at the same time it’s very rewarding. Sometimes these client briefs come in and you almost have to wonder if it’s even possible. But somehow we always seem to make it work. I once did a job with Joey for Canon where we shot six setups in two days all on location around Toronto. Then I was retouching the images as soon as he finished shooting each setup. So I was about a half day behind the shoot in terms of timing. eg: I would be retouching setup #1 as Joey was shooting setup #2, and retouching setup #2 as he was shooting setup #3 and so on. As a result, by the end of the shoot I only had the 6th setup to retouch, which I did later that night. Client walked in the morning with six completely retouched images and they were up on billboards all across Canada in less than a week. That was one of those jobs where I checked every image 15 times to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Which in it’s self is hard to do when you have barely slept in 3 days Haha.
I have also done a fair amount of on set compositing for massive group shots. The idea behind this is the photographer can shoot smaller groups of talent and combine them in post. So on set I will be rough comping them together to make sure the final image will work and no one is overlapping each other etc. It’s also really hard to shoot a 20 person group shot in one frame and get everyone to not blink or make funny faces. That being said, I’ve been on a number of shoots where we did just shoot everyone in one frame too, so it all depends on timing and client budget.
How do you balance the demands of both sides? Or has one taken precedence over the other?
I’m not sure I have completely figured it out yet! Given that retouching can more or less be done anywhere, at anytime, it allows for massive flexibility in scheduling. I will often find out I need to be on set for a shoot while I’m already working on a retouching job that week. So I will just do the shoot and then perhaps retouch at night (not ideal) or put in a longer day the next day to make up for the day I missed. If the shoot is a travel shoot, then I simply end up doing some good old fashioned hotel room retouching! Thanks to technology and the internet all of this is possible. It’s honestly one of the biggest things that attracted me to retouching to begin with too. The ability to have an extremely low overhead in terms of gear and the ability to work anywhere in the world at any time.
With retouching, the best way has always been networking and working with people you connect with. With on set work, how did you start finding work initially?
It’s much the same really, I actually started out as an assistant, so I was on set a lot assisting and meeting photographers and clients etc. As I become friends with the crews and photographers people started to find out I also retouched. I’ve never been one to talk about that on set, or sell myself, as that is a big no no as an assistant. So it just sort of happened organically. Eventually the photographers I was working with started to ask me if I could retouch on set for certain jobs and it just sort of snowballed from there.
What is the most stressful part about being a retoucher? I know first hand retouchers get requests at the spur of the moment and that is always scary for me. How about you?
There are obviously so many stressful parts of the job, but the ones I can control don’t stress me out as much as the ones I can’t. I would say the biggest stress for me is if the client is a bad communicator. If a client can’t communicate exactly what they want and when, then I have to pick up the slack. This usually means tons of revisions or just outright guessing what the client meant in their cryptic notes. Asking them to explain isn’t possible if they have disappeared off the face of the planet. So that usually leads to even more revisions and the cycle repeats. I hate inefficiency in my workflow, so that is definitely the one that stresses me out the most.
If you had to envision the future of retouching in 10 years. Do you think it will be more in demand or less so?
I think there will absolutely be more because the cameras are only getting better and are showing more detail and at higher resolutions. We are already seeing it in a way with the rise in quality in cell phone cameras. When the iPhone first came out say, no one was “Face Tuning” their images because you could barely get the photo in focus to begin with (remember this was before “tap to focus” was a thing even). Then over the years the software and cameras have gotten better and better and now people see photos of themselves and are terrified to post them without retouching them. Obviously this isn’t the place to get into a discussion about ethics of retouching and why people feel they “need” to retouch their photos, but it does show where the masses are heading.
We are also already seeing all of this on the motion side of things too as cameras are now shooting 8k footage and higher. Most of the public is well aware that still photos are retouched, however they’re not aware that most major motion films, T.V. shows, music videos and commercials are also being retouched. Many of the same techniques used in stills can now be used on motion content. Including skin work, hair and even body shaping. As the cameras continue to improve this will push the need for retouching for motion too. I have been dabbling a little into the software for motion retouching and it’s something I plan to learn more about going forward.
What is something about retouching you still hate the most?
This one is easy, invoicing and taxes. Next question! Haha. Like any artistic person the business side of the job isn’t my favorite.
People don't know this (but I do), you're an incredible photographer. Do you feel that having experience shooting has improved your retouching skills?
Oh boy, incredible is not accurate but I thank you for your kind words!
Yes absolutely, the two go hand in hand of course. Many retouchers come from a drawing/art background rather than photography which is also very helpful, but in a different way. I come from a graphic design/photography background. I have found both of those skill sets have helped me tremendously as a retoucher. On the surface it’s obvious that the ability to understand lighting and how cameras work and whatnot can help with retouching. But another part that isn’t as obvious is the ability to “talk like a photographer” to my photography clients. It kind of comes back to my earlier point about good communication. I find a lot of photographers like working with a retoucher who has a photo background because it just makes it easier for them to explain what they want done in post. Knowing both sides of the camera also allows me to give advice to photographers during pre-production on how best to shoot a setup that will allow for the cleanest/most efficient post production work later. Client’s generally like this because it means it’s saving them money