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How to create a good retouching portfolio and how not to mess it up

If you don't know how to cut out something made of fur, why showing me?

I've always wondered why retouchers keep sending out portfolios that would never get them hired. A good retouching portfolio is very important because it's one of the few ways to prove skill and experience without doing any actual work for the client. But it seems that not many retouchers pay much attention to what images they use when it comes to making a portfolio. What's a good portfolio and what's a bad one, when you're working in product image editing and want to land a job? Let's see.

I was working as the head of a retouching department in a big online store for about 7 years and hiring product image editors was one of my key responsibilities. Out of 10 candidates, 2 had a decent portfolio. Out of every 10 candidates with a decent portfolio, 2 passed the interview and got the job. But that's another story. Let's see what was usually wrong about 8 portfolios out of 10 on average.

First of all, I have to underline that this is not just about product image editors. There are things that all commercial retouchers have to understand. It's important how you present yourself to the employer. If the first impression is no good, you won't get this job, it's as easy as that.

If the "after" images are worse than "before", you'll never get that job

Sometimes it's better to not retouch at all

It sounds ridiculous, I know. Why would anyone put badly retouched images in their portfolio in the first place, and then give themselves away by showing the "before" images? But that's definitely a trend, you can have my word!

I've seen all sorts of retouching mistakes in retouchers' portfolios. Wrong white balance, weird cutouts, dirty background, airbrushed skin, moire, crooked mannequins, pitch black blacks, blown out highlights. You name it. I mean, why showing me your lack of skill? If you don't know how to do something, it's perfectly okay if no one knows. But when you deliberately show it off in your portfolio, how could you possibly get this job? Besides, when you're doing something wrong and don't even notice, it means that you have no experience. Bye-bye, job.

We live in a digital age. Stop attaching archives to letters, it's so last century

Why would I download and unzip an archive to have a look at the portfolio in 2020? There are cloud services and websites for god's sake. Don't make your employers suffer before they even look at your work. I've received *.rar archives, can you imagine? Any OS can handle a *.zip, but you need a special program to open a *.rar file. Don't do that. You're ruining the first impression anyway. Clicking a link is so much easier.

Less than 10 images? You've no experience

If I see a portfolio that has less than 10 images, or a portfolio that only has one project, where all the images seem to come from one place, it means one thing: the retoucher has no experience. If it's not a junior job posting, we're usually on a lookout for people who have done work for online stores before. We don't need someone who played around a few images and thinks of themselves as a product image editor. A good portfolio always shows a diversity of projects, but here we can fall into another trap:

No one wants to browse through a hundred images. Have mercy!

Yeah, we do tons of pictures in catalogue retouching. But the fact that you can retouch a hundred images in just one day doesn't mean you need to stick them all in your portfolio. Don't be stupid! I usually get bored after 20 and I'm known as a patient person. Select the best ones! A good retouching portfolio is never too extensive.

Retouching free pics from the internet? No deal

If I see one of these images in a portfolio again, I will just scream

Yeah, we all know, it's not easy to find free good quality raw images in the internet. But I doubt you are aware of how overused those that are available are. Do you know how many times I've seen them? Hundreds. And it doesn't matter how well you've managed to retouch them. When you can only access free images, it means that you don't have connections, you don't work with photographers who are willing to send you work. Good photographers are very picky about whom they let retouch their photos because the internet is already full to the brim with ugly over retouched images. No one wants to see their name under a pic of a monster! If a retoucher resorts to these free-for-all photographs above, I have serious doubts about their experience. It's not a 100% rejection chance, but it's a red flag for sure.

You can't be experienced in everything, don't even try

A good retouching portfolio must be tailored for the job you're trying to get. I only hired product image editors and all I wanted to see were product images, e-commerce images and likewise. Some retouchers think that if a friend once let them abuse their portrait, if they ever twiddled with a landscape in Lightroom, all this crap must be stuck into the portfolio. No, it's supposed to stay where it belongs: in a trash can!

When you retouch something you have little knowledge about, you mess things up 99% of the time. And any experienced person can see this straight away. You can be a very good product image editor, but if you let me see your horrible filter ridden portraits of friends, I might freak out. The portfolio is supposed to show your skills, things you are good at, not the other way around. Don't pursue quantity over quality. Please?

Image editing is all about stability and order. Watch out for the image names and metadata

It's not just the images you're showing in your portfolio. It's the attitude. When I see a mess of images where every photo ranges from 100 by 100 pixels to crazy hires 5000 by 7000, I just close it without looking. There should be order. This profession is not for messy people. Especially product image editing, where you handle hundreds of images each day. Naming is important, too. I've seen portfolios where images had been named "fat chick_edit" and "crap crap". Get your shit together, guys, don't let it spill.

Conclusion

Why retouchers keep sending out crappy portfolios is beyond my comprehension. But I know what makes retouching portfolio a great one. Especially when it comes to product image editing.

Not too short, not too long: 10-20 images will show your skills and not bore the employer to death

Specialization is everything: if it's a product image editing job, don't put babies and weddings in your portfolio even if you're a master

Quality over quantity: don't ruin the impression by showing images that aren't good enough. Sometimes photographers ruin them to the point beyond restoration, and a good retoucher never resorts to turd polishing.

Show some effort: anyone can cut out a box. If you can do tricky stuff, let the employer know. Impress!

Everything should be in order: erase all the metadata, name the files in a similar fashion, resize them to look good on an average monitor and don't forget to embed sRGB profiles.

A good retouching portfolio is important. Yet it's so easy to mess up.

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