Every retoucher knows that non-destructive editing is the thing nowadays. If you've ever been looking for a job in the industry, you've probably seen requirements like this: “Expert working knowledge of layers, adjustment layers, smart objects, masks, etc”. In most Photoshop tutorials on Youtube people keep talking about how you absolutely must retouch in a non-destructive way. Some even say you can't be a professional unless you edit in a non-destructive way. But you know what? Being a professional is one thing, and assuming that every image editor in the world has the same workflow is another.
There are thousands of professional image editors out there that have never ever dealt with smart objects and perform well with just the jpeg format. There are so many online stores, and where do all the product images (billions of them) come from? I don't know where all the product image editors are living and how they work, but their job is important – if no one was there to process product images, how would we all be able to shop online?
The problem is, the average image count per retoucher is from 100 to 500 in a working day – image editing for online stores has to be cost-effective above all. When you're supposed to retouch at least a couple hundreds of images, how the hell can you do that while keeping in mind all the non-destructive approach? And, even more importantly, why do you even need to be non-destructive when it only takes a few minutes to redo any image from scratch in case you have to (and you don't really have to)?
Let's return to the non-destructiveness: what does that mean? When you edit an image in Photoshop or any other software, if you can undo any of the changes you make, the process is non-destructive. I'm not talking about the “undos” you make when you press Ctrl-Z. It's about a possibility to control all the changes even after you've saved and closed the image. To make it possible, the original pixels of the image must not be changed permanently, and all the changes have to be stored somewhere else.
And unless you're a total beginner, you know where they are stored. Layers, adjustment layers, smart objects, sidecar “xmp” files, things like that. You can't save all those in jpeg, or course, so when we say “non-destructive” we mean “psd” most of the time. Problem is, Photoshop image format is very weighty. Even a simple multi-layered file can take more than 100 MB of disk space, and complicated images can easily reach 1 GB or more. Handling such images requires calculating power and memory, and if you don't like sitting and waiting while a file is opened or saved, you need a lot of CPU and RAM.
Don't get me wrong, any retoucher needs a good computer. But even with a powerful machine, you're going to waste precious time, even if it's just seconds. Remember there are hundreds of images you have to edit every day, and these seconds will add up to hours and hours of your working time. Handling psd images is very slow, and there's no way around. Not mentioning the fact that you'll have to store them somewhere on your hard drive, and if you'll need to copy them to a server or anywhere, it will also take a lot of time. Hi-end retouchers don't care about all that because they can twiddle with a single image for hours. Humble online-store product retouchers process hundreds of images on a daily basis, and implementing psd at any of the retouching stages would be a disaster for the overall capacity of the retouching team. We just can't afford that.
And you know what, we don't even need that in the first place. Product images for an average online store don't require any complicated editing. We're not artists but rather technicians, and a cost-effective photo studio produces images of decent quality that don't have to be significantly changed to look good on a website. Watch the video below: it took me one minute to put 5 pairs of gloves on a white background, resize and align. Who needs to waste gigabytes of disk space when you can retouch as fast as that?
I hope that at this point I've probably managed to convince you that destructive editing is not such a bad idea when you know what you're doing. Being destructive doesn't make you a loser or an amateur. But whether we like it or not, most people on the internet that teach Photoshop and make video tutorials are not aware of a simple fact that not every retoucher deals with fashion or beauty industry. You can't find a decent Photoshop tutorial on product image editing for love or for money. Any tutorial I've opened for the last few weeks could be skipped to the middle because during the first 5 minutes their authors kept rambling on you know what. How important it is to edit in a non-destructive, totally reversible way.
But what if you don't? Well, good for you. When you don't have to handle psd files, when you don't need to think about every step of your editing process, you can retouch really fast. And if you're dealing with a particularly nasty image, you can always save a hi-res somewhere in case it needs more or less editing later. In product image retouching, we don't need anything other than that.
Despite my vast experience in product image editing for online stores, I often feel uneasy when I hear photographers or retouchers use phrases like: “If you want to be a professional, you have to maintain a none-destructive workflow” or “Don't be stupid and learn how to retouch in a totally reversible way”. It's not just unfair, it's not true. Non-destructive editing is only perfect for low-volume, high-time kind of retouching work. Product image retouching for online stores is the opposite, so it's perfectly normal to stay away from bulky psd files, shoot in jpeg instead of raw and work without creating a single layer unless it's absolutely necessary.
The only thing that is really important is to retouch mindfully – always remember what, how and why you're doing. Make your own workflow perfect for the task at hand instead of simply following others.